Back in October I talked—with great interest and at length—with Anne Van Camp, director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, about the various roles archives serve and the challenges they face. One of the interesting things Anne mentioned was an exhibition that took place earlier this year at Emory University in Atlanta and featured the novelist Salman Rushdie’s original manuscripts, papers and digital material.
While it’s common for specialized libraries and archives to preserve the papers of important writers, the days of handwritten journals and early drafts of manuscripts covered with corrections or scrawled notes are numbered. In the future, writers’ born-digital archives of successive drafts and their professional and even personal correspondence are destined to present archivists with complex issues, such as how to open, read, and search original files, floppy disks, and CDs, for example, as time and technology march on and data loss threatens the digital chunks of literary history.An interview with Salman Rushdie about locating his archives at Emory University
The show at Emory, according to a New York Times report, in addition to kinds of artifacts you’d expect such as ephemera like book covers and handwritten journals, included four Apple computers (one of which was destroyed by a spilled Coke), and 18 gigabytes of data for visitors to explore. While a special visit to a famous writer’s studio or home might evoke a sense of time or place and provoke one’s imagination, the Emory project made it possible for visitors to literally browse through Rushdie’s file directories and documents and his computer’s desktop in order to better understand the digital and creative context in which he worked. (To see a video of what that looked like, click here).
“Fifty years from now,” as Erica Farr, director of born-digital initiatives at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory suggested, “people may be researching how the impact of word processing affected literary output.” If they do, collections like Rushdie’s, the fifty 5 ¼-inch floppy disks John Updike sent to Harvard before he died, and Norman Mailer’s archive at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin (which includes 349 computer disks, 47 electronic files, 40 CDs, six mini data cartridges, three laptop computers, and one Ampex magnetic tape spool) will, no doubt, provide unprecedented insights into the working process of writers in the early digital era. That is, of course, if the digital material stored on what is almost-certain-to-become-obsolete technology remains decipherable and accessible. But that suggests another story, and the content for another blog post, somewhere down the road . . .