Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Introduction > Structure of private papers

Structure of Private papers

Why do we need to know about the structure of private papers?

During our initial visits to politicians and their staff it became obvious that in order to explain the project brief and the significance of personal political archives we needed to have a clear understanding of what we actually meant by 'personal archives' . Pinning down a clear definition of the personal archive (private papers, personal records, or manuscripts?) and why we think they are important is challenging. Individuals are complex, multi-dimensional entities and throughout their working and personal day-to-day lives they adopt various roles, the boundaries of which are often blurred. Private papers will often comprise personal, occupational, professional and special interest records. The material we have obtained so far reflects the professional role of participating politicians and as such includes policy briefings, drafts of speeches and other internal documents generated by the private offices of participating politicians.

A special relationship: why curators should talk to creators of personal digital material

The materials found in personal archives give readers a unique, human perspective into historical events. The wealth of correspondence and papers produced by actors and observers provide details which the official record cannot. Letters, diaries, collections of press cuttings, photographs, and drafts which were not created for public consumption are amongst the most valuable historical sources. Today such sources are increasingly created in a digital format. Many of these records have already been lost, or are in danger of being lost. Personal records are especially vulnerable because they sit outside organisational structures which could provide for their maintenance by imposing standards or policies relating to digital record-keeping. By working with creators of historically significant personal papers curators can increase the rate of survival of this valuable material.

Even in the early stages of the project it was possible to discern changes in the record keeping behaviours of politicians' staff working with Paradigm archivists. The staff of one politician decided to place weekly diary briefings in a folder rather than deleting them once their immediate usefulness had expired. Several participants remarked that they had never thought of the records they dealt with as having any long term historical interest, but the more they considered the case the more they could see how in a hundred years time it would be interesting. Such reflection is likely to lead to changes in record keeping behaviour.

Why is it important to preserve digital records digitally?

Where digital personal records exist we need to preserve them digitally, to retain their inherent qualities and relationships. While some page-oriented records lend themselves to printing, many would lose salient characteristics if transferred to paper. These important characteristics include formatting, relationships, intertextuality, as well as other functionality.

Preserving records digitally will also allow archivists to preserve the 'original order' of personal archives, whilst also providing functionality that enables users to rearrange the material by date, author, or other property. Full-text searching is another possibility which interests many researchers.

Investigating the structure of the private papers of politicians

The Paradigm project is a test-bed for the preservation of the papers (digital and paper) of contemporary politicians, and to date records have been accessioned from MPs, MEPs and Peers from the main UK political parties. We envisage that many of our findings and discussions will be relevant to all personal records, whether created by artists, authors, scientists or composers. Although the project team's brief is to look at hybrid paper and digital collections, managing the digital element of private papers is by far the greatest challenge. We are also finding that the digital record is the authoritative record for many and that the private offices of some politicians print and file few born-digital records. Indeed, some are digitising paper records.

However, it is worth noting that many of the paper records generated by politicians are also at risk. Countless records without administrative value are routinely destroyed during the parliamentary recess. After a general election campaign, a change of brief, or the redrawing of a constituency boundary, destruction can be even more extensive. Yet, once paper records reach the archive their preservation is largely a passive exercise; management decisions regarding appropriate physical storage and access conditions can be applied in blanket fashion.

From the outset the Paradigm team have been aware of the distinctive nature of personal papers and before we could address the challenges of digital preservation we felt it necessary to re-examine the nature and structure of private papers. We were assisted in this matter by the institutional experience of both the Bodleian and the John Rylands University Library, which have for many years collected the papers of politicians and other prominent individuals.

Comparing existing holdings with records created by today's politicians

Naturally, we began by exploring existing holdings, identifying the record types found in these, and thinking about how emerging technologies might have changed the format, creation and survival of such political records. As the project has continued, we have also been able to feed-in our experiences of working with contemporary record creators.

The types of records traditionally found within the papers of an average politician include constituency and parliamentary correspondence, engagement diaries, political briefings, speeches, press releases, photographs, election material and personal correspondence. In a digital age the same series still exist, although technological advances may have changed the actual manner and format of their creation.


Correspondence, personal and professional, is a key component of most personal archives. New methods of communication have resulted in the decline of letter-writing, but it is possible that mediums such as email and instant messaging could capture many exchanges which once took place via phone as well as by letter. Unsurprisingly, email is now a primary communication tool for many politicians and some of the private offices the project has worked with receive an average of 200 emails a day. One office has an email archive dating from 2003 which contains an overwhelming 70,000 emails. Paradigm's Academic Advisory Board considers email to be the digital record-type of most historical value, but researchers will need sophisticated navigation and discovery tools to manipulate an archive on this scale.

Engagement diaries

Engagement diaries, which contain so much valuable information, are now likely to be in the form of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), or even a MS Word file.

Documents and drafts

These include many kinds of papers, such as political briefings, speeches, press releases, internal publications, etc. Many personal archives at the Bodleian and the JRUL contain drafts of such papers as well as the final versions, although how many drafts individuals create and whether they keep them does vary. Historians and curators are concerned that the use of word-processing software has resulted in the decline of the draft, which enabled researchers to trace the development of the writer's thoughts. Although it is possible to save versions of a digital document during the drafting process, many authors simply overwrite earlier versions or delete records of the drafting process.

Digital photographs

The advent of the digital camera has led to the accumulation of large amounts of digital images by individuals, many of which will have no analogue equivalent. Paradigm's experience is that most of these photographs have precious little contextual information, although contact with the creators and cross-referencing with engagement diaries could assist cataloguers in creating meaningful descriptive metadata. This is also true of photographs found in the traditional paper archives of politicians held by the Bodelian and JRUL which often lack basic descriptive information and require the cataloguer to undertake some detective work to place them in context. Some digital images may at least provide a definitive date of creation.

Personal websites and weblogs

Formats, such as websites and weblogs, do not have an obvious historical equivalent, but their role in politics is increasing dramatically. The 2005 general election saw many new candidates, as well as those defending seats, use a weblog as part of their campaign strategy. A growing number of politicians use blogs as a means of engaging with the electorate on day-to-day issues. The blog - a frequent, chronological publication of personal thoughts and web links - is a curious mix of newspaper column, soapbox, diary entry and index to external items of interest. Such topical personal material is likely to have long-term historical interest and ranks highly as valuable historical material with the project's Academic Advisory Board. Institutions collecting personal papers should consider the websites and weblogs of those individuals as a component of their private papers and seek to preserve them.

Digital audio and video

Archivists at specialist sound archives have preserved audio recordings of speeches for a number of years. It is likely that non-specialist repositories will increasingly accession personal collections holding significant amounts of audio recordings due to the explosion of new technologies and gadgetry such as the iPod and other MP3 players.

Election materials and press releases

Relevant materials are created in all the formats above. Election material, along with press releases, have been created for the public domain and they are examples of personal political records that can be opened shortly after they have been accessioned.

Factors affecting the depth and breath of personal archives


Examples from Paradigm's digital and paper accessions show that some personal archives document their 'creators' more comprehensively than others. Despite certain similarities between our participants, in terms of role and routine, the 'personal' element, or 'individuality' of personal papers should not be forgotten. As Sue McKemmish expounds in Evidence of Me, her seminal paper on personal record keeping, individuals exhibit a broad range of 'personal record-keeping behaviours': some individuals keep every letter they ever receive, others keep nothing and rely solely on memory. The vast majority of people fall somewhere in-between these two extremes. The heterogeneity of people, records and systems means that our dealings with each participant have varied to some degree. The procedures adopted by curators of digital private papers will need to be sufficiently flexible to take account of this.

Selection for preservation by the creator

It is not only what is routinely saved in the course of business that influences the extent and individuality of a persons records, it is also what is volunteered for long-term preservation. By way of example, the office of one project-participant permitted the entire contents of an email inbox to be copied and archived (aside from a few confidential files), this is in marked contrast to other participants for whom email is definitely off-limits. It is the very recentness of these records and the fact that emails, and other digital records, are easily forwarded, which makes office staff nervous, particularly in the unforgiving world of politics.

Third parties in political personal archives

Political 'personal' papers are distinctive in that they are not generally the work of one person. Rather they are a joint enterprise with much of the day-to-day correspondence and office papers being created by the MP's Personal Assistant, or the constituency office staff. Also, a large amount of material is generated by individuals and organisations outside the employ of the politician. This includes correspondence from constituents, colleagues, special interest groups and lobbyists, as well as briefings, research papers, etc., circulated by the central political party office. This means that there are third party interests besides the politicians' to consider such as privacy and intellectual property rights.

This is often the case with archives of individuals or organisations. The fact that Paradigm accessions are contemporary means that inevitably records are more likely to contain personal data about living individuals as defined by the Data Protection Act (1998). Politicians have been made aware of the exemption in the Act which covers the activities of archives and libraries in this area (s. 33), but some of our participants have raised ethical concerns that the creators of the records might not agree to the placing of their email in an archive. This is interesting as 'paper' letters from third parties are captured in private papers held at libraries and archives the world over. Both the recent date and digital format of the material acquired by Paradigm increases the sensitivity of this issue.

For a politician of the governing party, matters are further complicated by the potential for overlap between the content preserved in a personal archive and that contained in public records preserved under legislative requirements by The National Archives. In such instances, the curator of the personal archive would need to refer to The National Archives regarding the classification of similar material.

Technological constraints

The types of digital records that are created, and filed for medium to long term preservation are also dependent on the computer expertise and technical know how of politicians and their key office staff. For example, some offices are au fait with presentation software, PDF creation, website development, desktop publishing and digital cameras, others are less comfortable with emerging technology and use their computers for little more than email and word processing. Another factor impacting on the extent of material saved is the extent of space on the Virtual Parliamentary Network Server (VPN). Emails are particularly vulnerable to deletion due to inbox quotas.

Are politicians typical of other creators of personal archives?

Our investigation into the structure of private papers has focused upon politicians and some of our findings will not be relevant to those dealing with the private papers of other types of individuals. Indeed, perhaps politicians are not the most typical creators of private papers as it is obvious that they do not personally create many of the records which fall under their name. However certain aspects of personal record keeping are universal, namely the sheer variety of record keeping behaviours and the idiosyncrasy of the individual. The guidelines for creators of private papers, which will be a Paradigm project outcome, will be written with all types of individuals in mind and will focus on easily implemented practical solutions.