Sun, Mar 21, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Fending off digital decay, bit by bit

Electronically produced documents present a host of special problems for literary historians and archivists

By Patricia Cohen  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Among the archival material from Salman Rushdie currently on display at Emory University in Atlanta are inked book covers, handwritten journals and four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke). The 18 gigabytes of data they contain seemed to promise future biographers and literary scholars a digital wonderland: comprehensive, organized and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.

But like most Rushdian paradises, this digital idyll has its own set of problems. As research libraries and archives are discovering, “born-digital” materials — those initially created in electronic form — are much more complicated and costly to preserve than anticipated.

Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0s and 1s simply don’t exist anymore.

Imagine having a record but no record player.

All of which means that archivists are finding themselves trying to fend off digital extinction at the same time that they are puzzling through questions about what to save, how to save it and how to make that material accessible.

“It’s certainly one of those issues that keeps a lot of people awake at night,” Anne Van Camp said, the director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and a member of a task force on the economics of digital preservation formed by the National Science Foundation, among others.

Though computers have been commonly used for more than two decades, archives from writers who used them are just beginning to make their way into collections. Last week, for instance, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, announced that it had bought the archive of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008.

Emory opened an exhibition of its Rushdie collection in February, and last year, not long before his death, John Updike sent 50 5-1/4-inch floppy disks to the Houghton Library at Harvard.

Leslie Morris, a curator at the Houghton Library, said: “We don’t really have any methodology as of yet” to process born-digital material.

“We just store the disks in our ­climate-controlled stacks, and we’re hoping for some kind of universal Harvard guidelines,” she added.

Among the challenges facing libraries: hiring computer-savvy archivists to catalog material; acquiring the equipment and expertise to decipher, transfer and gain access to data stored on obsolete technologies like floppy disks; guarding against accidental alterations or deletions of digital files; and figuring out how to organize access in a way that’s useful.

At Emory, Rushdie’s outdated computers presented archivists with a choice: simply save the contents of files or try to also salvage the look and organization of those early files. Because of Emory’s particular interest in the impact of technology on the creative process, Naomi Nelson, the university’s interim director of Manuscript Archives and Rare Book Collection, said that the archivists decided to try to recreate Rushdie’s writing experience and the original computer environment.

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