Internet Shakespeare Editions

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Ruminating on time and the need for archives

Archive splash pageHow can we preserve those things we value most? Those that are evanescent or transient are the most challenging. In his sonnets, Shakespeare returns time and again to the pain we feel with the loss of fragile beauty. Time's cruel hand will deface the strongest and most boastful of human creations: "The rich proud cost of outworn buried age," and even the earth and sea are seen as unstable, even in the days before climate change was in the headlines:

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat'ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store. ( Sonnet 65)

If the earth itself is unpredictably changing, how much more transient must the products of our digital age be, with their whirling eddies of electrons recording such things as this piece I'm writing, and displaying them on our screens for a few moments.

For Shakespeare, the only way to preserve—or archive—love or beauty was to enshrined it in verse. We all remember the well-known lines from Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") where the comparison is rejected because summer is too short and unpredictable. His love's beauty is to be remembered forever through the eternal lines of the poem itself:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The memory of Shakespeare's loved one (whoever it was and of whatever sex) survives—so long, that is, as men can read the paper (or digital code) that the poem is inscribed upon.

Libraries have established a quite wonderful infrastructure for the preservation of valued books. They are kept in climate-controlled rooms under the watchful eyes of their custodians. And as technology has advanced they have been stored in backup media: they are photographed, microfilmed, and scanned. But born-digital resources present a more difficult problem: how can a site like the Internet Shakespeare Editions ensure that its content is preserved in a medium that is changing fast as both the software and hardware continue to evolve rapidly?

A recent news item highlighted the kind of loss this rapid change brings with it. The computer club at Carnegie Mellon University recovered some artworks by Andy Warhol. He had created them on a long-obsolete Amiga computer, using now-decaying floppy disks. The combination of Warhol's importance as an artist with the extensive resources and ingenuity of the members of the computer club has meant that these early digital works of art will now survive, at least for a time. (Kudos to Carnegie Mellon, one of our most recently acquired Friends of the ISE, incidentally.) Another fascinating discussion of the challenge of archiving digital materials is explored in this essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books: Susan Sontag made available her digital life from the 1990s on–her emails, draft essays, her mp3 music files, her pictures, and so on. Archivists must find ways of making older digital files on dated systems available, and they must also set up ways by which researchers can explore the masses of data made available.

The ISE is deeply committed to sustaining its content and archiving its progress in this challenging period where there is not only continuing development in the medium, but in the kind of business model that keeps the infrastructure current. 

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