Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2010 Newsletter

Preserving Born-Digital Materials

By Gabriela Redwine

Computer. Click to enlarge.

Compaq Portable 286, ca. 1983.

Storage media. Click to enlarge.

Archivist and student at work. Click to enlarge.

Archivist Gabriela Redwine and PhD student Snowden Becker process Terrence McNally's disks.

Electronic proof. Click to enlarge.

Thomas Zigal's electronic proofs for The White League (2005). The editor's first set of changes are in blue, and Zigal's comments on those changes are in pink.

For many contemporary writers, the computer has become the writing environment of choice. The Ransom Center received its first disks nearly 20 years ago as part of the Christine Brooke-Rose papers; 39 of the Center's collections now contain a hybrid of both paper and born-digital manuscripts, letters, emails, proofs, research notes, and other materials. The disks in the Center's collections range from formats still in use today, such as CDs and DVDs, to media such as 3 ½-inch disks, which were common until the late 1990s; 5 ¼-inch disks, which first debuted in the late 1970s; and even 8-inch disks, which were introduced in 1971. Hardware in the collection ranges from a 28-pound "portable" computer from ca. 1983 to a 1999 Macintosh PowerBook G3.

One of the Ransom Center's largest and most complex collections of born-digital materials can be found in the Michael Joyce papers. Joyce, a professor of English and media studies at Vassar College, has published both print and hypertext works, including afternoon: a story (1987), which the New York Times referred to as the "granddaddy of full-length hypertext fictions." afternoon, like many hypertext works, consists of interactive text windows connected by links. Readers choose different narrative paths by clicking on these links; literally thousands of different readings are possible.

The 2005 acquisition of Joyce's collection marked the Center's first deliberate engagement with born-digital literary materials published in electronic format. Preserving afternoon means finding a way to preserve not only Joyce's computer files for the story, but also the software he used to create it and the operating system necessary to run that software. Researchers interested in experiencing Joyce's afternoon files in their original computing environment might also conceivably want access to a Macintosh Plus, which is the computer Joyce used to compose the story.

Since 2005, the digital archivist at the Ransom Center has collaborated with Dr. Patricia Galloway and graduate students at the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin to process the born-digital components of several digital-analog hybrid collections. Processing projects completed since 2005 include a pilot project with the Joyce disks, as well as cataloging work on the born-digital materials in the John Crowley, Norman Mailer, Terrence McNally, Leon Uris, and Arnold Wesker holdings.

The content of the files in these collections ranges from correspondence—such as typed letters and emails—to manuscript drafts, personal documents, and even a file typed by McNally on June 20, 1988, documenting his first experience writing with WordPerfect.

The tracked changes and comments on a set of proofs, created in Microsoft Word, that writer Thomas Zigal exchanged with his editor at Toby Press provide valuable insight into his creative process while writing The White League (2005). In the past, proofs would have been exchanged in hard copy through the mail. Word processing features, such as "track changes" in Microsoft Word, and the Internet have made it much easier to collaborate electronically. "It's as good as marginalia in a hard copy ms., only using the newest technology," Zigal wrote to Thomas Staley, the Ransom Center's Director, in an email that included the proofs as an attachment. "[W]hat's new is the editor and I didn't send mss. back and forth in the U.S. mail, per the old days. We did everything by email attachment."

Zigal's explanation of the document illustrates the importance of communicating directly with authors about their born-digital materials. Talking with authors about their computer usage will be an important part of the Ransom Center's future digital preservation work. Information about the types of hardware and software an author used to create the disks in his or her collection, for example, or whether an author has ever experienced a hard drive failure will be vital to figuring out how best to access and describe his or her files.

The Ransom Center's digital preservation program continues to grow in anticipation of an increase in the amount of born-digital materials we will receive with future collections. Technology developed in other fields, such as computer forensics, promises to facilitate the capture of data from disks and improve the Center's ability to preserve and provide access to its born-digital collection materials.

The Ransom Center is seeking funds to endow a Digital Collections Coordinator as part of its ongoing capital campaign. To learn more, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu/contribute.

Michael Joyce Visits Ransom Center

Joyce with Archivist. Click to enlarge.

Michael Joyce at the Ransom Center with archivist Gabriela Redwine.

Poet, hypertext author, professor, and theorist Michael Joyce visited the Ransom Center in April 2009. Joyce's papers, including 380 disks and a laptop, reside at the Ransom Center.

While at the Center, Joyce toured the stacks with archivist Gabriela Redwine and viewed the original manuscript of Gertrude Stein's Composition as Explanation (1926)—two colorful cahiers and a stack of small, loose-leaf pages covered in her pencil scrawl—as well as drafts of poems by Ezra Pound from the Ransom Center's Marcella Spann Booth collection. These texts, Joyce said, form part of the "deeply rich tradition of modernist literatures [that] made possible the ways we consider textuality and the computer." He also sat down with Redwine to talk about the ongoing preservation work of his own materials. Joyce's computer files were the first born-digital materials to be accessed by a patron in the Center's reading room.

For an account of Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities Associate Director Matthew Kirschenbaum's experience using the Joyce born-digital materials at the Ransom Center, please see "Hamlet.doc?: Literature in a Digital Age" in The Chronicle of Higher Education at http://chronicle.com/article/Hamletdoc-Literature-in-a/6887.

Interview with Michael Joyce

Archivist Gabriela Redwine interviewed author Michael Joyce during his visit to the Ransom Center in April 2009. Below are some excerpts from that interview.

Joyce discusses publishing, the electronic literature community, and how to characterize the value of born-digital materials.

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Michael Joyce: So—you had a physical community [of readers], like a book community. Same thing—similar story—with Jane [Yellowlees] Douglas when she[7:23] first called me up and said I'm writing my dissertation on afternoon. I said, "That's impossible, you can't be, it's not published." She said, "Well, no, but I have it, you know. I've gotten it through so-and-so." So we were pretty much aware there was a community of readers out there. They were people I knew here at UT, which we [you and I] talked about last night. We've gotten away from value and what have you, but the value was cultural. The value was of the mind. The value was the kind of—in this wonderful collection, you have all of these modernist, surrealist pieces that were really kind of ephemeral that now have enormous value but at the time they were tracts, broadsheets.

Gabriela Redwine: That same sense of community I think still exists. When I went to ELO [Electronic Literature Organization], one of the first things Deena Larson did was say, "Hey, I've whole bunch of literature on my computer. You got a flash drive?" And she said that that's just how people share [in the e-lit community]. And it's just publication, essentially—and preservation.

Michael Joyce: Absolutely. Talking to the rhetoric students, we were talking about that, too. Preservation by a kind of a proliferation and the issues that evolve from that. Issues that drive a bibliographer and an archivist crazy, but also the cultural issues. Proliferation also means that people can appropriate and contextualize in different ways. But yeah, so literature that existed [inaudible] proliferation. And in fact when I teach early hypertext matters and the web, people do account for it, but it's in a lot of ways in the explosion in the web the great unaccounted for factor is the original cultural gifting that people posted [inaudible]. What's going on YouTube. You're right, it still exists.

Joyce discusses the relationship of his work to the Modernist tradition.

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Gabriela Redwine: Yesterday you talked about the connections between your work and the work of people like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. I was wondering if you could talk a little about how your writing and thinking connect to earlier—or how you see your writing and thinking in relation to earlier literary and cultural traditions.

Michael Joyce: Earlier than they?

Gabriela Redwine: No, earlier than you.

Michael Joyce: Oh, [laughs] I though you wanted me to go back to the eighteenth century. Oh, my God.

Gabriela Redwine: No, early—

Michael Joyce: Oh, I can easily. I can easily. Let me do Stein first because Joyce there are all those things that accrue around a name, and knowing where I'm sitting as I'm talking to you. With Stein, at some point— and I don't think I discovered her because of Joyce or because of Hemingway or something. There was a time in my life—it was my late teens, early twenties, when sort of Paris happened for me in a way that I still haven't gotten over. I've now become a total Francophile, lived in Paris, go to Paris every year, all but this year. But there was something about— anyway that I blundered into Stein, probably through Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but then got to the real texts, Composition as Explanation and those sorts of things, and there was something about the way sentences worked for Stein that I recognized. And I recognized them in a way that for me was fundamental, almost genetic, that had to do with the discourse around families.

There's something in Stein where there was—in just the way she would handle a sentence, the way she would handle the rhythms of it—the directness that was in some sense naturalized for me, and on the other hand was undeniably unlike anything else I'd read. And that musicality. And I still to this day—anything I write—even the most trivial kinds of bureaucratic memos that one writes as an academic, start with me almost—what they call a seed crystal of sorts—there's something in the tone of something that opens up the rest of it.

Joyce discusses the broader connection to hypertext.

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Michael Joyce: The fact that these writers represented both a world that I was comfortable with, in the sentence, in the page, and also one of profound newness. Anytime you set out to make a sentence, all of those worlds are possible and they can all unfold. And those things prefigure hypertextuality.

Joyce discusses the connections, even more broadly, among literature, language, and computing.

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Michael Joyce: I've always been a skeptic of digital literature and the computer because, to the extent that people make the claim that they're enabling, that suddenly the computer descended from the heavens as an actual deus ex machina and these things were possible. Well, no. A deeply rich tradition of modernist and pre-modernist but especially modernist—and pre-modernist, but especially modernist literatures made possible the ways that we consider textuality and the computer.

I remember sitting at a dinner. Bolter and I were at the same table with Fred Brooks, who is a famous computer scientist, and who is the head of the computer science department at the University of North Carolina but made his name as IBM chief scientist. And what Fred did, and he talked about this at this dinner, the IBM 360 I think it was, one of the early mainframes, he was the person who convinced people to put lowercase in. And everybody at the table said, well, was there even a question. And he said, yeah, it was all COBOL and FORTRAN and what have you. And they said, well, why? And he said, because literature is made with lowercase. And it's true, you know. It's a fundament of language.

And now at least to the brilliant things we're sitting among here [at the Ransom Center], that are where image and text converge and pixels can hold a thousand links and what have you, but the fact is that in the twentieth century and before, but in the twentieth century especially, the kind of things the HRC collects, this vision of textuality and its ability to open up other worlds emerged. And it helped form what computers became, in a literary-artistic sense.

Joyce talks about finding the few existing physical pages of afternoon, a story.

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Michael Joyce: That's a delight, you know, when I was preparing the materials to ship them here, it was a delight to find them and to sort of recover—I talked to you about your desk, we sat at your computer and, you know, your little tchotchkes and what have you—that's somebody's life. I can remember the moment of doing it. When I talk about afternoon what I always say to people who ask, "Did you know? Did you know what would happen? Did you know all these things?" You know, to some extent I did because I can remember the day that I wrote the very first line of it, and the very first line of it came before all the meta-material. And I can remember the office in Michigan, and I can remember the sun slanting in the window, in a way, like a Joycean epiphany. And I remember writing it and thinking, "Oh my God, as soon as I finished the first line, I'm going to have to tell people how to read this."

As soon as I made the line and made a link, I thought, if anybody's going to read this there'll have to be another section, and in a way something that became structurally part of afternoon. Critics have talked about the way that the paratextual material and the textual material sort of interact. Came at the moment of generating the text, and for me was a vision of—I guess of what we've come to call archive fever, to follow Derrida—but you're aware that you're making something that has to explain—and it was the thing we were talking about last night at dinner, too, about when you see Deena and others trying to explain how to read it, I knew that I had the metatextual aspect in it, but I didn't want to provide indexical things that would say, like, "Now there will be a fantastic imaginary story of Lolly."

Joyce discusses electronic literature as a subject of critical inquiry.

Listen Now

Michael Joyce: I also remember early on just sort of teasing Stuart Molthrop. He had come back from a meeting in Wyoming or somewhere like that he and John McDaid were at. He came back with some disks, floppies, the thing we were talking about—the sort of "sneaker net," as they used to call it—where you move around things on floppies. And it was a text of his, I think, Stuart's, along with some critical writings—theory—and I said, are we going to have to provide our own critics, you know, are we going to have to write our own—like a joke, hahaha. And Stuart said, yeah, we are. We're going to have to write the parallels.

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