Born Digital: Planning for Access

Born Digital: Planning for Access

When Tony Geiss (1924-2011), an American songwriter and staff writer for Sesame Street, wrote a song called “Don’t Eat the Pictures” to remind the Cookie Monster not to eat the paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he probably didn’t have born-digital materials in mind. Even so, lines like “Picture exciting, but not for biting!” articulate a tension familiar to many of us in the cultural heritage sector: how to balance active engagement with careful handling, or how to weigh our professional obligation to provide access against an equal responsibility to serve as advocates for the materials in our care. These questions become more complicated when the materials at stake are born digital, such as the original files on the disks, CDs, and Apple Hard Disk 20SC in Tony Geiss’s papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 

With these and other types of digital media and files, “access” becomes an action undertaken by staff and researchers at different points in the lifecycle of born-digital collection materials. The type of access we usually talk about involves the public and occurs when a repository provides a researcher with access to born-digital materials. But in truth, the first point of access happens when a staff member uses computer equipment to capture, copy, or preview the contents of digital media or files, either before or after these items have arrived at a repository, and often as an early step in the digital preservation process. The difficulty occurs when initial access by the archivist (or another party) has the potential to threaten the survival of the digital objects in our care.

These and related issues recently arose in my work with Tony Geiss’s born-digital materials, which reside alongside notebooks, scripts, audiovisual material, stuffed animals, and other items relating to his work on Sesame Street and other television and film projects. The Beinecke purchased the bulk of Geiss’s collection in 2013; the paper portion has been minimally processed and is briefly described in Yale’s online library catalog.

After Geiss’s materials arrived at the Beinecke, the executors of his estate broached the possibility of donating an Apple Hard Disk 20SC he had used as an external hard drive with his Macintosh Plus computer. They wanted to offer these born-digital materials as a supplement to the paper collection, but first needed to verify that the 20SC drive didn’t contain personal files Geiss would not have wanted included in his archives.

The 20SC had already been shipped to the Beinecke, so my conversation with the executors, which was initially mediated by the rare book and manuscript dealer who brokered the sale of the papers, explored how best to provide them with the information they needed to screen the files. The ideal strategy would have been to use a forensic write-blocker to prevent information from being written to the 20SC while I created a disk image of the contents and made an access copy for the executors. Unfortunately, the write-blockers in the forensics lab Beinecke shares with the Manuscript and Archives department in Yale’s main library were not compatible with such an old piece of hardware. The only machine in the lab with the correct SCSI port for the Apple drive turned out to be a Power Macintosh 7200/90.

I knew the files had already been compromised: while at the dealer’s office, the 20SC had been connected to Geiss’s original Macintosh Plus and turned on, so there was a good chance that additional information had been written to the drive inadvertently. With this in mind, I decided to connect the 20SC to the Power Macintosh and take screen shots of the directory structure and file names. I made a backup copy of everything on the drive in case I was never able to access it again. I also tried unsuccessfully to image the drive using Disk Copy, a utility native to the Power Macintosh. I sent the screen shots to the dealer; after some back and forth, the executors suggested that they visit the Beinecke and review the computer files in person.

Over the next week I used the Power Macintosh to migrate copies of Geiss’s word processing files from MacWrite and MacWrite II into Word 6.0, creating a complete collection of access copies that the executors would be able to view, manipulate, and search on a modern machine. Geiss’s Sesame Street files turned out to be wonderful fun. The document “TERRIBLE INT,” dated 28 October 1989, turned out to be a draft of a skit called “A Terrible Interview,” in which Candice Bergen interviews Oscar the Grouch about his sock collection.

Some of the formatting changed during the conversion process – for example, text written on a single line in MacWrite might appear on two lines in Word 6.0 – but the basic content remained legible enough for screening purposes. (If I had been able to image the 20SC drive, emulation would likely have provided a more efficient and effective way for the executors to interact with copies of the original files.) In addition to these access copies, I also prepared printouts of my original screen shots so the executors would be able to confirm that I had provided them with copies of all relevant word processing files (excluding system files, fonts, etc.).

On the day of the visit the executors met briefly with the curator who had acquired Geiss’s collection for the Beinecke, and then spent a little over an hour reviewing access copies of the original files on an iMac G4 I’d set up for them in one of the classrooms adjacent to the Beinecke’s reading room. They flagged six files that Geiss would not have wanted transferred to the archives; after consultation with the curator, he and I agreed to delete those files from the original 20SC drive, as well as from any existing backup and access copies. The printout on which the executors marked the files to be deleted will become part of the permanent collection file.

I offer this narrative to make the point that when born-digital materials are at stake, access and preservation concerns ideally become part of the conversation during the acquisition process, if not before. Although conditions were not ideal and I made some compromises, Beinecke was able to acquire the 20SC and honor Geiss’s intentions through close communication among his executors, the rare book and manuscript dealer, the Beinecke’s curator, and myself, the digital archivist. This acquisition functioned as a test case; we took a lot more time and focused on files at the item-level to an extent that will not be possible in the future as the percentage of acquisitions with born-digital materials continues to increase. One of the key concerns for us going forward will be anticipating access, preservation, and privacy concerns prior to acquisition, so that we can streamline our process and address unexpected problems more efficiently.

Gabriela Redwine is the digital archivist at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. She is the lead author of Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories, which CLIR published this week.  

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