University librarians Bradley Daigle (left) and Gretchen Gueguen (right) are leading the library's effort to preserve "born-digital" materials—things that started out on hard drives, disks, CDRs or DVDs, anything that doesn't have a hard copy or physical corollary Photo by Stephanie Gross

If your parents have ever unearthed a dusty old slide projector and asked you to figure out how to show the pictures from their trip to Yellowstone in the '70s, you'll be able to relate to the conundrum archivists are facing with the dramatic changes in the ways we communicate. What is the best way to save materials when the pace of technology so often makes the hardware and software on which they were created obsolete?

Librarians at UVA are grappling with this problem in their efforts to preserve "born-digital" materials—things that started out on hard drives, disks, CDRs or DVDs, anything, in other words, that doesn't have a hard copy or physical corollary.

What if an author donates a collection of work on a flimsy 8-inch floppy disk? Or a hard drive that only runs Frogger and WordPerfect?

"In the past, notable people would give you their papers," says Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation services for the University of Virginia Library. "Now Thomas Jefferson 2.0 hands over a hard drive."

"For the past 25 or 30 years we've been getting a combination of material that's on paper and material that's on disks," says digital archivist Gretchen Gueguen. "Part of my job is figuring out what's on the disk and how to retrieve it."

The library's collections that contain digital materials include those of authors Alan Cheuse, George Garrett (both one-time UVA faculty members) and Rita Mae Brown. The library also has digital recordings of interviews with civil rights activist and retired UVA professor Julian Bond, constituent mail sent to Senator John Warner (Law '53), and the papers of UVA faculty members E.D. Hirsch (known for his writings on educational reform) and Jerome J. McGann, a pioneer in the field of digital humanities.

"We have to figure out what … we might want to keep and what we don't," says Gueguen of sorting through the digital collections. "We have to be able to read it, search through it effectively, and then store it and keep it safe."

Daigle likens the work Gueguen does to a forensic crime television show, where investigators break into an apartment and collect evidence, which usually includes the suspect's computer that will then be analyzed. "We're looking for the same software and methodology. They're looking for proof of a crime; we're looking for things of historical record. It's like Librarian Archival CSI."

It's not just archiving the old that provides a challenge. "Another aspect is collecting current material that was never on a disk," says Gueguen. Both she and Daigle cite last summer's controversy surrounding President Teresa Sullivan's resignation, and keeping track of how it all unfolded, as a learning experience.

"I spent quite a bit of time capturing Twitter feeds and Facebook pages," says Gueguen, "as well as articles and reactions to the events. I thought, 'How do I save this? Do I want to save a screenshot? How do I save all of these tweets?'"

"We had to objectively collect as much of that material as we could," says Daigle. "History was happening all around us. We needed to be prepared to capture it as it was happening."

Gueguen is now working with programmers to normalize all the material they accumulated into a better format, as well as figuring out how to store it so that it will be accessible.

If the idea of future scholars scrolling through tweets to gain insight into history strikes you as strange, you're not alone. "It's crazy land," says Daigle. "In the born-digital world there is no such thing as normal."

Don't Lose It

For authors, artists or anyone interested in saving their work for posterity, here are some tips for keeping your digital materials accessible:

  1. “The number 1 step is to back up your data,” says Gueguen. Save a copy on an external hard drive, or use a cloud service to protect against hardware failures.
  2. Make informed decisions about how you create documents. “There is no single best format for any type of material,” says Gueguen, but better formats usually mean larger files. The following are a few well-used standards:
    • For images: TIFF or uncompressed/high-resolution JPEGs
    • For text: PDF/A or the backward-compatible version of Word (the .doc extension rather than the .docx)
    • For audio: Broadcast wave (WAV)
    • Digital video: output the highest resolution format your camera will produce
  3. Save different drafts of your work instead of overwriting them. “That’s going to be interesting to scholars who are going to want to see your thought processes,” says Daigle.