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A Digital Archive in the Real World March 3, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues, Technology can do anything, Uncategorized.
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When you think of digital archives you probably think of computer files and, more particularly, scanned copies of ancient documents or photographs of ephemera. But Emory University has taken digital archives to the next level–collecting the “born digital” records of famous writers in the form they were created. For example, they have recently acquired world-renowned writer Salman Rushdie’s “[not only] one hundred linear feet of his paper material, including diaries, notebooks, library books, first-edition novels, notes scribbled on napkins, but also forty thousand files and eighteen gigabytes of data on a Mac desktop, three Mac laptops, and an external hard drive” (Emory Magazine).  Other universities are fast adopting the trend. Harvard University has acquired John Updike’s floppy disks and the University of Texas at Austin has the “nicotine-stained laptop used by Norman Mailer’s longtime assistant, Judith McNally, as well as more than 350 computer disks, forty-seven electronic files including email, forty CDs, two other laptops, and a magnetic tape spool” (Emory Magazine). While the shift from collecting more “traditional” archival material is exciting it comes at a cost. Archivists steeped in centuries of traditions and practices will have to quickly come up with new ways to deal with the materials.

Salman Rushdie aka the love of my life

First and foremost is the problem of accessibility. Few people can access a floppy disk nowadays. Even if the institution has a machine that can read such a format, how long will this machine remain operable or even repairable? Obsolescence has always been a big issue in preservation as well as preserving damaged goods. Don’t think that digital archives are exempt from fire and age damage. One of Rushdie’s donations was a computer he had spilled coffee on and deemed as irreparable. Luckily, Emory’s IT team extracted pertinent files from the machine and saved them in newer formats. Inevitably, this will continue to be the struggle – to preserve and to maintain access.

Another challenge (oh the headache!) will be how to organize and catalog the information so that researchers can access what they need without needlessly sorting through thousands of data files. I believe this is a place where digital archives will be given the chance to thrive. With actual text already digitized it should be easy to keyword search them, something few, if any, traditional archival materials could boast.

What’s most important about this new trend is that the work of seminal American (and international) authors will be preserved, unadulterated, for future generations. Please check out the full article in the Emory Magazine here.