Emory University preserves 18 gigabytes of Salman Rushdie's personal files

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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, organized and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.

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....

“It’s certainly one of those issues that keeps a lot of people awake at night,” said Anne Van Camp, the director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and a member of a task force on the economics of digital preservation formed by the National Science Foundation, among others.

Though computers have been commonly used for more than two decades, archives from writers who used them are just beginning to make their way into collections. Last week, for instance, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, announced that it had bought the archive of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. Emory opened an exhibition of its Rushdie collection in February, and last year, not long before his death, John Updike sent 50 5 ¼-inch floppy disks to the Houghton Library at Harvard....

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