Friday, February 2nd, 2018...12:48 pm

Born-Digital Blog Post #1: The Beginning

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This post continues the series, “Behind the Scenes at Houghton”, giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the library’s mission to support teaching and research. Thanks to Magdaline Lawhorn, Administrative Fellow & Project Archivist, for contributing this post.

Floppy disks from the Vladimir Nabokov Family Papers, circa 1920-2000. Houghton Library, MS Russ 140.

Vladimir Nabokov Family Papers, circa 1920-2000. The collection contains 107 floppy disks belonging to Vladimir Nabokov’s son, Dmitri Nabokov. Houghton Library, MS Russ 140.


Born-digital backlog! Everyone has one. When you think of Houghton Library and other special collections, I’m sure that the first thing that comes to mind are old tomes, handwritten letters and other historical documents. So you may be surprised to know that Houghton is home to born-digital material. Floppy disks, USBs, external hard drives, Jaz drives mixed within unassuming archival collections forgotten, just waiting to be re-discovered by researchers. The papers of John Updike, the Vladimir Nabokov family and Jamaica Kincaid as well as the multimedia poem Fragments of Light. 6, represent twentieth-century and near contemporary holdings we definitely know to have born-digital materials, but these represent just a small fraction of Houghton’s collections. So, where are all the other born-digital materials hiding? Here at Houghton Library we have begun to tackle our born-digital backlog, in search of our hidden gems. In November 2017 the library formed its first Born-Digital team comprised of staff members Susan Pyzynski, Associate Librarian for Technical Services; Adrien Hilton, Head of the Manuscript Section; Melanie Wisner, Accessioning Archivist; and myself, Magdaline Lawhorn, Administrative Fellow & Project Archivist.

USB flash drive for Fragments of Light . Houghton Library, TypZ 2070.12.4656

This item is a USB flash drive, attached to a plastic wire, hanging from the top of a clear plastic cylinder. Contained on the device is an art project called “Fragments of Light 6”. The media also comes with specific installation instructions on how to view the audio-visual material. Houghton Library, TypZ 2070.12.4656.


Our first task was to develop a strategic plan for the proposed born-digital backlog initiative. The strategic plan consists of a two-year schedule based on born-digital goals, which involve researching digital forensics equipment, identifying or developing a born-digital survey tool, implementing and completing said survey, documenting and sharing our progress and procedures throughout the project via the Harvard Wiki, and experimenting with different types of tools and methods to inform our future born-digital workflow. With the assistance of other Houghton team members and reports from both Aleph and ArchivesSpace accessioning and collection management platforms, the born-digital survey is underway. The born-digital survey allows us to address needs specific to Houghton’s collections. Previously unanswerable questions will be answered, such as: Which collections at Houghton contain born-digital materials? How many and what types of born-digital materials does the library house?

Once the survey is complete the real fun begins! We can get started on preserving born-digital materials for future access. In the interim we have started to take practical steps to make our accessioning space more born-digital friendly. We are redesigning our workspace to incorporate both manuscript and born-digital accessioning by designating an area entirely dedicated to born-digital accessioning. Our new digital forensics workstation will feature a desk equipped with both our hardware and software needs for the disk imaging process. The latest addition to our digital forensics workstation is a Solo 8 HoverCam, which will allow the born-digital items to be photographed before being disk imaged.

Stay tuned for more updates on Houghton Library’s born-digital journey. We will continue to keep you abreast!


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