Rushdie’s Digital Shadow, or How to Create Electronic Archives

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Howard spent a week in early July at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, taking a course on “Born-Digital Materials: Theory & Practice.” This is the last in a series of posts on the experience. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for more.

When you move around online or work on a computer, you cast what Naomi Nelson calls a “digital shadow”—a record of your activity. Many of us aren’t aware just how long a shadow we cast. For an archivist like Ms. Nelson, head of special collections at Duke University, an ever-bigger part of the job is figuring out how to collect that abundant but hard-to-see information—and persuading donors that it’s useful and safe to hand over records of their digital lives at all.

She rattled off some of the anxieties she hears from people who are debating whether to hand over their computer files: “My whole life is on there!” and “I don’t want my files on the Web” and “I have no idea what’s on there” and “I’m not the only one who uses my computer.”

How should an archivist respond? Tell donors that “this is a conversation,” she said. “I’m not here breaking down your door, taking your digital files.” Let them know that private information—credit-card numbers, for instance, or a kid’s photos—can stay private. Peer pressure can be helpful too. Try making the case that more and more scholars want such material and that “all the cool kids are doing it,” she said.

More and more writers now hand over computers and digital files as well as notebooks and manuscripts. Ms. Nelson worked at Emory University when it acquired Salman Rushdie’s papers—or, rather, the writer’s hybrid archive of papers and computer files. A lot of his correspondence, manuscripts, and journals existed only in digital form, so the archivists needed to acquire his old laptops too “in order to get the whole story of his life,” she said. They even took a nonworking PowerBook that he’d spilled a Diet Coke on. (Thanks to digital forensics, archivists can often retrieve data from machines that donors might think are worthless.)

Some people still don’t think digital records match the research value of paper archives, because they don’t carry immediately recognizable personal features—handwriting, for instance. Ms. Nelson finds digital records charismatic too. “I would say you can see plenty of the hand of the author in these records, and they can be very compelling,” she told us. Computer files can tell scholars a lot about how a writer did research, composed, and revised, what Web sites he visited, whom he corresponded with, and more.

Often a donor doesn’t even really know what he’s got in digital form. Over the years, a writer is likely to work in different media, on different devices, using different programs. “Rushdie couldn’t really remember what was on the computers,” Ms. Nelson said. “To him they were black boxes. So he was curious about what was on the machines.”

Mr. Rushdie’s enthusiasm made the archivists’ job easier. “We were very lucky that we had a donor who was curious and interested and trusted us,” Ms. Nelson told us. Other potential donors will need more convincing. Good interpersonal skills come in just as handy as technological expertise.

Mr. Rushdie had extra cause to worry about protecting personal information. He spent years in hiding, with a price on his head, because of a fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini over Mr. Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. (Mr. Rushdie’s new book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, describes that underground period of his life. Earlier this year, he said that working with the Emory archives had helped him write the memoir.)

The author was especially concerned about revealing too much about the identities and locations of friends and others who had housed or helped him. “We wanted to be extremely careful with the collection,” Ms. Nelson told us. “If this got out and got posted somewhere, it really could have been disastrous.” Because of the unusual circumstances, the Emory staff printed out Mr. Rushdie’s correspondence and asked him to identify which e-mail addresses or other information to redact. “I don’t recommend this as a strategy,” she said. “Most people are going to have way too much correspondence to do this.”

Once archivists have acquired digital archives, they have to decide—again, working closely with the donor—how to preserve the material and make it accessible. Emory created an emulation of Mr. Rushdie’s online working environment, to give users a chance to get close to his writing process. But they limited it to onsite-only access, again for security reasons.

Recreating a legacy software environment has its hassles, Ms. Nelson told us. Commercial companies don’t provide a lot of useful tools or support, she said, and licensing can be a big headache.

Ms. Nelson reiterated a theme we heard through the week: Get started and do the best you can with the tools and resources you’ve got. So what if you can’t provide global access to an archive right now? As the Rushdie material demonstrates, onsite-only access is a lot better than nothing. “Some of our data is just going to have to be locked up in the reading room for the moment,” Ms. Nelson said. “Access is essential to preservation, so we need to start providing access now,” she told the class. “It’s important to just do it.”

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