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Say Yes to (Born-Digital) Access! New Online Resource Guide: Accessing Born-Digital Manuscript Material

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This guest post is by Manuscript Division reference librarian Edith Sandler.

While the Manuscript Division has been receiving born-digital materials since the 1990s, in the past few years staff have made significant enhancements to the way born-digital material is processed, described, and accessed. Now, the Manuscript Division is pleased to announce a newly published online resource guide, Accessing Born-Digital Manuscript Material.

The new guide describes how to place a request for born-digital files and provides instructions for viewing and analyzing them with the tools and applications available on the two designated born-digital access workstations in the Manuscript Reading Room.

What are born-digital files? In a previous blog post, “Accessing Our Digital Past in the Manuscript Division Reading Room,” Senior Archives Specialist Kathleen O’Neill described them this way: “Born-digital collection materials are files created and maintained in digital form. Unlike digitized content, born-digital files are not surrogates for physical materials; their original format is digital.”

Text letter reproduced on digital workstation
Software such as Quick View Plus enables patrons to view obsolete files that can no longer be opened using standard word processing software, such as this letter from the Rhoda Métraux Papers.

An ever-increasing number of manuscript collections include born-digital material. Finding aids describe born-digital material alongside paper files, with material types ranging from word processing documents and websites to email, digital photographs, and databases. In the same way researchers in the Manuscript Reading Room request paper material by providing reference staff with a box number, researchers can request born-digital collection items using a unique identifier called a digital ID. Manuscript staff use the digital ID to export access copies of the relevant born-digital files to one of the two born-digital access workstations in the Manuscript Reading Room.

Because these born-digital holdings span from the late 1970s to the present, they can include files in obsolete formats (e.g., WordPerfect for DOS) or those created with obsolete operating systems and software (e.g., Mac OS9 and MacDrawPro v.1.5). Those files require specialized tools for access, which is where the born-digital access workstations come in. These workstations are equipped with a variety of software that allows researchers to view, compare, and analyze digital files. Barring any restriction on reproducing items in the collection, researchers may also copy files from the workstation to their own external storage device.

It may sound a bit complicated but, as historian Josh Levy states in his blog post “An Introduction to Born Digital Collections at the Manuscript Division, or How to Cross the Equator,” “you don’t have to be a computer wizard to do research in born digital collections.”

To find out more about what materials are currently available, browse or search the division’s finding aids or Ask a Librarian.

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  1. great idea!

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