L-95. Born-Digital Materials in Special Collections

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum Naomi Nelson

This course will introduce students to the challenges of acquiring, processing, managing and providing access to the class of cultural heritage materials known as “born-digital.” Born-digital materials are those that began life on a computer, rather than as digitized surrogates of real-world artifacts. Contemporary collections of “papers” are often therefore hybrid collections, with disks, CDs, tapes, and sometimes entire computers commingling with more traditional kinds of archival content. Archivists now also preserve records created and stored in the cloud—including blogs, tweets, avatars, Facebook pages, and Google Docs.  While this course will focus mainly on examples drawn from literature, popular culture, and the arts, the basic principles will be applicable to many other domains, including government, public policy, industry, science, and medicine.

The course is aimed primarily at archivists, manuscript curators, and others charged with managing this important new class of cultural record, as well as those scholars who might expect to make use of born-digital material in their research. Textual scholars and bibliographers are also a primary audience, as increasingly electronic books and electronic documents are critical elements of contemporary textual transmission. There will be significant emphasis on digital forensics, both its principles and application. Other topics to be covered include preservation metadata; data migration from obsolescent media; emulation; authenticating electronic records; appraisal; donor relationships; new challenges in scholarly communication; intellectual property and copyright law; the ethics of access to electronic records; Web archiving and the “cloud”; ebooks as archival objects; and case studies drawn from current work with electronic literary materials, computer games, and digital art. Above all, the class strives to make the case for the materiality of digital objects, and the richness and diversity of engagement they can inspire.

Participants are required to bring a laptop with them to class.

What this class is not …

  • Assessing and implementing digital repositories
  • Step-by-step implementation instructions or recommendations for particular strategies
  • Detailed review of all applicable metadata standards
  • Dedicated media formats for audio or video
  • Records management
  • Budgeting or funding opportunities
  • Technical details of migrating files or emulating environments
  • Trouble shooting/problem solving for particulars of your collections


What we will do …

  • Provide an overview of the workflow from the first conversation with a donor to accession and patron access to get a sense of the issues involved in managing born digital personal archives
  • Focus will be on managing personal papers/manuscripts rather than institutional records
  • Introduce key concepts and vocabulary
  • Review actual implementation strategies from leaders in the field
  • Survey best practices as they now stand
  • Discuss risks and complications associated with those best practices
  • Introduce the field of computer forensics and discuss which aspects are and are not relevant to the archivist or cultural heritage specialist
  • Incorporate examples that push limits and test assumptions

Course History

Matthew Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson co-teach this course, as "Born-Digital Materials in Special Collections."
Matthew Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson co-teach this course, as "Born-Digital Materials: Theory & Practice."

Course Resources

  • Advance Reading List
  • Evaluations for this course:

Related Courses


  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
  • Naomi Nelson

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied thinktank for the digital humanities). He is also an affiliated faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Maryland. His first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, was published by the MIT Press in 2008 and won the 2009 Richard J. Finneran Award from the Society for Textual Scholarship (STS), the 2009 George A. and Jean S. DeLong Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), and the 16th annual Prize for a First Book from the Modern Language Association (MLA). In 2010 he co-authored (with Richard Ovenden and Gabriela Redwine) Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections, a report published by the Council on Library and Information Resources. Kirschenbaum speaks and writes often on topics in the digital humanities and new media; his work has received coverage in the Atlantic, New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired, Boing Boing, Slashdot, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. See www.mkirschenbaum.net for more.

Full Bio »

Naomi Nelson

Naomi Nelson is Director of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. Previously, she was the Interim Director for the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) at Emory University and Co-Director of the Digital Scholarship and Media Studies Graduate Certificate Program. She has been working with born-digital records for over ten years, starting in 1996 when she served as a consultant to the Senate Computer Center on the transfer of born-digital Constituent Mail index files to archival repositories. She has taught workshops for the Society of American Archivists on the “Digitization of Archival Materials” and “Digital Libraries and Digital Archives.” Nelson was a member of the Digital Libraries Federation’s Aquifer project and served as consultant to the MetaArchive Project funded by the Library of Congress’ National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program.

Full Bio »