Rare Book School

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L-95. Born-Digital Materials: Theory & Practice

Matthew Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson

This course will introduce students to the challenges of preserving and providing access to the class of cultural heritage and archival matter known as “born-digital.” Born-digital materials are those that began their life on a computer, rather than as digitized surrogates of real-world primary sources. 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. (The implications of President Obama’s well-publicized use of a Blackberry device for the Presidential Records Act are one example.) Archivists are also considering how to 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, 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 computer forensics, both its method and hardware. 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”; and case studies drawn from current work with electronic literary materials, computer games, and digital art.

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

Course Resources

Course History


Matthew Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson teach this course for the first time.