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Digital Materiality, or Learning to Love Our Machines

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 second in a series of posts on the experience.

Charlottesville, Va.—To a generation accustomed to sleek smartphones and barely-there laptops, the Osborne 1 personal computer is not a lovely thing. The size of a suitcase, it hit the market in 1981, with a price tag of $1,795 and a bicep-straining weight of nearly 30 pounds. Back then, that counted as portable. Writers including Ralph Ellison and Michael Chabon bought the machines, although writing a novel on the Osborne’s 5-inch screen must have been painful.

Personal-computing technology has come a very long way, but the Osborne represents an important early chapter in that history. Rather than consign the thing to the e-recycling heap, the Rare Book School acquired one for its teaching collection of legacy machines. Students in my “Born-Digital Materials” course got to admire the Osborne and other vintage machines up close as part of learning to think about computers as material objects in their own right.

During one lab exercise, we broke up into small teams and tried to get information about—and out of—different legacy machines. My group tried to persuade a balky Tandy 1000 TX to cough up its secrets, but long-forgotten DOS prompts and mysterious floppy disks defeated us.  It wasn’t until we interviewed the Tandy’s original owner, now a UVa library staffer, that we got anywhere with it—a reminder that you can’t take the human element out of archives, born-digital or otherwise.

Archivists and scholars who work with computer-created content need to think about how “the thingness of things” translates to the digital realm, according to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, one of the course’s two instructors. “Computers are material objects engineered and built to sustain the illusion—or working model—of immateriality,” he told us. “That is what makes computers different.” If you want to understand, study, and preserve the things they create, not to mention the people doing the creating, it helps to appreciate the machines too—not just as objects but as artifacts. “The computer really does become a kind of environment that’s an extension of ourselves, an environment that we inhabit and configure and that becomes a form of expression,” Mr. Kirschenbaum pointed out.

He and the course’s other leader, Naomi Nelson, have spent much of their working lives thinking about digital materiality and digital forensics from, respectively, the scholar/digital humanist’s and the librarian/archivist’s points of view. Mr. Kirschenbaum is an associate professor of English and associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. He’s working on a history of word processing, to be called Track Changes.

Ms. Nelson directs the Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University. Like Mr. Kirschenbaum, she has plenty of experience with born-digital content. She worked at Emory University when it acquired the Salman Rushdie archive, including the writer’s old laptops, floppy disks, and large amounts of e-mail and other computer-created records.  She’s fascinated by “the way in which working with these systems shapes our work,” she said. “I’m very interested in how we as an archival profession can embrace these materials.”

The class attracted archivists and library staffers from the Library of Congress, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of New England, Virginia Tech, Yale University, and elsewhere. They wanted to know more about the digital material they will have to handle in the near future, if they aren’t handling it already. “While we’re not currently dealing with a lot of born-digital stuff, we will be very soon,” said Eric Brownell, a cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

Rare-book dealers often enroll in the many Rare Book School courses that focus on print materials. One dealer found her way to Mr. Kirschenbaum and Ms. Nelson’s course instead. “In the next couple of years, members of our profession are going to be handling these materials, and we are not ready,” said Melissa Sanders of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City. “That’s why I’m here.”

One of the Rare Book School’s famous rituals features the school’s founding director, Terry Belanger, taking a book apart in front of students. Mr. Kirschenbaum came up with his own version for “Born-Digital Materials” on the first day of class: He cut open a floppy disk to show us the innards—34 tracks, index hole—and get us thinking about how computers create and store files and what counts as a digital original. An operating system “depends on multiples and redundancy,” he said. “Even within a quote-unquote simple file that’s only been on a single machine, it quickly becomes difficult to speak of originals.”

That’s a particular concern for archivists (and rare-book dealers), who want to be able to document exactly what they’ve got in a collection and make sure that in working with digital artifacts they don’t inadvertently change them. In a later lecture, Mr. Kirschenbaum went over the information architecture of computer file systems. When you hit control-S, “you don’t think about where, physically, that data is going to go,” he said. Hard drives are organized in concentric tracks composed of sectors—think of them as “units along a track,” he suggested—and sectors are grouped into clusters. “For file-level forensics, this is where the action is,” he said. “In the course of routinely accessing that file, your OS is spawning multiple copies, shadow copies, all of which are themselves being dispersed physically across the surface of your media.” Imagine if every time you handled a piece of paper you inadvertently changed it. Talk about an archivist’s nightmare.

Next post: Digital forensics, emulations, and virtual environments.

Image: “Evolution (34/365),” a photo of the Osborne 1 personal computer by Flickr user somegeekintn. Used under a CC-BY Creative Commons license.

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