Day One: Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century

In which I continue to rehash the events of Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium hosted by the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library.

Major topics tackled on day one included the challenges and opportunities associated with archiving e-literature, email (born digital), phonotexts (sound archives), and publisher’s archives. Here, I’m going to focus on addressing the “Born Digital” panel because I have such copious notes on those lectures alone. And let’s face it, can we possibly say too much about this topic?

Lori Emerson (Assistant Professor of English, University of Colorado at Boulder) spoke first, presenting a case study of work on Paul Zelevansky’s Case for the Burial of Ancestors, Book II: Genealogy. The manuscript was created on an Apple II computer, composed of four stories, each in a different typeface. But where things really get hairy is the video game, “Swallows”, on a 5 1/4 floppy disc that is included with the book.

Emerson describes this work as a very early instance of a work that self-consciously uses own text, across different media, to comment on the way the media interacts with the text itself.  I find this a stunning example of, to use Emerson’s words, the “creative possibilities inaugurated by the personal computer.”  She discussed the special challenges of preserving e-literature, which includes dealing with digital objects created on obsolete platforms (not sure what e-literature is? check out the first hypertext fiction: “Afternoon: a Story” by Michael Joyce).  In the case of Zelevansky’s Case for the Burial of Ancestors, a combination of migration and emulation has been used for preservation. Emerson even showed a brief demonstration of the game emulation:

I recommend checking out Emerson’s blog, specifically this post about recovering “Swallows” and instructions for downloading and running an emulation of the game if you want to totally geek out.


Matt Kirschenbaum (Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland) spoke about William Gibson’s “Agrippa”, a 300 line poem, which is a semiautobiographical, literary coming-of-age piece. “Agrippa” was published originally as part of an artist’s book Agrippa: A Book of the Dead in 1992 (for which few copies exist, because few copies were produced) which included a 3 1/2 inch diskette embedded in the back of the book. The diskette contained a poem, and was programmed so that the text of the poem would encrypt itself after a single reading. Kirschenbaum aptly describes this as ”a bibliographer’s nightmare.” How do you preserve something that is designed to be ephemeral?

A plain text version of the poem propagated across the early Internet. Eventually, the website The Agrippa Files was created as an online archive for information, archival documents and tools related to the work. A copy of the diskette which had never been viewed was tracked down, the disk was imaged, and a bitstream (digital surrogate) was created. The original software environment for “Agrippa” was emulated, including the ability to produce the original sounds. Experts have performed forensic analyses on the bitstream, and a graduate information science student at the University of Toronto crowd-sourced a challenge to reengineer the original encryption. Still missing from the puzzle are the full source code and the born-digital clear text (from when Gibson originally typed the poem in 1991).

One really important takeaway from this project, for me, is Kirschenbaum’s realization that “born digital texts are not self-identical” because many permutations exist. Another interesting point is the way in which the Internet functions to preserve things even if they aren’t meant to be preserved; in this case, the plain text version of the poem that was meant to be ephemeral. Kirschenbaum also noted that the Bodleian Library is crawling and archiving all of the pages in The Agrippa Files website.

I also highly recommend checking out Kirschenbaum’s blog and The Agrippa Files site if you are interested in this project.


Fran Baker (Assistant Archivist, University of Manchester) presented a case study titled “Emails to an Editor: Preserving the Digital Correspondence of Carcanet Press.” Carcanet Press was founded in 1969, a small but significant poetry publishing house in the UK.  Their email archive is important because it represents the primary correspondence between CP’s editors, critics, translators and poets. CP had no email policy or records management policy, which made archiving their decades of email correspondence a challenge.

In the course of working to preserve CP’s emails, several mail accounts (PST files) were transferred, totaling 170,000 email messages. The intent was to migrate the material to a new format, but first the significant properties had to be identified; such significant properties in these emails included unusual fonts, font colors, sometimes formatting and layout (such as when poems were included in the text of an email), and even emoticons. A test set of emails was used to test tools for metadata extraction, migration, packaging and ingest. Particular difficulties noted were the fact that the various editors at CP had different personal behaviors with respect to how they handled their email accounts– one used the CP email account only for work matters, and carefully organized all email into folders, which another used the CP email account for all work, personal and other matters, and did not keep the messages organized. Another difficulty relates to copyright and privacy issues — for one thing, an archivist must review emails before they can be made available for public viewing, which is extremely time consuming. For this reason, the archivists focused on preservation over access.

This is a really interesting case study that grapples with some of the major difficulties of email archiving; read more about it here.

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