Research Scenario: Unlocking Born-Digital Literary Heritage

Introducing the case of the Herman de Coninck floppy disks

The aim of the CLARIAH-VL Open Humanities Service Infrastructure is to advance digitally-enabled research in Humanities and the Arts by, among other things, providing data-level access to digitised and born-digital resources. In this blogpost series, we will communicate on research scenario’s leading to and building upon the datasets made available through CLARIAH-VL. This blogpost introduces the research scenario ‘Unlocking born-digital literary heritage: the case of the Herman de Coninck floppy disks’.

Introduction

Computers have been a widespread writing technology since the popularisation of the word processor in the early 1980s (Kirschenbaum et al. 2009), but digital materiality is only slowly entering (literary) archival institutions because born-digital archives often remain in the private ownership of the author (Reside 2014). Still, when born-digital archives are part of the collection, they are often “uncatalogued, unfindable and unusable” (Jaillant 2022, 418). Research on born-digital archives is therefore scarce (Jaillant 2022; Ries & Palkó 2019; Reside 2014). This specific research scenario makes use of the CLARIAH-VL infrastructure to make born-digital literary archival material in Flanders findable and more accessible, starting with Herman de Coninck’s floppy disks in the collection of the Letterenhuis (Antwerp).

Floppy disk Herman de Coninck
Floppy disk Herman de Coninck at the Letterenhuis

Dataset

The floppy disks of the prominent Belgian poet, essayist, journalist, and publisher Herman de Coninck (1994-1997) hold a special place in the Letterenhuis collection, as they were the first born-digital archival material acquired by the institution. In 1998, the Letterenhuis received a donation of De Coninck’s literary archive, consisting of manuscripts and typescripts, correspondence, diaries, notebooks, photographs and 218 floppy disks (5¼- and 3½-inch). De Coninck’s paper archive is now fully catalogued, but the content of the digital files is still largely unknown. The aim of the research scenario is therefore to partially ‘unlock’ the digital files stored on the floppy disks by describing their contents, creating sub-datasets that group related files while documenting their original context (e.g., the files stored on the same floppy disk) and linking the files with related files in the paper archive. 

Research Question

While the full dataset of all the files held by the floppy disks could be used to answer various research questions relevant to biographical research, textual scholarship and genetic criticism, the first research question driving this research scenario relates to the initial access to the files: What is the content of each of the files on the disks, and what digital tools and methods can be used to reveal it?

Challenges

In total, the floppy disks contain over 1300 files. These challenges include identifying sensitive material, establishing connections within and between born-digital and analog material in the same archive, and documenting duplicates and folder structures, all without having to work at the single file-level. Also, researchers must be able to find this born-digital part of De Coninck’s archive, and favourably have a rough idea of its contents to fully use it for their research.  

Solutions

There have been several initiatives for the application of natural language processing (NLP), such as named entity recognition (NER) and topic modelling, to provide information about the content of born-digital collections (Lee and Woods 2017; Jaillant and Aske 2024).

This research scenario will therefore make use of the tools provided by SIC 5 (Analyse) to automatically create (meta)data and/or to identify sensitive records. This includes tools for named entity recognition, stylometric analysis, sentiment and emotion detection, document similarity clustering and topic modelling and tools for distant reading. 

Next Steps

The following blogposts within this series will communicate on the next steps taken as part of this research scenario. This will include:

  • the documentation on the usefulness of the NLP tools for unlocking the born-digital files of Herman de Coninck;
  • the creation of sub-datasets for text genetic research;
  • the description of the (meta)data-set.

References

Jaillant, L. “How can we make born-digital and digitised archives more accessible? Identifying obstacles and solutions.” Arch Sci 22 (2022): 417-36. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-022-09390-7

Jaillant, L. and K. Aske. “Are Users of Digital Archives Ready for the AI Era? Obstacles to the Application of Computational Research Methods and New Opportunities. ACM J. Comput. Cult. Herit. 16. 4 (2024): 16 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3631125

Kirschenbaum, M.G., E. Farr, K. Kraus, N. Nelson, C.S. Peters, and G. Redwine & D. Reside. “Digital Materiality: Preserving Access to Computers as Complete Environments.” iPRES 2009: the Sixth International Conference on Preservation of Digital Objects (2009). https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7d3465vg

Lee, C.A., and K. Woods. “Diverse Digital Collections Meet Diverse Uses: Applying Natural Language Processing to Born-Digital Primary Sources.” iPRES. 2017.

Reside, D. “File Not Found: Rarity in an Age of Digital Plenty”. RBM 15.1 (2014): 68-74. https://doi.org/10.5860/rbm.15.1.416

Ries, T., & G. Palkó, “Born-digital archives.” Int J Digit Humanities 1 (2019): 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42803-019-00011-x

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