Monday, March 22, 2010

“Born-Digital” and Born Again

I read a timely newspaper article on the plane to Atlanta recently to attend the Visual Resources Association annual conference: it mentioned the current exhibition at Emory University (in Atlanta) of an unusual “born-digital” archive of Salman Rushdie. It included four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke), which housed electronically produced book drafts, correspondence and editorial comments. This archive had presented the university archivists with the choice of simply saving the contents of the digital files, or of also preserving the organization and experience of using these early files. Emory opted for recreating the writing experience of Rushdie that gallery viewers can share in and play with. They can see the progress of written drafts and even make their own editorial comments (which takes a certain amount of chutzpah, considering that it is Rushdie!) “I know of no other place in the world that is providing access through emulation to a born-digital archives,” said Erika Farr, the director of born-digital initiatives at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory.

The unique way the Emory archivists approached the thorny issues of digital preservation nicely illuminates the remarks that Trudy made in her initial blog on “Digital Preservation and Digital Copies.” Trudy pointed out the differences in the value of digital access and digital preservation, and the costs and difficulties that attend to each. Hammering home the significance of digital preservation for me was a session late in the VRA conference titled “Embedded Metadata: share, deliver, preserve.” Digital preservation should not be overlooked in this spectrum when evaluating an archival collection, despite our apparent primary focus on digital access that the visual resources field seems to favor. Context can be as important as content in the visual world, although it is often harder to capture and replicate. The difficulties and expense of archiving generations of equipment, software and the web environment can be overwhelming, but it must be done in order to allow our increasingly rich “born-digital” culture to be captured for future research and enjoyment.

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