In the bowels of Firestone Library, behind bombproof walls and inside climate-controlled rooms, lies the entire life’s work of Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa.

If you don’t know much about him, Vargas Llosa is a fascinating character. While in high school he wrote for a sensationalist newspaper – La Crónica – in Lima and lived a bohemian lifestyle filled with booze and brothels with his older journalist coworkers. In college, the author joined a communist revolutionary group and wrote for the underground newspaper Cahuide. However, years later when Castro cracked down on Cuban authors, Vargas Llosa radically changed his political views. He soon became known for his neoliberal economic thought and challenged Alan García for the presidency of Peru in 1990. It seemed as though the novelist would win the election until a surprising third-party candidate, Alberto Fujimori, stole the race.

All the while, Vargas Llosa wrote fiction, producing complex novels, stories, and plays filled with social critiques of Peruvian life. In terms of prestige, he soon joined the ranks of other famous authors of the Latin American “boom” like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. The only difference is that he is still alive, still writing, and occasionally teaching classes at Princeton University.

I’m currently enrolled in the “Politics in Latin American Literature,” which is partially taught by Mario Vargas Llosa. Our other professor announced on the first day that much of our work for the course would involve digging through Vargas Llosa’s archives. Students who had done archival research in the past praised the experience; they said it was fascinating to physically handle an author’s past, to read essays and fragments that were never supposed to be seen by anyone but the author. They explained that there was something powerful about the borderline invasion of privacy, about the intimacy of someone’s private poems and love letters.

I thought my own archival experience would be similarly eye opening. I saw myself hunting through the unpublished material in Vargas Llosa’s archive for personal documents that would shed light on his dramatic political views. I hoped to find some obscure piece of information – maybe a poem written in the margin of a page of a notebook – that would change my understanding of the author’s beliefs or his famous novels.

Last Friday was the first time I had ever been in the Firestone archive.  I walked into the library and instead of going into the Trustee Reading Room or down into the stacks, I made a sharp right towards the Rare Books Collection. I entered a large room decked out in dark wood and leather, with one receptionist’s desk at the center. Completely unsure of myself but bouncing with excitement, I asked the librarian at the desk how to proceed: I needed to do some archival research for one of my classes – it’s the Vargas Llosa class, and I ordered 10 archive boxes online!

The prospect of looking through boxes of file folders may sound out of line with my excited tone. It certainly did to the librarian, who reacted by raising one eyebrow at me and silently handing me a clip-on plastic sleeve for my ID. As it turns out, the librarian’s reaction was completely appropriate – archival research is not nearly as glorious as I’d anticipated. It’s an inefficient, arduous process, and definitely more tedious than a full afternoon of searching for books through the C Floor of Firestone.

entered the Rare Books Collection reading room, a space that was utterly silent and filled with old men and well-dressed graduate students reading from tomes supported by foam bookstands. Every table faced the front of the room where a docent sat observing those handling the collections.  She gestured for me to sit and handed me a pencil, a piece of orange lined paper to take notes with, and one of the boxes of Vargas Llosa’s collection that I had ordered ahead of time.

As I opened the box under the watch of the observant docent, I felt more as though I was taking a test than researching. I gingerly flipped through pages of old notebooks and letters, completely lost. I am so accustomed to neat tables of contents and indexes (or at least typed pages instead of bad handwriting) that the archive was entirely overwhelming. The online database has brief descriptions for each folder in every box, but they barely describe the contents. Only the letters that Vargas Llosa had received were in the archive – anything he sent to someone else would have to be cross-referenced through a separate author’s personal materials, probably in a different archive far away.

Any archive with original documents is logically harder to navigate than a book with an index, and I also understand why the pages have to be protected (hence the stressful test-like research environment). Still, these realities inhibit efficient research. Holding one of Vargas Llosa’s original journals was cool and nostalgic and romantic for about 30 seconds, until I remembered that I needed to glean something from it.

hen I went to my Rare Books locker and collected my briefcase, coffee thermos, and laptop case I remembered a question my professor asked the archivist on my class’s orientation to the Rare Books Collection the day before:

“If an author writes emails and drafts books on a laptop, what do you do, archive the hard drive?”

Oh my dear sweet lord that would be so much easier, I thought as I stomped out of Firestone. No boxes, no scanning – just easy access to a fully searchable database of material.

“I honestly don’t know,” the archivist replied to my professor with a sad look on his face. At the time I had felt pity, but after a morning in the archives all I could think was: good riddance, file folders.

I did a bit of research (online this time, it was refreshing) and found that the world of physical archives is likely to go extinct as we move more of our communication onto digital platforms. Despite my obvious dislike for the archival research process, I can understand why the archivist looked concerned at my professor’s question. In a 2007 New York Times article entitled “History, Digitized (And Abridged),” Kate Hafner explains the struggles of digitizing archival collections.

“As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in non-digital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes,” Hafner writes.

Our society demands digital material even when most archives don’t have the finances to comply. In 2007, Hafner reported than scanning one page can cost between $6-$25 depending on its size. Major research institutions like the Library of Congress may have the resources to digitalize thousands of documents, but smaller collections usually do not.

But my professor was not just asking about the digitization of documents currently in physical archives. A larger concern is what archives will look when the materials in them were digital to begin with (i.e. a hard drive instead of letters and journals). Wonderfully clean digital documents would certainly fix the legibility problem of reading a handwritten letter from over fifty years ago with suspicious stains covering half the text, but there’s a problem. Computers change the way we write, which in turn changes the potential for discovery in archival research.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous in our lives, there are fewer words we write without an intended audience. Instead of keeping a journal, many people express their passing opinions via long Facebook posts or blog entries; they might tweet their jokes and lines of poetry.  These platforms are fantastic ways to gain audience and peer review, but they’re boring from a researcher’s point of view. Words that once would have been private become less casual and more curated. We know that people will read our words, and so we use them to craft an image of ourselves. In 40 years, I might hunt through an author’s Twitter archives, but I will be looking at something more similar to a set of published works than private thoughts—words online, even if they convey fleeting thoughts, are often meant for the public.

Even for private documents written digitally, technology erodes the records of our editing process. We don’t strike out words, leaving a trace of the original, but delete and replace them. We don’t use an arrow to reorganize our material, leaving the previous structure in place – we just copy and paste. For a researcher, that final result – a “saved” digital artifact – shows little of the thought process behind any piece of writing.  And the entire point of researching an archive is to find that process in the scraps of writing an author leaves behind.

Before Mario Vargas Llosa became famous, ran for president of Peru, and won a Nobel Prize, I doubt he planned to donate an archive of his journals and correspondence. The beauty of his archive has very little to do with the act of researching in the Rare Books Collection. Sifting through endless boxes might be my personal hell for the entirety of this semester, but I’ve come to recognize the research value of a handwritten, rather than a digital, document. Although frustrating, these file boxes expose me to unedited, uninhibited words that Vargas Llosa wrote only for himself. The handwriting and the strike-outs are the closest things to a window into a writer’s psyche, and looking through that window makes even the file folders worth it.