"Last modified january 1996": The digital history of rent

  • New York Public Library
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Music theatre scholarship, and indeed theatre history research in general, can be accurately described as a subset of media studies. As much as we might claim the contrary to our theatre students, theatre scholarship is not, by and large, the study of live performance but is instead an analysis of our own reconstructions built from the traces theatrical events leave behind. We study not moments but materials, not what was live but rather what was left. Increasingly, these leavings are likely to be digital. Much has been written of late about the current and imminent challenges these "born digitala" materials pose for librarians and archivists, and many are now developing processes and procedures for preserving and providing access to them. Relatively little published scholarship has been done using these archives, however, so the emerging practices have yet to be thoroughly tested by researchers. 1 In this article I narrate my experiences using the born-digital artifacts in the Jonathan Larson collection at the Library of Congress in an effort to provide an example of one form this sort of scholarship might take.

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The article outlines the rationale of the born-digital dossier génétique from a digital forensic perspective in the light of the recent discussion about digital materiality. In its first part, the study addresses theoretical, conceptual, and methodological questions that arise from the specific materiality of the born-digital avant-texte, namely, the dualism of ‘forensic materiality’ and ‘formal materiality’ (M. Kirschenbaum) and the role of distributed materiality (J.-F. Blanchette). The article argues that the born-digital record, consisting of digital objects, temporary files, metadata, and fragmented traces of the writing process scattered across multiple system locations, has to be analyzed with regard to the specific historical computing context, its distributed materiality ensemble of hardware, operating system, and application (multi-evidential perspective, J. L. John). Current challenges for born-digital preservation and philological analysis will be discussed. In the second part, the exemplary analysis of several digital drafts and text fragments found on the hard drives of German poet Thomas Kling (1957–2005) sheds light on digital materiality from a practical digital forensic and critique génétique perspective. The following methods will be demonstrated: analysis of fast save artifacts in Microsoft Word documents; draft text recovery from CHK files; file carving and verification of recovery results (true, false positives); recovery of text fragments from drive slack. Digital forensic methodology is in the focus of this article as a tool in the context of archival studies, philology, genetic criticism, and scholarly editing of born-digital material. As born-digital primary records of cultural, social, and political history (private storage media, cloud storage, world wide web content as well as public and semi-public social media posts) come to the archives in increasing numbers and volumes, the forensic perspective on born-digital material, questions of authentic preservation and analysis, bibliographic citability and stability, materiality and their status as a document and evidence as well as legal and ethical issues of preservation, curation and access in the archives become crucial for all humanities disciplines.
There has been much anxiety over the last decade about the effect the increasing dependence on digital tools in all art forms will have on the historical memory of this present moment. Chapter 11 discusses how the typescripts, film negatives, and telegrams that tell the story of the theatre of a generation or two ago have been replaced by Google Docs, JPEGs, and posts on Facebook walls. Today, much of the history of Broadway is stored on a variety of digital storage devices, some owned by corporations with little incentive to invest in long-term preservation. Libraries and archives must figure out how to preserve this content, but researchers must also figure out how to use it. Born-digital archives are as varied as their traditional analog counterparts, and it is clear that these collections provide new and more complete ways of understanding the individual’s creative process: reconstructing productions, discovering hidden social networks, and comparing interpretations of texts in performance.
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