Reflections on Digital Archiving with the Rose Library

Rachel Brazeale completed an internship with the Rose Library during the Summer of 2019. Rachel recently completed a Masters in Archival Studies from Clayton State University.

Walking into Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, there is a display featuring cardboard boxes, floppy disks, hard drives, CDs, and old computers with a big blue cloud above it and a sign that reads “Collecting Stories.” The display represents all the ways the library receives records. It’s hard to miss that many of them are digital.

The first Rose Library acquisition that included born digital materials was the papers of novelist Salman Rushdie in 2006.

When most people think of an “archive,” something more like the Citadel library from Game of Thrones likely comes to mind – full of old books and yellowing paper. More and more, however, records are created and saved by computers. Where, in the past, collections were primarily paper with maybe a floppy disk or two, collections are now increasingly computerized. Record, in 2019, is digital.

The Rose Library has born digital material dating back about 50 years and has been actively processing it for the last decade. But what is “born digital” material?

“Born digital” refers to records that are, and have always been, electronic. They are distinct from “digitized” records, which were once physical items that could be held in your hand but have been made into a digital format for accessibility. Emails are “born digital,” while scanned letter missives are “digitized.”

Salman Rushdie’s computers, which were included in the initial deposit of his papers at the Rose Library. Subsequent additions have included other born digital materials from newer machines.

An email chain may seem less romantic than a stack of old letters tied up with string but born digital material can be more complete than analog counterparts, and often easier on researchers’ time and energy. Born digital documents can be quickly searched for keywords, whereas physical ones must be read line-by-line. Email correspondence includes sent and received, while letter collections typically only have half the conversation. Even born digital photographs can have valuable information like time and date embedded as part of the file. Born digital material contains a wealth of useful characteristics beneficial to researchers and other archive users.

During my internship with the Rose Library, I processed the Pearl Cleage born digital materials. This collection contains a variety of text files and photographs. If a researcher was interested in viewing the complete collection of Pearl Cleage photographs available at the Rose Library, they would need to access both the physical photographs in boxes 145-150 as well as those that are born digital. Other born-digital collections housed with Emory’s Rose Library include materials by Lucille Clifton, Natasha Trethewey, Alice Walker, Salman Rushdie*, and many more.

The papers of Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage include born digital materials like playscripts, correspondence and photographs.

Interested researchers can request materials in advance to be viewed in the Rose Library’s Reading Room. You can find and request items through Emory’s book catalog, discoverE, or Emory’s FindingAids Database. There, you can create a user account and submit a request. (Further details on access requests can be found on the Rose Library’s website.) When a researcher comes in to view born digital materials in the Reading Room, Rose Library staff will be on hand to help you get set up and answer any questions.

There is a lot that goes into processing digital records in the name of preserving their authenticity while also ensuring accessibility. Whenever something is done to a file, even as small as opening it, that action may leave “fingerprints” – in other words, the file could be changed, even without intent to alter. Archivists use a variety of tools to prevent any “fingerprints” from compromising the integrity of the record. Digital archiving also goes a long way to preserve records housed in obsolete media and formats. Consider if you’ve ever used a floppy disk. Can you access that disk today? Can you open that 1992 Word file? Digital archiving tackles these challenges using methods such as forensic disk imaging and migration.

As technical and, at times, challenging as digital archiving is, the preservation of born digital materials is key for the new millennium. As researchers shift their focus to more recent time periods, where born digital records increasingly monopolize the landscape, the proper preservation of born digital records ensuring authenticity, accuracy, and accessibility will be indispensable.

*Hear Salman Rushdie discuss how digital technology has impacted his work, in conversation with Rose Library digital archives staff.