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The Artifactual Elements of Born-Digital Records, Part 2

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The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Fellow at the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Thomas Jefferson’s Library, by mkoukoullis, on Flickr
Thomas Jefferson’s Library, by mkoukoullis, on Flickr

A previous post suggested how the digital environment within computer programs and systems creates an artifactual element to born-digital records.

An analog equivalent to this idea can be found in the popular Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit here at the Library of Congress. This re-creation of Jefferson’s library maintains Jefferson’s original cataloging system and also recreates the unique circular construction of his bookcases. Clearly, how Jefferson arranged his books and shelves adds meaning to the collection. The artifactuality of his library itself, not just its content, influences our interpretation and understanding of him as a historic figure.

The Thomas Jefferson of today, however, would bequeath some zip disks or an old laptop to be preserved; and instead of recreating library shelving, digital archivists will be recreating operating systems or software programs. The process of recreating an obsolescent program or digital environment within a contemporary computer system is generally known as emulation. A popular way to recreate video games from outmoded consoles, emulation is also being used in libraries and archives as a way to preserve the artifactual characteristics of born-digital archival collections.

One such emulation project is Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library’s recreation of Salman Rushdie’s computer. Through emulation, a researcher can use a workstation in MARBL’s reading room that recreates the exact “native digital environment” of Rushdie’s now-obsolete computer. The emulation provides access to Rushdie’s original programs, directories, and files just as he experienced them. The emulation program even opens in a window the exact same size as Rushdie’s original computer screen. A video explaining this can be seen here.


Other repositories are exploring similar emulation projects. Stanford has tested emulating the original word-processing program upon which some born-digital collections were created. Similarly, Maryland Institution for Technology in the Humanities has investigated emulation as a means of access to its Deena Larson Marble Springs collection.

On a broader scale, the EU KEEP project and the UK PLANETS project have both worked to provide access to a variety of digital objects through emulation services.  As well, the PARADIGM project, the British Library Digital Lives project, the AIMS project, and NEH/IMLS-funded research have all explored issues in supporting born-digital personal collections across a variety of archival activities including using emulation as a preservation and access strategy. Beyond personal digital collections, the NDIIPP-sponsored Preserving Virtual Worlds investigated ways to preserve video games, interactive content, and complete online environments.

As cultural heritage institutions accession an increasing amount of born-digital material and as format and hardware obsolescence accelerates, preserving the artifactual elements of born-digital material will remain a challenge. While emulation provides one means of supporting access and preservation, emulating every obsolescent system or program is no more realistic than preserving every document. Just as born-digital records have forced the digital preservation community to develop new methods for ensuring authenticity, they will also require new understandings of how to preserve information, artifactuality, and context.


  1. Dear Sir

    …While emulation provides one means of supporting access and preservation, emulating every obsolescent system or program is no more realistic than preserving every document…

    Emulating one system enables the preservation of all documents created on that system. This is much more cost effective than preserving individual documents.

    Yours faithfully
    Ellis Weinberger

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