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Toni Morrison’s Born-Digital Material

By Elena Colon-Marrero and Allison Hughes

On October 14, 2014, Princeton University announced it had acquired the papers of author, emeritus faculty member, and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. The papers, which are currently being processed, consist of approximately 200 linear feet of material, including manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, working files, teaching material, and just over 150 floppy disks. The disks come in 2 varieties, 3.5” and 5.25”, pictured below:

5.25” and 3.5” floppy disks
5.25” and 3.5” disks

In order to extract the data on these disks so the information could be preserved and accessed, staff from the Manuscripts Division collaborated with those at Mudd Manuscript Library. When the disks were first discovered this spring, Mudd’s toolkit for processing digital media consisted of USB drives for 3.5” floppy disks, zip drives, a write blocker for flash drives, and a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device, or FRED. (Jarrett Drake, Mudd’s Digital Archivist, has previously written about his use of the FRED to verify the authenticity of digital files.) Using these tools, we were able to process the 3.5” floppies, which comprised about 80% of the total disks in the Morrison Papers. However, we lacked any way to read the remaining disks—until the beginning of August.

The journey towards processing Morrison’s 5.25” floppy disks was a little bumpy. At the beginning of the summer Mudd acquired a FC5025 floppy controller from Device Side Data. The controller serves as a bridge between a 5.25” floppy drive and a modern computer: the 5.25” floppy drive connects to the FC5025, which then plugs into a computer’s USB port. Through the magic of circuits and electricity we are able to read those old disks. The magic wasn’t there though, not initially. Eventually, after much trial and error, we realized the problem: the controller simply didn’t work. As soon as we received and installed a replacement, we were ready to hit the ground running.

Once the gear was good to go, the 5.25” disks were imaged in a windows environment; then transferred to a computer with BitCurator installed. The imaging was the easiest part. The next challenge was to find a way to extract the files without changing their original metadata (so for example, a WordPerfect document Toni Morrison last edited in 1987 would retain that date instead of appearing to be saved in 2015). BitCurator offers two ways to extract files from an image. The first method is to use the BitCurator Disk Image Access tool and create a copy of selected files. This method works, but it changes the metadata, including the last modified dates, for each file. The second option is to mount the disk image. From there we can use scripts to transfer files from the image without changing the metadata and modification dates. The second option best fit our needs and allowed us to properly date the materials found on the floppies. From there we continued to follow Mudd’s digital records accessioning procedures to ensure the preservation of these materials.

In all, we successfully extracted the contents of 32 of the 33 5.25” disks (one was blank). The rest contained a variety of files, dated from 1980 to 1991: correspondence, telephone directories, guest lists, memoranda, book contract and royalty information, and more. Particularly of note are the four disks containing drafts of Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved (1987), pictured below:

One of the Beloved disks
One of the Beloved disks

This case especially illustrates how crucial it is to preserve born-digital content, even when duplicate paper files may exist. In 1993, a fire devastated Morrison’s home, destroying many of her paper manuscripts, and leaving the surviving pages charred, smoke damaged and in some cases nearly illegible. Without the digital files, this material could have been lost forever; now, these documents will be preserved and accessible for future research.  

The Mudd Manuscript Library wishes to acknowledge the support of the Princeton University Library’s Systems Office for providing the equipment that allows us to undertake this important work.

For more information about the Papers of Toni Morrison, which will not be available until processing of the collection is complete, please email Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts. For questions about Morrison, please email her Administrative Assistant, Rene Boatman.

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