The Digital Archives Program Settles in to MARBL

by Erika Farr, Coordinator for Digital Archives, MARBL

Writers Exhibit
WRITERS Exhibit on display in the
Schatten Gallery, Woodruff Library, 3rd Fl.

Two events this week remind me why archives, digital stewardship, and curation are not only vital to documenting our cultural moment but also can prove enthralling and inspirational.

The first of these events is wonderfully local. The Emory University Libraries celebrated the opening of the WRITERS exhibition on Monday sampling some of the dynamic collections of personal, literary papers housed in MARBL and revealing the impact these collections and the artists who created them have had on a wide array of guest curators. In Professor Ronald Schuchard's introductory essay for the exhibit entitled “The Imaginative Culture of MARBL,” he describes the archive as a space for “communal delight, awe and use.” This heady mix of joy and utility drives the archival mission and guides the development of MARBL's Digital Archives program, in particular. As is true throughout the archives field, MARBL increasingly acquires computing-related materials, such as disks, floppies, drives, hardware, and all sorts of other digital miscellany. The practical and necessary demands of how to manage such material should not obscure the ultimate goal of providing researchers with the “communal delight” of exploring these digital treasures.

Rushdie Workstationi Emulation
Screenshot of Rushdie Workstation Emulation,
Salman Rushdie Papers,
Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library

MARBL's early attempts at researcher access strive to provide at once authentic access to digital collections while also offering tantalizing views into the creative process. Currently researchers can access one of Salman Rushdie's earliest personal computers in the MARBL reading room by searching and browsing the collection through a user interface or they can boot up Rushdie's Performa 5400 itself using an emulation loaded on the researcher workstation. By offering access via emulation, MARBL intends to provide researchers with an intimate experience of witnessing not only what Rushdie created and wrote on his computer but also how he went about doing it. We will continue to explore how best to provide inspiring access to digital material as we continue processing and making available the rest of Rushdie's computers, digital material within Lucille Clifton's archive, and Eamon Grennan's digital archive, among others.

Preservation WeekThe other event this week of note is Preservation Week, an annual event supported by various organizations and institutions, including the American Library Association and the Library of Congress. The fruitful exploration of archives, of which the WRITERS exhibit is such a fine example, depends upon the effective and long-term preservation of these collections, paper, digital or otherwise. Experiencing how archival research can manifest itself in enlightening and enriching ways only reminds me of how interdependent access and preservation are and will always be. We cannot consistently offer researchers authentic and engaging access to the cultural record and the creative process if we do not assiduously attend to preservation and stewardship.

Pre-Acquisition Digital Assets
Survey, Click to Enlarge

While such work seemingly lacks the allure of innovative access or revelatory exhibitions, developing workflows, documenting good practice, establishing audit procedures, and collaborating with technologists and librarians to create secure storage for digital collections constitute the very preparations that result in rich archival offerings for researchers and scholars. For instance, MARBL has recently developed a brief survey for potential donors that should help curators and archivists better understand digital collections before we acquire them. Because of the nature of digital material, early intervention and pre-acquisition information gathering are important steps in the preservation process. MARBL will also begin to document policies and practices for born-digital and hybrid collections through its newly released Digital Archives webpage .

As MARBL continues to pursue innovative approaches to providing access and scholarly tools to researchers and to establishing a sustainable Digital Archives program, we hope to draw increasingly diverse and inspired researchers to the archival feast.

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