Cataloging Digital Documents

This week, Maya Angelou turned over a large trove of personal papers to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The collection includes many handwritten notes, drafts and letters. Nowadays, though, so much writing is done on computers rather than on paper; correspondence is done over email rather than through the postal service. To talk about how archivists deal with this shift toward digital documents, Michele Norris talks with Richard Oram, associate director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, the poet Maya Angelou paid a visit to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library. She was there to mark the center's acquisition of her personal papers and documents, more than 300 boxes in all.

Included are notes from Angelou's autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," as well as a draft of the poem she wrote for President Clinton's inauguration and yellow notepads filled with her handwriting.

NORRIS: The trove of materials led us to reflect on how times have changed. Nowadays, much of what we compose goes straight into a computer. The backspace key erases evidence of our thought process. Personal correspondence is done over email.

To talk about what this shift has meant for archivists, we've called on Richard Oram. He's associate director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD ORAM (Associate Director, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, you've handled such things as the Gutenberg Bible and Edgar Allan Poe's documents. But in your work, are you starting to see more digital files, and with that, more challenges on what to do with them?

Mr. ORAM: Paper still lives, fortunately, for archivists. We have a digital archivist who handles things like email and other things, and audio and visual materials in digital format. But most of our archives are still predominantly paper and probably will be for some time to come. I'm sure reading the press releases about the Angelou archives that it's largely paper.

NORRIS: When you do get digital files, Word documents, emails, hard drives, flash drives, things like that, what are the challenges in dealing with them?

Mr. ORAM: Well, the problem - there's two sorts of problems. First of all, the media they are on, which could be tapes or old floppy disks, eight-inch floppy disks - haven't seen a lot of those lately - deteriorate over time, and the other problem was that they become obsolete. Technologically, they can't be read, and the software becomes obsolete. WordPerfect was hot 15 to 20 years ago. Now, it's almost impossible to find a copy lying around. So it's a very big challenge for our digital archivists.

NORRIS: Does that mean that you have to keep a version of all of these somewhere at the Ransom Center so if you need to unpack some of this you can figure out how to get to that data?

Mr. ORAM: We are actually beginning a sort of small version of the Boston Computer Museum with obsolete technology, just in order to read some of these obsolete formats and disk drives, things like that.

And there's a whole division called forensic software, which we are actually borrowing from the law enforcement profession to be able to read some of these files in obsolete formats and using obsolete software.

NORRIS: Now, based on what I know of the Harry Ransom Center, it's not just a research center, it's also a place where people go to see exhibits and displays.

How will you mount displays and exhibits when most of the material is in digital form?

Mr. ORAM: We've already done that, Michele. We've actually used computer monitors and showed digital files of the hypertext writer, Michael Joyce. In fact, through a digital medium is the only way that you can truly experience his literary world, his world of hypertext that now is a genre that hasn't done well in recent years. But it was an important one in its day. We were able to recreate that experience both in our reading room and in our exhibition galleries.

NORRIS: Richard Oram, good to talk to you.

Mr. ORAM: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Richard Oram is associate director and Hobby Foundation Librarian at the Harry Ransom Center and the University of Texas at Austin.

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