The Extraordinary World of MARBL: Lucille Clifton’s Videowriter

52weeks_logo4.jpgThe Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library is a place of discovery. All are welcome to visit and explore our unique holdings, whether as a researcher or an observer. The breadth and depth of our collections are vast, and it is nearly impossible to investigate every nook and cranny. We invite you this year, through our blog, to tour some of those places you didn’t know existed, and get acquainted with collections you might not have previously explored. Check back in with us weekly over the course of 2013 as we offer you a delightful look into some of the favorite, but perhaps lesser-known, corners of our collections. These pieces are visually interesting, come attached with fascinating stories, and are often 3D objects you might not have realized are part of what makes up The Extraordinary World of MARBL.


Lucille Clifton's Magnavox VideoWriter

Lucille Clifton’s Magnavox VideoWriter

In the Lucille Clifton collection, you can find her Magnavox VideoWriter, a word processing machine first released in 1985. Representing a transitional period in literary production, the VideoWriter—like other word processing machines—bridges a gap between the typewriter and the personal computer. Reminiscent of a typewriter, the VideoWriter features a black and white printer that feeds print-outs from the top of its case, while features like a small screen, separate keyboard, and 3.5” floppy disk drive anticipate the designs of early personal computers. If you want to see the videowriter in action, check out this 1980s commercial on YouTube!

The transitional design of the VideoWriter does present some challenges from an archival perspective, not least because compatible floppy disks were formatted specifically for the VideoWriter, which makes accessing their content in modern operating systems particularly difficult. Because of the VideoWriter’s lack of internal memory, however, the only options for saving content were to store it on floppy disks or print it out. These difficult to access floppy disks might, therefore, be the only locations in which some of this content survives. What’s more, even once the content has been accessed, successfully transferring and rendering it can also be problematic.

In spite of the challenges, however, there is much that machines like this one can reveal about the creative process. Examining the hardware and software that Clifton used, which included two word processors and a personal computer, can demonstrate how shifts in technology had an impact on her approach to writing. Once fully processed, we hope that the digital content from Clifton’s personal computer will offer similar insight.