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The Born Digital in the Archives: One Curator’s Experience

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The late Jonathan Larson went through many drafts when composing what became the hit-musical RENT.  The tragic end to his life is well known – he died suddenly at age 35 in 1996 shortly before the off-Broadway opening of the musical. What may not be well known is that these early drafts of RENT and other artifacts from Larson’s life and career were hidden for years, existing only on floppy disks and now-obsolete software programs.

Jonathan Larson at the New York Theatre Workshop

Working to solve this digital preservation dilemma became the focus for Doug Reside, Digital Curator of the New York Public Library, along with Mark Horowitz, Senior Music Specialist in the Library of Congress Music Division and curator of the Jonathan Larson collection (see a related blog post).  With Mark providing access and expertise about the collection, Doug was able to uncover previously hidden Larson materials by the use of digital forensics techniques (see this blog post interview with Doug Reside about this collaboration).

These days, archivists are seeing more and more born digital materials included along with paper-based items in archival collections.  Recently, I asked Mark for his perspective on the Larson project and to get his take as an archivist on this brave new world of digital archival materials.

Susan:  Tell us about the importance of the Jonathan Larson collection for the Music Division.

Mark: While we’ve long been renowned for our collections in American musical theater (including the papers of such icons as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and several others), this was our first real acquisition of the papers of the most recent generation of such songwriters. It’s something we’ve already begun to build on and follow both in real acquisitions (the papers of Howard Ashman and Adam Guettel), but also in furthered discussions with other writers. It’s also excited younger researchers for whom RENT has meant more personally. Finally, it just turns out to be a spectacularly rich collection. (See Larson collection finding aid)

Susan: What were the specific items uncovered by transcribing the material on the floppy disks?

Mark: From what I’ve seen, by looking not only at files, but at mirrored copies of every bit on a disk, Doug’s been able to find things that were deleted or changed, tracking the creative process in a way that’s never really been done before with born digital materials.

From Doug Reside: There were over 30 files containing texts of RENT, many of which contained within themselves early drafts preserved by Microsoft Word 5.1’s “fast save” feature (as described here.)  There were also music files in early versions of Digital Performer and Finale and letters Larson wrote to his agents, to Stephen Sondheim, and to friends about the show.

Susan: How did this additional material help to enhance the overall collection?

Mark: It’s just additional material that reveals more of Jonathan Larson’s actual work and his process in creating it. Within the Music Division, it’s also forced us to advance in an area that’s new to us, which helps us prepare for the future where similar materials will clearly be increasingly present.

Susan: Has there been much researcher use of, or outside interest in this re-discovered material?

Mark: It often takes time before researchers begin to discover a collection, but even before processing had been completed on the Larson Collection we had researchers who began looking at it and using it. There’s been at least one dissertation based on the collection, and at least one college production of RENT where one of the students involved came to look through the material to help prepare. To me, that’s the ideal — when collections are used both for scholarship and practically for performances. For instance, the RENT materials include fascinating biographical sketches (in multiple versions) that Larson wrote for each of the major characters — providing back-stories and psychological insights. It’s quite breathtaking.

Susan: Have you seen any other such born digital materials included with other collections that the Music Division is acquiring?

Mark: Our subsequently acquired Howard Ashman collection includes significant born digital materials, though not as extensive as the Larson. And we’ve certainly been discussing the possibility of acquiring born digital materials with collections we are hoping to acquire in the future.

Susan: Any other thoughts about the general challenges of handling digital materials within archival collections?

Mark: It’s both an exciting and scary new world we’re entering, and also one that’s changing very quickly; already people are moving away from tangible things like disks and flash drives with files simply stored on hard drives and in “clouds” . We also see the potential that we will lose some of the best kind of research materials in the future. Correspondence has been one of the most valuable aspects of collections in the past, but who writes letters anymore? And who saves emails? We’ve tried to begin planting the seed with current creators that emails are something they should consider saving, but it brings up a whole host of other issues, and it’s a bit nervous-making in that so much personal information can be revealed on both sides, not to mention questions of storage and access. And as most of our collections come to us as bequests or donations from estates, how will access to someone’s email even happen after their deaths?

Also, musical sketches and manuscripts are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Most young composers now seem to compose in (music notation) programs like Finale and Sibelius; it’s simply not the same to have a print-out of a score as to have pencil on paper, not to mention all the crossed-out and written over sections. Something is definitely being lost which is rather sad. As for the challenges of dealing with electronic material, it’s still quite enormous. There are some things on the Larson disks that use software that is now decades obsolete, and there are some files that are basically unusable — such as certain sound files that would have been tied to programmed sounds to playback through electric keyboards. Still, as frustrating as some things are, there is certainly much that’s exciting.


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