Last month I was fortunate enough to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, to give a paper at a symposium marking the fiftieth anniversary of the amazing Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – home to Yale University’s Special Collections.
Called ‘Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century’, the event covered a whole range of topics relating to the curation and use of recent and contemporary literary collections. I spoke about our Carcanet Press Email Preservation Project, the funded part of which ran for seven weeks in 2012, although we are continuing to build on this work.
The other two speakers on my ‘born-digital’ panel were academics engaged in fascinating ‘digital archaeology’ initiatives. They both presented case studies focusing on the challenges of accessing and preserving works of early electronic literature. Lori Emerson from the University of Colorado spoke about her work on the 1986 publication of Paul Zelevansky’s The Case for the Burial of Ancestors: Book Two, Genealogy – a publication which included a videogame stored on a 5.25” floppy disk. Matthew Kirschenbaum from the University of Maryland spoke about a 1992 collaboration between the artist Dennis Ashbaugh and the writer William Gibson, consisting of a book in which the images were intended to fade from view once opened and exposed to light, and an accompanying electronic poem, ‘Agrippa’, which was stored on a 3.5” floppy disk programmed to encrypt itself after a single use. While the poem itself has been transcribed and widely circulated, its encryption remains a challenge today and the code has never been cracked.
These papers made the preservation of 170,000 emails seem almost straightforward!
Another session with particular relevance to our email project was a panel focusing on publishers’ archives. Beth Luey’s paper explored the riches to be found in such archives, and highlighted their value to researchers working in a range of fields, not just literary scholars. Laura Millar emphasized the importance of publishers’ archives as business archives, illuminating the processes of editing, marketing, promotion, production, distribution and sales. Most pertinently, she also stressed the need for archivists to work more pro-actively with publishers in order to ensure that their digital archives are preserved for future generations.
On another panel, Micki McGee, a sociologist, spoke about her work on the Yaddo Archive Project. Yaddo is a famous artist’s retreat in the USA, and its archive (held at New York Public Library) is a highly significant resource for those interested in twentieth-century writing and art. McGee’s work involved developing a prototype network analysis tool to map relationships between the artists, writers and composers affiliated with Yaddo. This was of particular interest to me, as we are hoping to use text-mining and visualisation tools to map relationships and connections in archival email collections in future.
Other sessions focused on sound archives, connections between archival and literary theory, teaching with literary archives, and the romance of the archive.
One of only two other curators from the UK who attended the symposium was David Sutton, Chair of GLAM (the Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts), who gave an excellent keynote speech on the destinies of literary archives from the early modern period to the present. It was a great privilege to attend this event, and to gain an insight into some of the exciting projects and initiatives currently being carried out by colleagues in American and Canadian institutions.