On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive

On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive by Jeremy Schmidt & Jacquelyn Ardam.

From the post:


In the case of the Sontag materials, the end result of Deep Freeze and a series of other processing procedures is a single IBM laptop, which researchers can request at the Special Collections desk at UCLA’s Research Library. That laptop has some funky features. You can’t read its content from home, even with a VPN, because the files aren’t online. You can’t live-Tweet your research progress from the laptop — or access the internet at all — because the machine’s connectivity features have been disabled. You can’t copy Annie Leibovitz’s first-ever email — “Mat and I just wanted to let you know we really are working at this. See you at dinner. xxxxxannie” (subject line: “My first Email”) — onto your thumb drive because the USB port is locked. And, clearly, you can’t save a new document, even if your desire to type yourself into recent intellectual history is formidable. Every time it logs out or reboots, the laptop goes back to ground zero. The folders you’ve opened slam shut. The files you’ve explored don’t change their “Last Accessed” dates. The notes you’ve typed disappear. It’s like you were never there.

Despite these measures, real limitations to our ability to harness digital archives remain. The born-digital portion of the Sontag collection was donated as a pair of external hard drives, and that portion is composed of documents that began their lives electronically and in most cases exist only in digital form. While preparing those digital files for use, UCLA archivists accidentally allowed certain dates to refresh while the materials were in “thaw” mode; the metadata then had to be painstakingly un-revised. More problematically, a significant number of files open as unreadable strings of symbols because the software with which they were created is long out of date. Even the fully accessible materials, meanwhile, exist in so many versions that the hapless researcher not trained in computer forensics is quickly overwhelmed.

No one would dispute the need for an authoritative copy of Sontag‘s archive, or at least as close to authoritative as humanly possible. The heavily protected laptop makes sense to me, assuming that the archive considers that to be the authoritative copy.

What has me puzzled, particularly since there are binary formats not recognized in the archive, is why isn’t a non-authoritative copy of the archive online. Any number of people may still possess the software necessary to read the files and/or be able to decrypt the file formats. That would be a net gain to the archive if recovery could be practiced on a non-authoritative copy. They may well encounter such files in the future.

After searching the Online Archive of California, I did encounter Finding Aid for the Susan Sontag papers, ca. 1939-2004 which reports:

Restrictions Property rights to the physical object belong to the UCLA Library, Department of Special Collections. Literary rights, including copyright, are retained by the creators and their heirs. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine who holds the copyright and pursue the copyright owner or his or her heir for permission to publish where The UC Regents do not hold the copyright.

Availability Open for research, with following exceptions: Boxes 136 and 137 of journals are restricted until 25 years after Susan Sontag’s death (December 28, 2029), though the journals may become available once they are published.

Unfortunately, this finding aid does not mention Sontag’s computer or the transfer of the files to a laptop. A search of Melvyl (library catalog) finds only one archival collection and that is the one mentioned above.

I have written to the special collections library for clarification and will update this post when an answer arrives.

I mention this collection because of Sontag’s importance for a generation and because digital archives will soon be the majority of cases. One hopes the standard practice will be to donate all rights to an archival repository to insure its availability to future generations of scholars.

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