We Descended: Processing the Bill Bly Collection with the UMD Born-Digital Working Group

In early September of 2012 the University of Maryland Libraries and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) joined forces to launch its Born-Digital Working Group. As a vehicle for leveraging some rapidly emerging institutional strengths in processing and maintaining born-digital collections, as well as conducting research around the challenges associated with those activities, the group was a natural way to give those efforts some internal structure and coherence. It also formalized a relationship between a university research library, in particular its Special Collections department, and a working digital humanities center. We are excited for this collaboration, one in which we can each learn from the other, bringing different sets of skills to the table to begin tackling the issues of stewarding born digital materials.

One area where work has already begin is in processing the papers of Bill Bly, who joins Deena Larsen as an early hypertext and electronic literature pioneer whose manuscript materials and collections of computer hardware and software are housed at MITH. The Bly collection includes a complete run of titles from the innovative hypertext publisher Eastgate Systems (still in their original packaging), as well as his own personal collection of hypertext fiction and ephemera harvested in the wild, and important records associated with community events like the 1999 CyberMountain conference.  For MITH, the collection tantalizes us with questions related to our research agenda in textual scholarship and media archaeology. (Intriguingly, Bly is perhaps best-known for his ongoing fiction series We Descend, which features an archivist as its protagonist.)

ImageOne defining feature of the Bill Bly collection is the eclectic nature of the objects that it contains. In addition to the papers commonly found in a collection, the Bly collection also includes two laptops used by the author while writing We Descend; software manuals that range from the highly-specialized Hypercard hypertext authoring software to basic Mac OS user guides; vintage keyboards and mice; and loose floppy diskettes. Making appraisal decisions are key to archival work. What do we keep? What do we discard? These questions quickly arose in the Bly papers as well. The Born-Digital Working Group had a sustained discussion about what to do with the software manuals included in the Bly collection. Were they an important part of understanding the technological environment in which the author worked, and therefore essential to the collection? Or, because they are mass-produced books of no specific connection to Bly’s work, could they be moved into a reference library with a separation sheet indicating that they were originally contained in the collection? While we haven’t yet come to a definitive answer, it seems clear that similar conversations will become increasingly common in the archival community.

ImageGone are the days when an author’s papers are actually, well, papers. In addition to pens and typewriters, we now use keyboards, mice, even dictation software as the means by which we write. Will no author’s collection be complete without a functioning vintage system running the same version of Dragon Natural Speaking that the author used? Or, will practical constraints compel us to a different solution?

For Special Collections, the Bill Bly Papers allows staff to test-drive procedures for dealing with material of this type. As we started work on the papers last week our goal was to establish basic intellectual control over the collection, starting with the paper portion and moving to the electronic. We wanted to begin to understand where our accessioning procedures would be impacted by the existence of born digital material. As Special Collections is at the very beginning stages of dealing with born-digital material, working with the Bly papers allows us to begin conceptualizing how procedures and workflows for hybrid collections of papers and electronic materials might be different.

Thinking about all the steps involved in processing a hybrid collection can seem overwhelming. Luckily, projects already exist to guide us through this process and we are consulting both OCLC’s report “You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content on Physical Media” and the AIMS white paper on born digital collections. Looking at the guidance in these reports in concert with our very first baby steps on this project a number of question have arisen already:

  • Does the legal agreement with this donor adequately cover digital material? How will we need to modify special collections donor agreements to cover born-digital material?
  • Our inventory consisted of recording of the number and type of disks. Clearly, this is not truly accessioning these materials. What tools are available that will allows to accession the files on those disks? Will we bother dealing with commercial software programs?
  • Will we use forensic imaging or simply copy the files?
  • Is the media important? Should we keep it, take photographs, or simply dispose of the media once the data is captured?

What we have already learned from this project is that we don’t have to know all the answers at this point and that we shouldn’t expect to. The collaboration between these two institutions allows us to experiment, to raise questions, and then seek the answers together. We recognize  a primary goal of this project is to more clearly define our capabilities and begin developing a born digital policy as the project develops. At this stage in the process, the questions truly do seem more important than the answers, which only adds to the value, to what we can learn by collaborating to examine the issues demonstrated within the collection of an early adopter e-literature author such as Bill Bly.

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