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Howard Ashman and Our Digital Future


Howard Ashman's disks at the Library of CongressHoward Ashman's disks at the Library of CongressThe Performing Arts Library has an amazing collection of manuscript and typewritten drafts from some of the greatest writers and musicians in the world.  The processes that led to groundbreaking experimental music compositions like John Cage's Music of Changes or Imaginary Landscape No. 1 are documented in the artist's papers. The Fred Ebb collection allows a researcher to peer into the creative process that led to lyrics like "Life is a Cabaret" and "All That Jazz."  These materials can be fragile—they were often written hurriedly on cheap paper and in poor quality ink—but over the thousands of years since the technology of writing was first developed, librarians and archivists have become expert at preserving and providing access to even the most delicate of paper materials.  In the last thirty years, though, an increasing number of creative artists have begun to use the computer rather than pen and paper to compose.  The digital drafts they produce, often called "born digital" (because they weren't digitized from analog copies) pose some of the most difficult challenges the archival community has yet had to face. 

A few months ago, before starting my new job at NYPL, I was working with the digital files in the Howard Ashman collection at the Library of CongressHoward Ashman, the lyricist for Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast used a DOS (pre-Windows) computer and an early version of Corel's WordPerfect to write many of his lyrics.  He saved these files to 5.25 inch floppy disks that, after his death, were donated to the Library.  Reading the files on these disks was no easy matter.  I first had to find a working 5.25 inch floppy drive and a way to connect it to a working computer.  I was finally able to find such a drive at an independent used computer parts store in San Francisco and purchased an adapter (the FC5025) made especially for my purpose.  With the blessing of the Howard Ashman estate, I made exact copies of all of the disks in the Ashman collection.

Howard Ashman's laptopHoward Ashman's laptopIn order to see the drafts as Ashman saw them, though, I would have to find a way to run a copies of the versions of WordPerfect and Microsoft DOS and that he used.  However, to simply view the text, a modern version of WordPerfect (or, indeed, a simple text editor such as Notepad++ or TextWrangler), would suffice.  Migrating and accessing Howard Ashman's digital lyrics was, though, one of the easiest kinds of problems that a researcher or archivist working with born digital materials would face.  The disks were only about twenty years old, so it was still possible to find the disk drives, cables, and software needed to read them.  As tricky as it was to construct the necessary technological chain in 2010, it would likely have been impossible had the disks remained untouched for another 25 or 50 years.  Additionally, Ashman's files were mostly text documents and saved in a fairly standard format.  As a result, they could be at least partially read read by a variety of programs.  A musical score written with a 1980s-era music composition program would likely have been impossible to use without a program very similar to the one that created it.

[Symphonies, no. 7. Scherzo (Sketches)] / [Gustav Mahler], Digital ID 1604279, New York Public LibraryA Gustav Mahler ManuscriptIn a later blog entry I will discuss the fascinating information a researcher can learn from looking at a writer's digital drafts, but for now I simply want to bring attention to the real, unsolved problem libraries and archives now face. Today, researchers at NYPL can read the music manuscripts of Gustav Mahler a century after they were written.  However, unless today's artists and libraries work together to find ways of preserving the digital drafts, emails, even Facebook accounts that now represent most of the contemporary creative and social record, there will be a gaping hole in our cultural history a century from now.  Many researchers and librarians are already deeply engaged with these issues, and several important whitepapers on the subject have recently been published. However, the conversation needs to continue beyond just the academic and library world and become part of the artistic and even public conversation.

I'd love to hear what you, savvy readers of NYPL's blog, think.  How should digital drafts be preserved?  How can we be sure that the digital "manuscripts" of today survive as long as the paper manuscripts of previous generations?  Leave a comment or send a tweet to @lpa_dig_curator.



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