L-95. Born-Digital Materials in Special Collections

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum Naomi Nelson

Special collections libraries have always held a wide-range of format types, each with its own affordances. This course will consider the more distinctive issues and considerations related to collecting and providing access to born-digital materials. (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 hybrid collections, with diskettes, CDs, hard drives, and sometimes entire computers commingling with more traditional kinds of archival content. Many collection creators have a more intimate relationship with their websites, social media, and mobile devices than with the paper in their lives. Publishers now release some titles either first or only as e-books—and the variety of e-book formats has proliferated. This course will focus on the nature of born-digital materials and on the complexities of providing access to this increasingly essential aspect of the cultural record alongside of more traditional kinds of manuscript materials and special collections.

Questions to be explored include what constitutes rarity and scarcity in the digital world; legal restrictions on collecting and cataloging e-books; practical strategies for access to born-digital content and the nature of the reading room experience; research scenarios and scholarly use; ethical challenges; the challenge of the “cloud”; the role of fans, hobbyists, and other public communities as resources; and above all, the abiding materiality of cultural heritage, even in its digital form. Case studies will be drawn from real-world examples, especially those involving literary materials, computer games, and digital art. Hands-on activities will be based on RBS’s growing collection of vintage computers and obsolescent formats.

The course is aimed at archivists, manuscript curators, and others charged with managing this important new class of cultural record, as well as scholars who might expect to make use of born-digital material in their research. To that end, our questions around born-digital materials will also be placed in relevant contexts from new media studies and the digital humanities. Preservation strategies, cataloging, and processing workflows will not be discussed in any detail. We will engage the body of practice around digital forensics where appropriate, but the course is not a how-to in specific tools.

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

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."
This course is not currently being offered. Please do not list on any RBS fellowship or scholarship applications.

Course Resources

  • Advance Reading List
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Related Courses


  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
  • Naomi Nelson

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Distinguished University Professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland, where he is also an affiliated faculty member with the College of Information Studies. He is a longtime RBS faculty member, having previously co-taught the course in born-digital materials. A practicing letterpress printer, he co-founded and co-directs BookLab and the Plaintxt Press at the University of Maryland. His most recent book is Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). He has delivered the annual Rosenbach, Breslaur, Brownell, Fales, and McKenzie lectures, among others. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, the Paris Review Daily, War on the Rocks, The Conversation, and Public Books. He has been both a National Endowment for the Humanities and a Guggenheim Fellow.

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Naomi Nelson

Naomi Nelson is Associate University Librarian and Director of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. She came to Duke from Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, where she held a variety of positions over twenty years, including Curator for Southern History, Director of the Digital Archive, Coordinator for Research Services, Assistant Director, and Interim Director. Her interests include managing and providing access to born-digital materials, exploring the new avenues for humanities research, and women’s history. She served as a Presidential Appointee to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, was a member of the 2016 ARL Leadership Fellow cohort, and is a member of the Advisory Board for the Movement History Initiative.  She received an M.L.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in American History from Emory University.

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