Navigate / search

Ransom Center seeks input on draft report about acquisition of born-digital materials

By Jennifer Tisdale

Born-digital materials.
Born-digital materials.

In 2011, Ransom Center Digital Archivist Gabriela Redwine, with Assistant Director Megan Barnard, invited an international team of colleagues to engage in a series of conversations about how born-digital materials are acquired and transferred to archival repositories. Ten archivists and curators from the Beinecke Library at Yale University; the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford; the British Library; the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University (MARBL); and the Rubenstein Library at Duke University joined with the Ransom Center to create the report Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories, which offers recommendations to help ensure the physical and intellectual well being of digital media and files during different stages of the acquisition process.

A draft of Born Digital has been published with MediaCommons Press, an online publisher that allows readers to offer feedback via an easy-to-use commenting interface. The authors of the report encourage manuscript dealers, writers, special collections professionals, and other custodians of archival materials to read the report, offer feedback and suggestions, and take part in a discussion with the larger community of individuals concerned about the acquisition and preservation of born-digital materials. The authors will closely review comments posted by readers and carefully consider this feedback when they revise Born Digital for final publication in the coming months.

The main body of the report surveys the primary issues and concerns related to born-digital acquisitions and is intended for a broad audience with varying levels of interest and expertise in the subject. Appendices provide information about how to prepare for the unexpected and possible staffing costs to repositories, as well as ready-to-use checklists that incorporate recommendations from throughout the report. These recommendations are not meant to be universal and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the authors’ institutions. Rather, they offer broad, useful guidance for donors, dealers, and repository staff involved in the acquisition and transfer of born-digital materials.

How the David Foster Wallace archive found a home at the Ransom Center

By Megan Barnard

Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The journey an archive takes from an author’s desk to the Ransom Center is often long and circuitous. The archive of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Ransom Center in the last days of 2009, but the earliest seeds of the acquisition were sown years before.

Because of the Ransom Center’s strong collections in contemporary literature, our curators and staff keep careful watch on promising, young writers. Over the past 20 years, we have built a list of hundreds of contemporary writers we follow, and we collect first editions of all their books. David Foster Wallace was added to this list early in his career. As we watched his career progress, it became apparent that he was one of the great talents of his generation.

We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.

In 2006, after reading Wallace’s essay on tennis player Roger Federer in The New York Times, Thomas F. Staley, the Director of the Ransom Center and an avid tennis player, wrote to Wallace to inquire about his archive, invite him to visit the Center, and challenge him to a friendly match of tennis. For years Wallace had been among the top names on our wish list of potential speakers—a long-shot, of course, for a writer who made few public appearances. The letter went unanswered.

Several weeks after the shocking news of Wallace’s death, we wrote to his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, to express how saddened we were at the Ransom Center by this tragic loss. We also expressed our hope that Wallace’s papers would be preserved somewhere—anywhere—so that his remarkable contributions to our culture could be studied for generations to come.

Several months later, we were contacted by a bookseller representing Wallace’s literary estate, and we began the negotiations that led to the eventual arrival of Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. This long journey, however, has not quite come to an end. Wallace’s papers related to his final book, The Pale King, though part of the archive acquired by the Ransom Center, will remain with publisher Little, Brown until the book’s release, which is scheduled for April 2011. After the book’s release, the papers, notes, and computer disks related to this novel Wallace never fully completed will be reunited with his archive at the Ransom Center. If these materials are anything like the papers already here, they will be a fascinating and rich resource for students and scholars.