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Salman Rushdie's Digital Archives Revealed, Unwrap Issues for Future Generations

Once, there were ink-stained Moleskins and typewriter ribbons unfurled, but today's authors and documentarians, even at their most technophobic, keep discs or drives filled with their electronic scribblings. That's even the case for Salman Rushdie, an ingenious author whose work spans nearly four decades, one religious death threat, and several hemispheres. At Emory University's recent display of his archival material, this long journey is reflected by the progression of his information media: scrawled journals, four Apple computers of varying ages (one apparently destroyed by a Coke-spilling accident), and nearly 18 gigs of data. It's all lined up, ready for an aficionado of magical realism to plow through them.

Except, as the New York Times points out, classic, acid-free paper takes ages to degrade, while we'd be hard-pressed to find a working laptop with a floppy drive. Recently, one Switched staffer's mother found an old zip disk filled with her work and personal writings: a time-capsuled treasure trove (if anyone has a zip drive to access it). Matt Zuras pointed out another interesting Times article that discusses the iPhone paintings of David Hockney as well as the tricky issue of replacing artist Nam June Paik's 'Totem,' now that tube TVs have become obsolete. Even a film buff purchasing a special edition of a masterpiece faces a dilemma: DVD or Blu-ray? Or will both go the way of the VHS? Digital media, like any other type of artistic representation, needs to be preserved, but the rate at which technology develops is astonishing, especially in comparison to slower moving art forms like painting, sculpture, or Rushdie's own milieu, literature.

Digital archives are a rich source for piecing together the works of writers. The data of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide two years ago, is now at the University of Texas in Austin. John Updike mailed 50 floppies to Harvard prior to his death, prompting Harvard's Houghton Library curator Leslie Morris to report, "We just store them in climate controlled stacks, and we're hoping for some kind of universal Harvard guidelines." Since Emory's exhibit focuses on the way technology influences the creative process, the goal of the Emory team is to examine the primary materials. See Rushdie's love of Mac Stickies, marvel at the way he fretted over line indents, and even search through files just like he did.

Just because an author doesn't have the pen-and-ink process of, say, Hemingway doesn't mean that he or she can't express themselves. In fact, with information systems and file organization, it is possible to see the precise way in which a writer accesses their data. No more deciphering bits and notes and unreadable scrawl; it's right there, in a file folder, waiting to be unpacked. Which, believes Emory, is the way it should be.

The main point is, these days, we catalog and access our work digitally, but those forms of technology are ephemeral, fleeting. Preserving someone's hard drive may be as crucial as the palimpsests of yore. Digging out data, line break by line break, pixel by pixel, is crucial to understanding our modern masters. But in the case of Rushdie's body of work, it's not just the material that's at stake, but also the preservation of all digital art, from family photos to Photoshopped doodles. As we move forward, so must our ways of thinking about archiving and preserving the past. [From:]

Tags: archive, author, computers, david hockney, DavidHockney, Emory University, EmoryUniversity, salman rushdie, SalmanRushdie, top, writing