Thursday, October 6, 2011

An English Professor Among the Archivists

My job is actually pretty simple. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m an English professor who teaches archivists about computers. What’s not to understand?

Okay, there’s more to it than that. The official story is that I’m an Associate Professor of English who also has a research and administrative role at a digital humanities center, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. But that’s arguably even less illuminating.

Let me try a third tack. Here’s a picture of my office. Apologies for the mess, I’m actually kind of a neat freak, but this is an interesting mess. Maybe one way to talk about what I do is just to walk you through it.

So, we’ll start over on the left-hand side. That’s an Apple IIe, my first machine. My parents bought it for me (yeah, I was that lucky) back around 1982-3. It still boots today. Among other things, I keep it around to show students. Most of them have never used a computer that didn’t have a hard drive, so first having to select a disk and pop it into the drive before the computer does anything is a new experience for them. It’s signed by two people I have enormous respect for, Bruce Sterling (famous for, among much else, the Dead Media project) and Jason Scott, aka @textfiles. Both of them have been here to give talks, but the signatures also reinforce the way individual pieces of hardware become artifacts in their own right, something we’ve attempted to document in a more formal way. This computer, along with some Commodore 64s that Doug Reside used to keep around MITH when he was here, became the impetus for other people to begin offering us machines to add to our vintage collection.

Which brings us to the next machine over, an Osborne “portable,” which came into the shop in exactly that fashion. A friend--

Okay, not kidding, I was just this moment interrupted by a staffer from university relations who wanted to record an interview about Steve Jobs. We chatted about my early experiences using the Apple technology and he recorded video and audio of the old Disk II unit spinning up.

Anyway, the Osborne came to us courtesy of a friend in another library department who knew of MITH’s interest in vintage machines. As we’ve gotten more and more offers like this we’ve realized the importance of developing something like a collections policy, so that we’re not taking in lots of equipment we don’t really have any use for. The Osborne, though, is a real prize, and it too starts right up, though I was initially stymied by the fact that it wanted to boot from its B drive and I had to do a little online research to change the configuration settings. One thing I always impress upon my students when I co-teach (with Duke’s Naomi Nelson) the Born-Digital course at Rare Book School is the extent of the knowledge base that exists online in the computer enthusiast community.

Directly above the Osborne is a foam-board reproduction of a newspaper clipping. This in fact is the story and photograph that inspired Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, widely regarded as the first full-length piece of hypertext fiction (it was first released back in 1987). The original is in the collections at the Harry Ransom Center, where Joyce’s literary papers are on deposit. The “papers,” however, also consist of born-digital materials, including several laptops and several hundred diskettes. This image is a reminder of the complex relationships that emerge around hybrid digital/analog collections, something I wrote about extensively in my first book, Mechanisms.

The small wooden box in the background next to the Osborne? That’s an omnibus edition of Oregon Trail, one of the games in our case set as part of the Preserving Virtual Worlds II project. This is a multi-institutional effort funded by the IMLS that includes the University of Illinois, Stanford, RIT, and MITH at Maryland; we’re attempting to establishes a methodology for evaluating the “significant properties” of games and complex virtual objects, something we expect to become increasingly important to collecting institutions.

Now we get to some really interesting stuff. The old Sun tower that you see is there as a power supply for the 5 ¼” floppy disk drive sitting on top of it. This drive is what I use to create “images” of data stored on old magnetic media. As Jason Scott has powerfully stated, it may well already be too late for much of this generation of computer history, as the floppies are already well past their expected lifespan. But using a floppy disk controller like the FC5025 or the Software Preservation Society’s KryoFlux (which just arrived the other day), I’m able to tether the floppy drive to my current laptop and image the disk as a bitstream representation of the original data. The disk image can then be used as the basis for extracting individual files, or it can be loaded into an emulator. Right now I’m working my way through my stockpile of personal diskettes from the Apple IIe. We’ve also used the FC5025 to image materials for the Preserving Virtual Worlds work. What’s interesting about the floppy controller technology is that it represents a grassroots effort outside of formal academic or collecting institutions, something my colleague Kari Kraus has written about compellingly.

By the way, the blue box in the background behind the Sun tower is a Maxell Optical disk cartridge, a gift from Jason Scott. Visually it resembles a greatly enlarged 3.5” disk, and at Rare Book School I carry it on the first morning so our students will be able to tell our class from, say, the descriptive bibliography crew.

Which is one way of bringing me back to my vocation as a professor of English. Having been privileged enough to grow up with a piece of technology like the IIe, I’ve never really recognized the “two cultures” divide that supposedly separates the humanities from technology. I’d spend an afternoon reading a novel and then that evening hacking my way through an Infocom text adventure—or maybe even making a ham-handed attempt to program one of my own. My interest in digital preservation, however, comes from the realization, largely a product of the intellectual culture at the University of Virginia where I did my graduate work, that computers, like old books, are rich and multi-faceted objects, with their own unique stories to tell. Digital forensics thus becomes the analog to a vocation like descriptive bibliography, one that focuses obsessively on the material characteristics of its object of study. Already it’s obvious that anyone interested in a writer or other public figure from the 1980s forward will likely find themselves working with born-digital material of one sort or another as part of that individual’s cultural legacy. I see my work as a kind of descriptive bibliography for the 21st century, bringing the kind of sensibilities we’ve cultivated with regard to books and other printed matter to bear on the objects and artifacts of our digital cultural inheritance.

There. Does that make sense now?

--Matthew Kirschenbaum

No comments:

Post a Comment