Digging into digital

At the end of last week, I had a chance to read the just-issued white paper, Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use (Matthew G. Kirschenbaum et al). (To get to the paper, follow the link and scroll to “download.”)

My first reaction was, wow, the NEH certainly got a lot for the money. For $11,708, this project certainly packed a lot in. The project started with a core group of institutions with a common interest — preserving and giving access to (the second part is important) “the born-digital documents and records of contemporary authorship.” These records are usually a “hybrid” consisting of both electronic and print outputs. The original group included University of Maryland, UT Austin, and Emory University, but by the end of the project the group had expanded to bring in viewpoints from the Library of Congress, Stanford University, the University of Maine, Yale University, the New York Public Library, the British Library, and the University of Oxford.

I liked two things about this report. The first is the sense that there was a real exchange of ideas, of institutions wanting to learn from one another (rather than develop their own way of doing things). The second was that the project engaged practitioners, primarily authors, in a deep way, trying to understand the way that documents are created and used. I was happy to see further work with both scholars and authors listed under next steps — I think this deep understanding of how these documents are created and how they function, along with how they will be used are essential for reaching understanding preservation and access needs.

I’ll be attending an advisory board meeting for the Future Arch project at the Bodleian (Oxford) in September, and I found this report an excellent primer on many of the issues surrounding the preservation and use of hybrid collections. It introduced some ideas I hadn’t considered or taken seriously before, such the materiality of the creation surround.

Conversations about dealing with digital collections in special collections are often marked by hand-wringing (and remarks about, “that will be after I retire,”) so it’s great to see the community rolling up it’s sleeves and getting to work.