Among the archival material from Salman Rushdie currently on display at Emory University in Atlanta are inked book covers, handwritten journals and four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke).
The 18 gigabytes of data they contain seemed to promise future biographers and literary scholars a digital wonderland: comprehensive, organised and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.
But like most Rushdian paradises, this digital idyll has its own set of problems.
As research libraries and archives are discovering, “born-digital” materials — those initially created in electronic form — are much more complicated and costly to preserve than anticipated.
Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper.
Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.
Imagine having a record but no record player.
All of which means that archivists are finding themselves trying to fend off digital extinction at the same time that they are puzzling through questions about what to save, how to save it and how to make that material accessible.
Emory opened an exhibition of its Rushdie collection in February. At Emory, Rushdie’s outdated computers presented archivists with a choice: simply save the contents of files or try to also salvage the look and organisation of those early files.
Rushdie started using a computer only when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa drove him underground.
“My writing has got tighter and more concise because I no longer have to perform the mechanical act of re-typing endlessly,” he explained during an interview while in hiding.
“And all the time that was taken up by that mechanical act is freed to think.”
At the Emory exhibition, visitors can log onto a computer and see the screen that Rushdie saw, search his file folders as he did, and find out what applications he used. (Mac Stickies were a favourite.)
They can call up an early draft of Rushdie’s 1999 novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and edit a sentence or post an editorial comment.