Author! Author!

Norman Corwin, 1939, by Unidentified artist, Gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smiths

Back in December, I wrote a post about Emory University’s efforts to make the writer Salman Rushdie’s digital files available to fans, researchers, and interested parties. A couple of days ago, I came across an interesting report about a gathering, an “unconference,” that was sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, which houses literary collections including William Faulkner’s papers, and archival materials from Ann Beattie, Sam Shepard, and Paul Bowles, among other. Twenty-five archivists came together to discuss the most recent research on the preservation of the digital contents of notable authors archives.

In 2009, the University of Virginia (UVA)—in collaboration with Stanford, Yale, and the University of Hull in Great Britain—received an $870,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore, over two years, new ways to preserve what librarians are calling "born-digital materials." At this group’s recent conference in Charlottesville, conversations focused on policy, outreach, and ways to insure that students and future scholars can navigate born-digital materials in their archives.

Bradley Daigle, Director of Digital Curation Services for the UVA. Library, noted that computer technicians are generally "software people" or "hardware people." What that means is that a person who, for example, knows how to rebuild a computer from 1990, may not know how to navigate the software that was used on that computer. As a result, Daigle explained, digital preservation means that people often work in collaborative teams that are organized into three groups:

  • Curators who go out and talk to authors and poets, and encourage them to save drafts of their work rather than constantly overwriting it, so future scholars can see how a writers thinking and process worked;
  • Digital archivists who "bring in the work and try to manage” manuscripts as well as emails and other unconventional documents;
  • And lastly, archivists who need to keep the material accessible and usable in the future as technology changes.

One goal the UVA people are shooting for is to recreate the entire “environment” of a writer’s computer within a larger archive’s computer system, and enable researchers to see, for example, the various computer files that a writer had open as specific texts were being written, or what MP3 music files he or she was listening to at the same time.


Close Up Fingers Typing, Courtesy of

If you’re curious about what advice archivists are offering up today to writers who want to insure that their digital files will remain readable and searchable in the future, see the guidelines that Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Library currently suggests. Interestingly, these tips echo much of the advice that the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig offered, back in April, in what was a popular blog post about managing email, in the here and now.

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