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An Introduction to Born Digital Collections at the Manuscript Division, or How to Cross the Equator

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Archives can’t just collect physical objects anymore. If you want to document the lives of the people and organizations who shape American history and culture, as the Manuscript Division does, you have to follow them to digital spaces too. That means collecting born digital files. And we’ve been on the case, acquiring dozens of collections that feature an ever-growing accumulation of digital content.

A born digital source is not a digitized source. It’s a file that originated in a digital format. Born digital sources are the files we make every time we save a document to a laptop, or email a friend, or share something in the cloud. They can be messy, and personal, and they can come in hundreds of file formats on dozens of operating systems. In other words, they’re complicated. But also revealing.

Finding aid describing different kinds of digital files in Nina Fedoroff Papers
A finding aid from the Nina Fedoroff Papers. Manuscript Division archivists used Digital ID numbers to identify born digital files within finding aids.

Last year, I wrote a blog post for The Signal about the increasing codification of primary sources as they move into digital spaces. I argued that researchers risk distancing themselves from their evidence when they don’t understand the code that guided that evidence into being, or haven’t considered the conditions that helped create it. In some cases, as with the mesmerizing attractor software Kathleen O’Neill has described in the Edward Lorenz Papers, mastering an obsolete coding language might be absolutely essential to getting the full experience of a born digital collection. In other cases, researchers with finely honed technical skills can take a seemingly straightforward group of files and apply a whole range of tools – from simple data manipulations to advanced artificial intelligence – to extract unique forms of meaning that would be impossible to unearth using more traditional research methods.

Here I would like to make a different point. That you don’t have to be a computer wizard to do research in born digital collections.

Why not? First, digital files, which we imagine to be somehow both ephemeral and permanent, aren’t quite as they seem. They’re material objects too, just like books or paper. As Jean-François Blanchette puts it, “if bits are not made of atoms, what could they possibly be made of?”[1] And far from being permanent, digital files are actually pretty fragile. That’s both because they’re saved on fallible physical storage devices and because the “accurate” representation of a file on a screen rests on a whole ecosystem of devices and code, from the manufacture of the screen itself to the metadata underlying the operating system. Matthew Kirschenbaum has even suggested that what we see when we open a digital file is just a version of that file, one temporarily created though the act of accessing it.[2]

And second, if we can never really access the “original” version of a digital file, even if we have mastered an obsolete coding language, maybe that gives archivists a bit of license and researchers a bit of a reprieve. We expect an old letter to be a bit faded or yellowed, but unless it’s disintegrated completely we can still read it. Likewise, we have some great tools that give us a pretty good idea of what most digital files look like, even if we can’t recreate the exact experience of seeing them when they were brand new. Special file viewing programs can display hundreds of different file formats from multiple operating systems, returning imperfect results that are still very readable – and often text searchable too. Emulators, programs that enable one computer system to mimic another, can create a facsimile of an entire computing environment capable of running full programs, even if they can be glitchy at times. In other words, close enough can be good enough.

So researching born digital collections doesn’t have to be hard. If you’re not great with computers, you can still find fascinating things. Here’s something that fascinates me.

Crossing the Line

The William H. Littlewood Papers came to the Library as a mix of physical materials and digital files – over two gigabytes of digital files. Littlewood was a civilian oceanographer who served on two U.S. Navy voyages to Antarctica: Operation Deep Freeze in 1955 and during the International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958. The digital files in his collection were created much more recently, and largely consist of scanned material copied on to CDs so they could be circulated by mail among former crew members.[4]

Littlewood’s digital files are easy to access too. I opened them with a file viewing program called Quick View Plus, but most can be opened just by clicking on them. In fact, most barely meet the definition of born digital content. They’re largely scans of physical items, but scans created years ago by non-librarians using their own software and hardware. Once scanned, those items were apparently all returned to original owners, and many are now virtually impossible to find in libraries. Scanning enabled cherished books and memorabilia to be shared without being lost, years before anyone imagined there would be a Littlewood collection at the Library of Congress. In other words, these files are personal. There are metaphorical fingerprints all over them. There are scans of borrowed newspaper clippings and Navy cruise books, PDFs covered in digital marginalia, and README.txt files that describe the CDs themselves. Some things are incomplete or only partially scanned, as though the Operation Deep Freeze crew was unwittingly crowdsourcing curation of the collection themselves.

PDF with highlighting and digital handwriting on page
                                    Digital marginalia on a ship’s log kept by Calvin Radius.[3]
One scene depicted in all those digital files sticks out. It’s the “Order of Neptune” ceremony, a naval initiation rite centered on a sailor’s first equatorial crossing, and it appears over and over in the collection’s scanned cruise books. The history of the ceremony goes back at least to 1529.[5] It’s been a staple of Western line-crossing naval voyages for centuries, and it continues today. In the 1950s, it repeatedly turned the world of the USS Edisto upside down.

As Greg Dening writes, Order of Neptune rituals have operated quite differently across centuries and nationalities. But they’ve had two things in common. First, “they played out a reversed world in which for a time the true authority of the ship belonged to those who had already Crossed the Line.” And second, that “the theater of the ceremony was always a grotesque satire on institutions and roles of power.” Among the terms used to describe its eighteenth-century iterations, Dening lists: “ridiculous, childish, foolish, stupid, silly, ludicrous, bizarre, grotesque, crazy, repulsive, burlesque, profane, superstitious, shameless, outrageous, revolting, tiresome, dangerous, barbarous, brutal, cruel, coarse, rapacious, vindictive, riotous, licentious, [and] mad.”[6]

Handwritten journal entry describing Order of Neptune Ceremony
Littlewood describes a 1955 “Order of Neptune” ceremony in his personal journal, which appears among his physical papers.

Littlewood seems to have seen it first in 1955. Apparently escaping the chaos due to his civilian status, the scientist observed his ship divided into two camps, the “initiational” Pollywogs and the experienced Shellbacks. His personal journal describes the violation, some 300 Pollywogs swarming over the ship, lowering the Shellbacks’ “Jolly Roger” flag and “dousing” them in water. Then the trial, as Davy Jones comes aboard and reads the charges, the Shellbacks now dressed as pirates while “Neptunus Rex” presides. And then the punishment: a “vicious paddling line,” a kiss of the Queen’s breast (a wet grapefruit), a makeover (with paints that burned), a kiss of the Royal Baby’s belly (typically found on the stomach of a round, hairy sailor), a shaving from the Royal Barber, and a few backwards dunkings. Scans of the Edisto’s cruise books from those years confirm the amount of drag involved.

Like a digital file, the Order of Neptune ritual changes each time it’s accessed. Each version draws on different hardware and software, the two combining to create a unique chemistry grounded in the material world and shaped by their historical moment. Just as humans do when we cross from physical to digital space and then back again, the Order of Neptune ritual only seems to create a new world, one that reverses the hierarchies and mundanities of our daily lives. In reality, and for better or ill, we humans shape all the spaces we inhabit, digital and physical alike.

Scanned page from Edisto cruise book
A digital file from the USS Edisto’s cruise book for 1958-59 picturing the joyful chaos of the ship’s “Miss Pollywog” contest.[7]
In 1958, Littlewood wrote of a Shellback meeting that fell into dissension, as sailors fought over selecting an African American man as that voyage’s “Royal Baby.” Perhaps the intimacy of the Baby’s role, which might have involved a sailor pressing their nose into an axle grease-covered belly button, was too much for the racially tense America-in-microcosm reproduced on the USS Edisto that year. “Things really fell apart,” Littlewood noted, “and it looks as if there will be no ceremony.” Scans from the year’s cruise book show one certainly occurred, though squinting at the pixels suggests a pale-skinned Royal Court, with an unnamed African American sailor administering an amused paddling to a White shipmate on all fours.[8]

Pieces of paper don’t look complicated. They sit on our desks and, if we know how, we read them. But the words may yield deeper meaning with the benefit of context or training. Born digital files don’t have to be complicated either. They’re simply a different sort of artifact, one that can be as rich and human as any document or oral history, unfolding deeper layers of meaning as we apply our research tools to them.

That’s true whether you’re an experienced computer user or an “initiational” one, whether you’ve crossed the line into digital research years ago or never quite made it to the other side of the equator. So keep an eye out for digital files in our collections, described in the “digital files” headings of many of our finding aids. We’re here to help you explore them.

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[1] Jean-François Blanchette. “A Material History of Bits.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, no. 6 (June 2011): 1042.

[2] Matthew Kirschenbaum. “The .Txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary.” Digital Humanities 7, no. 1 (2013): 12.

[3] Calvin Radius Log. Filename: 55-56 DeepFreeze/PC Users/Calvin Radius Log.exe, Digital ID: mss85559_138_001, William H. Littlewood Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[4] OPERATION DEEP FREEZE 1 (’55-56). Filename: 55-56 DeepFreeze/READ ME!!!, Digital ID: mss85559_138_001, William H. Littlewood Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[5] Keith P. Richardson. “Polliwogs and Shellbacks: An Analysis of the Equator Crossing Ritual.” Western Folklore 36, no. 2 (April 1977): 155.

[6] Greg Dening. Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theater on H. M. Armed Vessel Bounty. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 77.

[7] Operation Deep Freeze, USS Edisto AGB2. Filename: 58-59 DeepFreeze/jpeg images/58 images/p60.jpg Digital ID: mss85559_138_001. William H. Littlewood Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[8] William H. Littlewood. Entry dated December 24, 1958, Operation Deep Freeze Journal, 1959-1960. Folder 9, Box 4, William H. Littlewood Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C; Operation Deep Freeze, USS Edisto AGB2. Filename: 58-59 DeepFreeze/jpeg images/58 images/p61.jpg Digital ID: mss85559_138_001. William H. Littlewood Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.



  1. Such a great peek into born digital archives. Thank you!

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