Browse By

Original (Digital) Order

Those of you who follow this blog’s Twitter account (we’re @thebacktablenyu) will have seen the link to an article from Emory University’s magazine that was tweeted last week about the acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s papers and the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library’s efforts to make these materials accessible to the public.
As you probably know if you’ve been following archival news for the last few years, Rushdie’s “papers” contain not only the usual kinds of items archivists are used to dealing with – notes, notebooks, diaries and the like – there are also “forty thousand files and eighteen gigabytes of data on a Mac desktop, three Mac laptops, and an external hard drive.” While this is not the first time archivists have had to work with born-digital material, this collection represents one of the more high-profile (and perhaps, well-funded) attempts to make sense of this brave new digital world.
There are a number of provocative quotes in the article, but what interested me most was how Erika Farr (Digital Programs Team Leader at the Robert W. Woodruff Library described Rushdie’s digital archive as a “biostructure.” More than simply the file structure or file names or the collection, this notion encompasses,

the hardware, software, programs, and applications, all the files and file names, search histories—even the order in which everything was installed. ‘There is something fundamentally interesting about the computers themselves,’ she says, ‘as the medium between the user and the digital media.’

Consequently, the project surrounding the Rushdie collection is not concerned merely with data migration, but also with software emulation. Peter Hornsby, one of Emory’s software engineers, nails the logic behind this approach when he says, “The imprint of the writer’s personality lies within his computer.”
I find this article extremely encouraging because I’ve long thought that the world of digital archives should not and need not bring with it a total abandonment of the principles and practices the archival profession has developed over the course of its history. In particular, the concept of original order is often tossed aside as irrelevant or impossible to determine with digital materials. Not so with this project, where the team aims to “provide numerous points of access into Rushdie’s digital archive, including emulations of Rushdie’s computers and searchable databases of files pulled off of his computers.” Needless to say, I’m thrilled to see archivists and librarians thinking so creatively about the needs of current and future researchers, and so intentionally engaging the implications their actions have to shape scholarship and academic discourse. I think this project may help us think a little more creatively about what original order means for digital materials, as well as reinforcing its importance.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the file structure and software environments – the “biostructure” – of any given collection are created in a context, and that context may likely be out of the control of the creator, depending on their level computer literacy, others who may be using the same computer, viruses and spyware and more. All of which is simply to say that digital collections are shaped (and given meaning) by their context, as are more traditional archival collections. Context is still an essential piece of the equation, even in a completely digital environment.
It’s also worth saying that Emory is not the only repository struggling with these issues. Similar projects exist at the University of Texas and Harvard University, among others. The Library of Congress has developed a file packaging format called BagIt (which we use at NYU), as means of maintaining a rudimentary level of digital original order. Here at NYU, the teams working on the Guantánamo Lawyers Digital Archive and the Tamiment Library Web Archive are grappling with these issues as well.
Emory has put up a mini-site devoted to the Rushdie project, with a lot of information both about the contents of the collection as well as the process of arrangement and description. If you’re at all interested, it’s worth a look. You might also be interested in taking a look at the slides from the talk given on this subject by Erika Farr and Matthew Kirschenbaum at the International Conference on Preservation of Digital Objects (iPRES 2009).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *