The majority of writing today is now born-digital in the sense that it is composed with a word processor, saved on a hard drive (or other storage media), and accessed as part of a computer operating system. Yes, some writers still begin a composition long-hand, but sooner or later the text will be keyed into a computer, there to be further worked and revised. Editors edit electronically, inserting suggestions and emendations, and emailing the file back to the author to approve. Publishers use electronic typesetting and layout tools, and only at the very end of this process is the electronic text of the manuscript (by now the object of countless transmissions and transformations) produced as the static material artifact that is a printed book.
This new technological fact about writing is already having an impact, from office work to government and the academy to literature and the creative arts. In the particular realm of literature and literary scholarship, this means that a writer working today will not and cannot be studied in the future in the same way as writers of the past, since the basic material evidence of their authorial activity-manuscripts and drafts, working notes, correspondence, journals—is, like all textual production, increasingly migrating to the electronic realm.
Often literary and creative writers are not technologically inclined; sometimes technology is regarded as dehumanizing or otherwise antithetical to the creative process. Ignorance or adversity to technology leads to bad decisions. The popular and important novelist Zadie Smith, lamenting the loss of personal correspondence carried out over email, adds almost off-handedly: “I don’t have a single early draft of any novel or story. I just ‘saved’ over the originals until I reached the final version. All there is is the books themselves.” This is a common perception and an all-too-common practice.
Computers therefore raise major challenges for all those concerned with writing and publishing, particularly in the area of belles-lettres, the source of some of our most precious artifacts of cultural heritage. What are the boundaries of literary authorship in an era of blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and email? Is an author’s web browser history part of her “papers?” What about a chat transcript or an instant message stored on a cell phone? What about a character or avatar the author has created for an online game? What are the ethical issues involved in plumbing the depths of a storage medium that routinely commits all manner of data, both momentous and mundane and often without the user’s knowledge, to its magnetic memory? Should a scholar be allowed to see an author’s high score on Tetris or their choice of desktop wallpaper? What about the music available on an MP3 playlist? What about the author’s choices for fonts and layout as expressed by the Preferences in their software? Such details may seem recherché, but in fact critics often want to know what an author was listening to or what images were important to them during the writing process. What about pornography or financial data or other sensitive content? The growing effectiveness of forensic information recovery raises the stakes still further: is erased or overwritten data appropriate for a scholar to access if it can be recovered in a usable form?
Such questions have already passed from the realm of the speculative to ground-level decision-making about accession, curation, and preservation as writers have begun including diskettes, CD-ROMs, even entire computers and laptops in their literary papers. My talk in this session will introduce and explore the issues above in a manner suited to a broad industry audience; it will be focused by the presentation of results from a recently concluded study funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities entitled “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use.” This project supported personnel working with the born-digital components of three significant collections of literary material: the Salman Rushdie papers at Emory University’s Woodruff Library, the Michael Joyce Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Deena Larsen Collection at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), an applied thinktank for the digital humanities. He is also an affiliated faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Maryland, and a Vice President of the Electronic Literature Organization. His first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, was published by the MIT Press in 2008. Kirschenbaum speaks and writes often on topics in the digital humanities and new media; for more information about current projects and activities, see his blog.
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