“Over here,” said Matt Kirschenbaum as he led past the researchers’ desks toward the far side of the room. He stopped and beamed as he pointed toward the corner and said, “Mysty.”
“Mysty” – weighing about 200 pounds and shaped like a small refrigerator — is an IBM MT/ST, the first product ever marketed as a word processor. It is one of the many vintage artifacts at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and one of the resources that makes MITH an institutional leader in digital forensics and preservation.“The MT/ST is an IBM Selectric typewriter connected to a magnetic tape storage unit,” Kirschenbaum said. “When you type onto a printed page, the keystroke is saved as character data on the magnetic tape. When you backspace or correct or insert a character, the unit maintains the correct character stream as recorded on the tape, so you could then feed in a fresh sheet of paper and get clean copy. In 1970, author Len Deighton wrote the first piece of fiction on an MT/ST, a World War II novel titled Bomber.”
Kirschenbaum, associate director of MITH [Trevor Owens profiled Kirschenbaum in the Signal in August 2013], walks around the gleaming new center, nodding here and there, talking about MITH’s digital forensics work, its research in digital preservation and access, and the influence of technology on writing. MITH’s area of concentration is digital humanities, which Kirschenbaum describes as a term still very much in flux.MITH could not have existed before the age of digital technology. Now it has become an essential unit for both the University of Maryland College of Arts and Humanities and the University Library, which collaboratively founded MITH in 1999. Initially MITH publicized its mission and research opportunities by sponsoring a faculty fellowship program where MITH’s technical staff supported faculty members’ digital-oriented projects. MITH’s clientele still comprises students and faculty of the College of Arts and Humanities and the University Library’s faculty and staff but MITH also conducts extensive sponsored research. MITH’s digital preservation portfolio represents the convergence of several different sets of interests and localized circumstances. Some of it is based on Kirschenbaum’s own research agenda or that of past or present staff, including Doug Reside and Trevor Muñoz [Muñoz, Assistant Dean of the Libraries for Digital Humanities Research and Associate Director of MITH, was recently selected as an 2014 NDSA Innovation Award winner], but some of it was also an organic and serendipitous outgrowth of events, like the day the Apple IIe appeared at MITH.
Around 2008, Kirschenbaum’s father found his son’s old Apple IIe, Kirschenbaum’s first computer, and Kirschenbaum brought it to MITH’s offices. He said, “That’s where it seemed to belong. And it still worked.” He set it up in a prominent spot and people seemed to enjoy it, partly, at first, for the nostalgia of the green screen and the 8-bit sound effects. Then UMD staff started offering up their own machines. An Osborne. A Commodore 64. And soon MITH got a campus-wide reputation as a place for cool, vintage technology. The MITH staff came to appreciate vintage technology as valuable resources, especially for accessing outdated games and works that had cultural value; Kirschenbaum characterizes this as “digital archaeology.”MITH participated in the “Preserving Virtual Worlds” project, which NDIIPP funded in its first round. MITH helped research the challenge of preserving and accessing computer games, interactive fiction and virtual communities and they tackled big questions such as: How can you access old programs in their native environments for years to come? Who maintains the computers and hardware? Why don’t you just emulate the software? What are the metadata requirements?
The challenge of restoring and preserving decades-old computer content sharpened MITH’s digital forensics capability and expertise. The next phase of this work was MITH’s participation in the development of BitCurator, a dedicated configuration of equipment and software for digital archivists to safely access just about any data on a range of different devices. Kirschenbaum said, “We can insure the integrity and authenticity of the data stream and then archive and package those data streams with robust metadata.”BitCurator has hardware and software functions comparable to the high-end forensic equipment that law enforcement professionals use to search for evidence on hard drives and cell phones. But MITH designed BitCurator for digital archivists who want to not only access at-risk data on obsolete media but who also want to manage sensitive, personal information that may be contained within donated collections. Together, the archivist and donor can decide what should be public (e.g. the donor’s work) and what should be private (e.g. the donor’s social security number). Kirschenbaum said, “It’s not so much the threat of deliberately exposing personal information as it is about you, the archivist, knowing that the personal information is there on the media before one of your patrons finds it.”
MITH has also hosted the Electronic Literature Organization and helped drive ELO’s agenda of preserving born-digital literature. Neil Fraistat, the director of MITH, said, “It was a pressing question to people who were authoring born-digital literary works in the ’80s and early ’90s and worried about whether people would still be able to interact with those works because of changes in platforms, operating systems, software and computers. We could have been on the cusp of a digital dark age as far as our born-digital literary heritage went.”So far, MITH has acquired collections from two writers, Deena Larsen and Bill Bly, hybrid collections that consist of born-digital and traditional manuscript materials. Larsen and Bly offered their works to MITH, instead of to a traditional paper-oriented archive, because of MITH’s digital humanities orientation as well as their commitment to access for those collections. (MITH recently hosted Margo Padilla from the inaugural NDSR program to work on precisely that challenge.) Larsen also donated about ten Mac Classics and over 800 floppy disks and 3.5″ diskettes.
MITH integrates their collections with University Special Collections. Kirschenbaum said, “We are moving to something like a joint stewardship model between MITH as a humanities center and University Special Collections.”Like Kirschenbaum, Fraistat also comes from a textual scholarship background. In the mid-1990s he started a scholarly website called Romantic Circles, which is dedicated to British Romantic literature; almost 20 years later, Romantic Circles is still going strong. Taking his work with Romantic literature to a deeper level, Fraistat’s newest project at MITH is the Shelley-Godwin Archive, which contains the works of Mary Shelley, her equally famous husband Percy Bysshe and William Godwin. The archive is structured to allow participation, so that users — the general public as well as academics — can help with the work of the archive. Fraistat talks of crowdsourcing the work to “citizen humanists.”
“The archive has been built with the collections of the Bodleian Library, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Huntington Library and the Houghton Library,” said Fraistat. “Just among that cluster, we have about 90% of all the known manuscripts of Percy and Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. For some we have transcriptions [of handwritten documents]; for some, we don’t. This will be a chance for students to transcribe, correct transcriptions and encode the text. It drives students and the general public deep into the heart of a literary work.
“We wanted to reveal more about what you could find within the website and highlight what parts that various visitors have found most compelling, which almost always has something to do with Frankenstein.”
MITH is forward-thinking in its outreach and training efforts. Last year they started a week-long digital humanities winter institute that was so successful they are continuing it this year but as a summer institute called Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching. Also last year, MITH conducted a program for UMD students and faculty titled the Digital Humanities Incubator. Fraistat said, “We took 50 library faculty and staff members from the University of Maryland libraries and gave them a sequence of four workshops on how to develop digital humanities projects. That was very successful, so we’re building on our incubator model now. It seems like a good investment of the Center’s time to invest in widespread training, to reach a lot more of your faculty and students at once, give them advice and help them get started on things.
Given MITH’s ambitious list of projects, they are clearly building their capacity to address the needs of digital humanities in a wide array of different domains, including but not limited to digital preservation and forensics. Yet there is no question MITH is distinguished by its emphasis on digital forensics, textual scholarship and digital preservation and access. Fraistat said, “I can’t really think of any other digital humanities center that has all these disciplines so deeply interwoven into its own fabric.”