There are laptops in my archive!

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Posted in Events, Lectures

After attending “Track Changes”, the 2013 McGill Digital Humanities Lecture delivered by Matthew Kirschenbaum of MITH (The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities), I sat down to write my usual event coverage post for the DH Blog. Instead, I found myself focussing on a particular image from Dr. Kirschenbaum’s lecture, that of the three laptop computers held by Emory University’s Special Collections, which were donated by Salman Rushdie as his archive of unpublished manuscripts. As Dr. Kirschenbaum described the experiences of the writers such as Rushdie and Isaac Asimov as they adopted (or were co-erced, in the case of Asimov) word processing technology, I could not remove the image of the shelves of a special collection filled with neatly stacked and labelled laptops…

It occured to me that while my field (Library Science) is struggling to come to terms with the idea of digitized and born digital archives, in some respects we are still not exactly loosing the physical presence of a container for these materials. Much like audio recordings, the object remains, though the material inside becomes less and less accessible as it ages. Certainly, the idea of somehow preserving a file on a computer hard drive doesn’t seem much more difficult, though I acknowledge that online content is an entirely different matter. Somehow, I felt less worried about the threat of the disappearance of computer based documents than before. It had never occured to me that one could simply¬†save the laptop or PC upon which it was written.

While it will be up to future Special Collections heads and the writers themselves to commit to preserving “digital manuscript” heritage in this way, I do think it is a viable and even desirable option.¬† Like Voltaire’s pen or Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter, Rushdie’s humble laptops have a story to tell as objects themselves, one that speaks markedly of his own time in literary history.