Winter 2010: Features

Illustration of Rushdie's books and computer

Kay Hinton

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The Author’s Desktop

How famous writers’ computers—like Salman Rushdie’s Macs in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library—and born-digital content are creating a revolution

‘A World Mapped By Stories’: The Archive On Display

A multimedia exhibition of Salman Rushdie’s manuscripts, drawings, journals, letters, photos, and digital materials will be on display February 26 through September 26 in Woodruff Library’s Schatten Gallery. For more, go to

More coverage

To see a series of videos on Rushdie's computer archives, as well as Rushdie himself, visit

By Mary J. Loftus

 Soon, you will be able to peruse the email correspondence between Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Salman Rushdie and U2’s Bono. Or quick-search how many times the words tequila and rock goddess appear in the first draft of Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

You even will be able to log on to a laptop as Sir Rushdie himself, tinkering with a sentence, adding an embellishment, or marking a particular spot of interest in a manuscript (don’t worry, these changes won’t register on the master file, which reverts back to the original text as soon as you log off).

Emory acquired the archives of Rushdie—the Indian-born author whose fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, earned him not only critical acclaim but also death threats from Islamists and a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini—in late 2006. Like many of his contemporaries, Rushdie wrote his later works and conducted much of his correspondence and research on personal computers. So his archive is a hybrid, meaning that Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) received not only one hundred linear feet of his paper material, including diaries, notebooks, library books, first-edition novels, notes scribbled on napkins, but also forty thousand files and eighteen gigabytes of data on a Mac desktop, three Mac laptops, and an external hard drive.

Archivist Laura Carroll, among others at Emory Libraries, has been charged with making this interactive yet carefully preserved digital archive possible. Because Rushdie was highly organized in his virtual realm, he has made her job that much easier. “He was explicit in file naming and structure,” Carroll says. “I don’t know what I’d have done if he had used just numbers.”

Carroll flips on her latest-model MacBook Pro and there is a facsimile of Salman Rushdie’s computer screen from one of his early Mac desktops, a Performa 5400, offering up neat files marked “letters,” “diaries,” “short stories,” “poems,” “NY Times columns,” even “Old Mac.” “We were really happy when we found that one,” Carroll says. “Rushdie had downloaded everything from his old computer and saved it on his new computer.”

Now Rushdie’s “Old Mac” will be preserved for generations to come. Emory is in the forefront of a nascent field: the archiving of “born-digital” materials. And Rushdie’s computers are case study number one. Much of his archival material after the 1980s—including daily calendars, virtual sticky notes, email correspondence, and first drafts of novels—never existed on paper. “We have darn close to his entire digital life up to 2006,” says Erika Farr 04PhD, the libraries’ director of born-digital initiatives. “Rushdie’s archive is pretty remarkable and really high profile. It’s a perfect one to start with.”

Born-digital archives have changed the game on several fronts for libraries and universities with notable literary collections: the methods used to preserve, protect, and organize the materials; the process by which the archives are accessed, shared, and exhibited; the ways scholars conduct research and interact with the materials; and the legal and ethical issues surrounding intellectual property and privacy.

“The author’s desk has become the author’s desktop,” says Naomi Nelson 01PhD, interim director of MARBL. “Our challenge is how best to bring all these records to life.”

Archivists of days past could only have dreamed of such a wealth of original materials efficiently stored as binary data in monolithic black boxes. Today’s top university libraries are bidding over not only first editions, but PCs and zip drives.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center has the nicotine-stained laptop used by Norman Mailer’s longtime assistant, Judith McNally, as well as more than 350 computer disks, forty-seven electronic files including email, forty CDs, two other laptops, and a magnetic tape spool.

Harvard University’s Houghton Library has fifty of John Updike’s floppy disks, which arrived just before the author’s death in January 2009.

And Emory has not only Rushdie’s computers but floppy disks from Pulitzer Prize–winning author Alice Walker and Magnavox disks from poet Lucille Clifton’s collection.

“New ground is being charted with archives that were never inscribed on paper,” says Director of Libraries Rick Luce, “and we are among the leaders in determining how to proceed, along with Oxford, the British Library, Stanford, and UT Austin. We are expanding the ways we store and share information.”

President James Wagner has determined that a discretionary gift of $500,000 will be directed toward supporting a born-digital laboratory at the library, which will enable advanced forensic analysis and treatment of born-digital archival content. This money also will support continued development of tools and resources for born-digital and hybrid archives at the University.

Great research libraries are built when money and imagination come together, said Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, on a recent visit. “Right now,” he added, “Emory is probably the library in the world with the most dynamic vision behind it.”

At the center of all the optimism, however, is a hard truth: dealing with born-digital materials involves a huge shift in methodology. To put it bluntly, digital archivists are making it up as they go along.

“You’re looking at centuries of precedent and tradition that have built up around paper archives,” says Farr, whose background is in seventeenth-century literature. “We’ve always been service oriented, advocating for the needs of the researchers. But born-digital material requires a whole new skill set and a shift in the way we think about archival research. These computers coming through the doors of Woodruff Library have redirected my career. This is not a one-off. This is a transformative change in the field.”

As an academic and researcher herself, Farr is a big believer in preserving the whole ecosystem, or “biostructure,” of the author’s digital archive: the hardware, software, programs, and applications, all the files and file names, search histories—even the order in which everything was installed. “There is something fundamentally interesting about the computers themselves,” she says, “as the medium between the user and the digital media.”

When the British Library held one of the first conferences on the emerging field of personal digital archives in London last year, Farr and Nelson were invited presenters. They spoke about Emory Libraries’ method of collecting, preserving, and providing access to born-digital records, the progress made with the digital portions of Rushdie’s archive, and plans for future work with digital materials. “Other libraries are very interested in what Emory is doing—both because the Rushdie files are the most complete high-profile set of e-manuscripts currently in a repository, and because they think our vision for the program is very exciting,” Nelson says.

A particular challenge, she says, is that technology may have moved beyond the hardware or software artifacts in an author’s archive. For example, working parts may be difficult to find for a broken, early model computer, disks might be unable to be read, programs the author used might be outdated (think eight-track tapes without an eight-track tape player).

Rushdie’s archives include a laptop he had spilled a soda on that didn’t appear to work anymore; the library’s computer experts were able to extract the information from it without even turning it on.

Yes, where there are computer conundrums, there are techies. University libraries have found themselves hiring not only IT support, but programmers and computer security experts able to surmount compatibility issues and recover material that is corrupted or otherwise inaccessible. Rushdie’s digital archive has its own dream team: Ben Ranker, senior engineer for the libraries’ software development team, who came to Emory from IBM; and software engineer Peter Hornsby, who previously worked on mainframes at Georgia State University.

“My first approach with Rushdie’s computers, looking back on it, was wrong: to use white gloves with this amazing artifact that I couldn’t look at too hard or it would break,” Hornsby says. “I started thinking of it as my boss’s computer that just stopped working and it was my job to fix it. The white gloves came off, and I took it apart.”

Hornsby, who extracted the data from Rushdie’s hard drives, felt it was crucial to emulate the author’s working environment, creating a perfect duplicate that researchers could explore while safeguarding the original: “The imprint of the writer’s personality,” he says, “lies within his computer.”

Ranker, who organized the database that allows users to delve into Rushdie’s digital world, says the project meant he had to learn more about fifteen-year-old Macs than he ever imagined possible.

“Modern software generally won’t open his old emails or faxes or word-processing documents,” he says, “so to make those available in our repository we had to convert them to modern archival formats.”

While other universities have taken possession of digital archives, says Farr, almost none has attempted this full-immersion experience. “Most are offering discrete files,” she says. “We’re going to provide numerous points of access into Rushdie’s digital archive, including emulations of Rushdie’s computers and searchable databases of files pulled off of his computers. That’s why others are watching what we’re doing on this.”

The team plans to provide access to Rushdie’s electronic materials not only to scholars but to the public as well. Selections will be on display in an exhibition that opens in February in Woodruff Library’s Schatten Gallery, “A World Mapped by Stories: The Salman Rushdie Archive.” Like Rushdie’s archives, the exhibition will be a hybrid, mixing portions of his digital and paper materials throughout.

“There is a charm and integrity to the more traditional exhibits—a respect for the artifact, the paper,” says Associate Professor of English and exhibition curator Deepika Bahri. “But we wanted a multimedia exhibit that shows a similar respect for the new digital artifact. It’s about honoring what kind of material you now have and its intent. The emerging and the traditional forms coexist; I wanted to break down the hard line between the two.”

Having consulted with Rushdie on the exhibition, Bahri can vouch for him as a fully wired denizen. “Rushdie may not have been born digital but he has been reborn digital,” she says. “And he has the fastest return-reply on email I’ve ever seen.”

As a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence who spends a month each year at Emory, Rushdie has proven very interested in how his archives will be presented. University librarians, archivists, and legal experts have worked with him every step of the way to determine what can be released and what must be kept confidential—and for how long. “There are times when the question is larger than a single person or institution, and this is one of those times,” says Lisa Macklin, a lawyer and librarian who is the coordinator of the libraries’ intellectual property rights office. “We are thinking about the broader legal and ethical issues surrounding digital archives.”

As far as Rushdie’s archives, says Macklin, “we have an agreement with him, which we’ve revised as time goes on. This is as new for him as it is for us. Who among us knows what’s on their hard drive? We have to find a balance between protecting his privacy and providing significant content to researchers who would find value from it.”

In the case of Rushdie’s born-digital archive, the content is protected by copyright. “There will be a whole software system put into place where people can access his archive, but they can’t then download it and ship it off to twenty of their closest friends,” she says. “We’re trying to make the content accessible for scholarly purposes without making it too open.”

As born-digital archives from authors become more commonplace, changing the way university archives are organized, scholarship around these materials is destined to change as well. Scholars will be able to search for themes across manuscripts and correspondence, for example, or compare and contrast different works in a much more expedient manner. “We have to think very cleverly about how the born-digital archives are going to be used,” Farr says, “not just by researchers now but by researchers fifty to a hundred years from now.”

A tall order, but one that engages Emory’s digital team precisely because of its nearly limitless—and as yet undetermined—possibilities.

As Rushdie himself says in his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “[Haroun] looked into the water and saw that . . . as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”