Decaying Electronic Archives

Turns out old-fashioned paper does do one or two things that digital media can’t–it lasts, and its technology doesn’t go out of date. Today’s New York Times features a long article about a fairly recent phenomenon in the field of writers’ archives: digital-born materials, meaning writing that was created, and only exists, on hard drives, disks, and other computerized storage media. The article focuses on Emory’s Salman Rushdie archive, which contains a number of old Mac computers that the archivists haven’t yet decided how to preserve and present.

Here’s an excerpt: “Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits–0’s and 1’s–written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.”

The article goes on to describe how John Updike, just before he died, sent Harvard 50 floppy disks. What the hell are floppy disks? Must be something from the same long-gone era as the car phone.

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