Old Laptops Give Historians a Digital Paper Trial
Getting a hold of an important figure's papers now means digging through his or her old computing devices.
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Emory University has acquired novelist Salman Rushdie's papers — that is, Rushdie has given the university his old laptops, including a PowerBook he ruined by knocking a Diet Coke onto it by accident. (Digital forensics experts should be able to recover some data from the computer, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.)
Historians and museums often collect famous people's letters, diary entries and unfinished drafts. Archives hold everything from Marilyn Monroe's grocery lists to the table of pros and cons that Charles Darwin made when deciding whether to marry. Famous figures today probably produce just as much writing, but their archives tend to be digital, like those of Rushdie, who is best known for his novel The Satanic Verses. So archivists are starting to piece together how to handle this digital material while protecting the privacy of the people involved, including the famous person and everyone he or she emailed with.
Computer files might be even more revealing than the traditional handwritten papers. They contain information on what websites their users visited, alongside a digital trail about how users did research, wrote and revised. They may have a complete and searchable archive of emails.
At Emory, archivists printed out all of Rushdie's emails and asked him what they should redact to protect the email addresses of his friends, for instance. They have also created a workstation that recreates Rushdie's online working environment, so researchers of his writing are able to experience his writing process. To see the workstation, researchers will have to visit Emory; it's not available online, because of security concerns.
"Some of our data is just going to have to be locked up in the reading room for the moment," Emory archivist Naomi Nelson told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Although some experts think digital archives aren't as personable and revealing as paper ones, Nelson argued they're equally insightful. "I would say you can see plenty of the hand of the author in these records and they can be very compelling," she said.
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education