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Carl Sagan’s WordPerfect files, simulations emailed to Edward Lorenz, a database application from the National Library of Medicine, a collection of science blogs, a database of interstellar distances; each of these digital artifacts has been acquired by archives and special collections. Born digital primary sources are no longer a future concern for archivists, librarians, curators and historians. As historians of science turn their attention to the late 20th and early 21st century, they will need to work from these born-digital primary sources. We have already accumulated a significant born digital past and it’s time for work with born digital primary sources to become mainstream. This presentation will give a quick tour of individual born-digital artifacts toward two goals: arguing for the need for archivists, curators and librarians to develop reflexively approaches to establishing preservation intent for digital content grounded in a dialog with the nature of a given set of digital objects and its future research use; and suggesting how trends in computational analysis of information in the digital humanities should be combined with approaches from digital forensics and new media studies to establish historiographic practices for born-digital source criticism. Owens will conclude by suggesting the kinds of technical skills archivists, librarians, curators and historians working with these materials are going to need to develop. Just as historians working with premodern documents require language and paleography skills, historians working with digital artifacts will increasingly need to understand the inscription processes of hard drives, the provenance created by web crawlers, and how to read relational databases of varying vintages.
Trevor Owens, Head of Digital Content Management, Library of Congress