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Salman Rushdie’s Papers Accessioned by Emory; Access Thru Emulation 2011/08/19

Posted by nydawg in Digital Archives, Digital Preservation, Electronic Records, Information Technology (IT), Records Management.
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One of the early stories that encouraged discussion among early nydawg members, was this story in the NYTimes about Emory accessioning author Salman Rushdie’s papers including diaries, notebooks, journals, notes, stickies, four Apple computers, a hard drive and 18 Gigabytes of born-digital materials.  The article, “Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit” is an interesting look at one institution’s attempt to capture and appraise the work of a living artist and attempting to use emulation and migration as a preservation strategy.  A few months later, there was a fascinating multi-part series, “Born-Digital: The New Archive part 3“, from World Policy Institute Blog which mentioned the Rushdie model.

“In 2007, Emory acquired Salman Rushdie’s papers, which included a
“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.” Much
has been written about Emory’s important achievement, but it should be
noted that Emory only focused on Rushdie’s Macintosh Performa 5400 to
test the emulation of the complete desktop environment.

As the authors of “Digital Materiality” note, Rushdie’s use of
Stickies (electronic Post-It notes) on his early Mac “provides
insights into [Rushdie’s] tendencies to meld the personal and the
literary” and reinforces the “importance of providing both file-level
access and operating system-level access.” According Kenneth
Thibodeau, in his report on “The State of Digital Preservation,”
Emory’s emulation is technically a step in the right direction but
ultimately a deficient one.
. . .

The Times article goes on to point out: ”

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, Mr. 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.” and “At the Emory exhibition, visitors can log onto a computer and see the screen that Mr. Rushdie saw, search his file folders as he did, and find out what applications he used. (Mac Stickies were a favorite.) They can call up an early draft of Mr. Rushdie’s 1999 novel, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and edit a sentence or post an editorial comment.  “I know of no other place in the world that is providing access through emulation to a born-digital archive,” said Erika Farr, the director of born-digital initiatives at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory. (The original draft is preserved.)”

In fact, come to think of it, this was probably the first mention we archivists ever heard of digital forensics!  “Located in Silicon Valley, Stanford has received a lot of born-digital collections, which has pushed it to become a pioneer in the field. This past summer the library opened a digital forensics laboratory — the first in the nation.  The heart of the lab is the Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device, nicknamed FRED, which enables archivists to dig out data, bit by bit, from current and antiquated floppies, CDs, DVDs, hard drives, computer tapes and flash memories, while protecting the files from corruption.”

As former head of NARA’s Electronic Records Archive Kenneth Thibodeau wrote in 2002 Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years

“Every digital object is a physical object, a logical object, and a conceptual object, and its properties at each of those levels can be significantly different. A physical object is simply an inscription of signs on some physical medium. A logical object is an object that is recognized and processed by software. The conceptual object is the object as it is recognized and understood by a person, or in some cases recognized and processed by a computer application capable of executing business transactions.”

In other words, the metadata of a digital object (asset, record, electronic record) needs to accurately describe its content and format and/or medium, context including copyrights, permissions, operating systems, and Intellectual Property holders, and function, purpose, intended audience, etc.

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