Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Emulating Rushdie's Laptop

The New York Times story on "Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit" tells the amazing story of the born digital archive created for author Salman Rushdie. At the archive for Rushdie at Emory University, digital media designers have created an emulator for Rushdie's Mac desktop that allows researchers to experience an imitation of Rushdie's use of stickies and Eudora e-mail, along with the documents from which he created his book manuscripts.

See below to listen in on a conversation between the archivists and designers who created the site.

However, the story in the New York Times, which includes interviews with archivists at Harvard and Stanford, who spoke about their obligation to climate-controlled preservation and their different from law enforcement style forensics respectively, might lead a critic to reach somewhat different conclusions about this presentation strategy.

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.

“I know of no other place in the world that is providing access through emulation to a born-digital archive,” said Erika Farr, the director of born-digital initiatives at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory. (The original draft is preserved.)

To the Emory team, simulating the author’s electronic universe is equivalent to making a reproduction of the desk, chair, fountain pen and paper that, say, Charles Dickens used, and then allowing visitors to sit and scribble notes on a copy of an early version of “Bleak House.”

“If you’re interested in primary materials, you’re interested in the context as well as the content, the authentic artifact,” Ms. Farr 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.

In the Virtualpolitik book I wrote about so-called "turning the pages" exhibits and the ways that these interface designs fetishize the book as an object, much as the Emory display may expend resources on representation of the interface of the screen rather than on searchability and scholarly exchange.

Archivists at Emory do, however, make an interesting argument about the nature of digital acquisitions and the fact that only about 25% of the data in their Rushdie collection is "user-generated content" and that the remaining 75% is "stuff that came with the system" in the larger data environment. From a preservation standpoint, saving supposedly passive user behavior that leaves traces of everyday life, which would be of interest to theorists influenced by Michel de Certeau could certainly be justified.

Unfortunately Emory archivist Naomi Nelson will not be able to attend this upcoming Richard Rorty Archive event, which also addresses issues of the born digital.



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