The New York Times has a piece about Emory University’s exhibition of a digital archive of Salman Rushdie’s writing environment. The archive posed some interesting questions to archivists of how best to preserve it—should they simply store the data, or should they go for the look-and-feel of how Rushdie himself experienced it?
They chose the latter.
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.
The article talks about the difficulties inherent in preserving digital media (which we have covered before): it is entirely possible to have an undamaged digital copy, but lack the player hardware or software necessary to read it back.
The merest act of using a computer creates a myriad of data—not just a writer’s word processor files, but cookie files, browser histories, temporary files, and other things that show the traces of what he has been doing. These are the things that computer forensic experts use to find evidence of crimes, but they could also provide valuable historical perspective.
“If you’re interested in primary materials, you’re interested in the context as well as the content, the authentic artifact,” [Erika Farr, the director of born-digital initiatives at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory,] said. “Fifty years from now, people may be researching how the impact of word processing affected literary output,” she added, which would require seeing the original computer images.
It may even be possible in the future to examine literary influences by matching which Web sites a writer visited on a particular day with the manuscript he or she was working on at the time.
This is the sort of thing that can be scary to think about someone doing if you are concerned about your privacy—but apparently there is a point at which the need for historical research can transcend the privacy concerns of a given person, especially if that person is famous.
I don’t see all that digital forensics as necessary to the appreciation of a text… especially if the author did not include it in the text (isn’t that what appendices and footnotes are for?). For myself, I’m not interested in what color Rushdie’s post-it notes were.
As far as losing data, it’s hardly a new issue. Advanced planning and backup tends to solve it. The real problem: Getting people to plan in advance and backup.