Writer J. M. Coetzee’s early poetry is almost undecipherable. That’s because it was written in computer code.
Coetzee’s global reputation rests on his literary output, for which he received a Nobel Prize in 2003. Before he embarked on a career as a scholar and writer, the South African–born writer was a computer programmer in the early years of the industry’s development (1962–1965). I believe that this experience, while short, was vital for the development of Coetzee’s writerly project. While visiting the Ransom Center on a research fellowship, I examined Coetzee’s papers, which offer tantalizing clues about his neglected “other career.” Read more
In 2011, Ransom Center Digital Archivist Gabriela Redwine, with Assistant Director Megan Barnard, invited an international team of colleagues to engage in a series of conversations about how born-digital materials are acquired and transferred to archival repositories. Ten archivists and curators from the Beinecke Library at Yale University; the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford; the British Library; the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University (MARBL); and the Rubenstein Library at Duke University joined with the Ransom Center to create the report Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories, which offers recommendations to help ensure the physical and intellectual well being of digital media and files during different stages of the acquisition process.
A draft of Born Digital has been published with MediaCommons Press, an online publisher that allows readers to offer feedback via an easy-to-use commenting interface. The authors of the report encourage manuscript dealers, writers, special collections professionals, and other custodians of archival materials to read the report, offer feedback and suggestions, and take part in a discussion with the larger community of individuals concerned about the acquisition and preservation of born-digital materials. The authors will closely review comments posted by readers and carefully consider this feedback when they revise Born Digital for final publication in the coming months.
The main body of the report surveys the primary issues and concerns related to born-digital acquisitions and is intended for a broad audience with varying levels of interest and expertise in the subject. Appendices provide information about how to prepare for the unexpected and possible staffing costs to repositories, as well as ready-to-use checklists that incorporate recommendations from throughout the report. These recommendations are not meant to be universal and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the authors’ institutions. Rather, they offer broad, useful guidance for donors, dealers, and repository staff involved in the acquisition and transfer of born-digital materials.
Computer storage media have begun to arrive in archival collections with increasing frequency over the last 20 years. Approximately 50 of the Ransom Center’s holdings contain floppy disks, CDs, or personal computers. Faced with the daunting task of capturing files from these media and making them available to researchers, archivists have begun to investigate fields such as computer science, engineering, and computer forensics for advances that may facilitate this work.
Digital Forensics is the first publication of this length to present computer forensics to the archives and library communities. Building on the pioneering work of Jeremy Leighton John at the British Library, the report examines the relevance of forensic techniques and methodologies to archivists, curators, and others engaged in the collection and preservation of born-digital cultural heritage materials. The report considers challenges related to legacy formats, the authenticity of files, and data recovery; explores the ethical implications of implementing forensic techniques as part of an archival workflow; and concludes with recommendations and next steps. Side bars by an international group of practitioners and scholars cover topics such as diplomatics and donor agreements, offer a sample forensic workflow, provide case studies from the Bodleian and Stanford libraries, and describe “Rosetta” machines of particular use in capturing born-digital materials. Detailed appendices provide contact, pricing, and specifications information for open source and commercial forensics hardware and software.
The authors solicited feedback about an earlier draft of the report at a May 2010 symposium organized around the same topic, which brought together practitioners from archives and libraries, scholars from the humanities and computer science, and computer forensic experts from government and industry.
Today it seems, with iPads and hybrid cars and 3-D blockbusters, technology advancements are, quite literally, right in our faces. Almost jaded by the constant onslaught, we expect constant development and easily adapt, rarely finding ourselves bewildered by new devices. This, however, was not always so.
American author Russell Banks’s 1989 novel Affliction, which in early drafts he titled “Dead of Winter,” was his first attempt to construct a work of fiction on a word processor. Used to typewriters or even plain pencil and paper, the word processor, with its editing capabilities such as formatting or spell check, offered a completely new experience.
In a page of typed notes on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century, Banks reveals his early experiences using the word processor. He starts off by writing in all caps: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE.” Banks reflects on the “strange experience” and how the technology alters his outlook on the writing process.
For Banks, the word processor made it seem as if productivity was non-existent. He writes: “The simple mechanics of the task get in the way right now, but surely no more than the simple mechanics of pencil and paper. Since there is no object, no product on paper emerging as I go, there seems to be no activity. That’s the greatest difference at present. This is not quite thinking and not quite writing, either, but something in between—until printed.”
In the diary-like notes, Banks indulges himself with such observations “to work out how to use the thing to do the thing.” Those observations must have helped: Banks published Affliction in 1989, and it was later adapted into an award-winning film in 1997 by Paul Schrader, whose archive also resides at the Ransom Center.
Some of the items in our collection, such as CDs and DVDs, were created relatively recently and can be read using modern computers. But, to access older types of media—for example, 8-inch and 5.25-inch floppy disks or 3-inch Amstrad disks—we must first find the correct drive or computer.
The Center’s collection includes close to 2,300 disks, as well as personal computers from Michael Joyce, Iain Sinclair, and other authors. Approximately 60 percent of these disks are 3.5-inch floppies of various types (single- or double-sided, double density, high density, etc.). Recent acquisitions have also included older formats such as 5.25-inch floppy disks and TRS-80 computer cassette tapes.
Thanks to the generosity of the University’s Information Technology Service department and individual donors, the Ransom Center has begun acquiring legacy computer equipment to use in accessing these older formats. Recent donations include a Kaypro II, a Victor 9000, related computer manuals, and blank floppy disks.
We have used these donations in a few different ways. The first is to facilitate physical access to the legacy media in our collections. Staff members have also used the older computers and disks as visual aids when talking with students, the public, and other interested parties about born-digital archives and preservation. The point of these talks is to educate people about the need for digital preservation. Seeing a Kaypro II, for example, or an 8-inch disk often prompts people to share stories about their early experiences with computer technology, or, if the audience consists of younger students, to ask questions about “ancient” media like 5.25-inch floppy disks.
One of the most exciting aspects of digital preservation work has to do with access. How will people who come to our reading room engage with born-digital materials? One possibility is that people will be interested in interacting with a computing environment similar to the one used by a particular author. Loading copies of files from an author’s collection onto a replica of the computer he or she originally used to compose a work would enable a visitor to sit down in front of an Apple ][ Plus, for example, and explore drafts of the stories Denis Johnson wrote using a similar machine. To plan for this and other possibilities, we have begun collecting computers similar to ones used by the authors whose born-digital materials reside in our collection.
If you have computer equipment that you would like to donate to help the Ransom Center in its digital preservation, access, and outreach efforts, please contact Lisa Snider, the Center’s digital archivist, at email@example.com. Specifically, the Ransom Center is looking for the following items:
8-inch disks and drives
5.25-inch disks and drives
3-inch disks and drives
Amstrad computer with 3-inch disk drive
TRS-80 computer with cassette player
Mac Performa 460
Apple ][ Plus
Macintosh Wallstreet Powerbook G3
Blank floppy disks of all sizes
The name of someone, preferably in Austin, who can repair and align 8-, 5.25-, and 3.5-inch disk drives