Hard Drives, Harder Questions


Can you imagine what it might be like for a child whose parents are not allowed to be married?”

The day was March 26, 2007. Anna Heller, a 39-year-old social worker from Willimantic, Connecticut, testified during a twelve-hour hearing before the Connecticut legislature on H.B. 7395, which would grant same-sex couples in the state the right to marriage. She spoke on behalf of Love Makes a Family, an organization that lobbied for the bill.

Heller’s testimony, and the rest Love Makes a Family’s records, are now housed at Yale Manuscripts and Archives, in the northeast wing of Sterling Memorial Library. More than sixteen miles of pages line the walls of the main reading room. But the Love Makes a Family archives aren’t found in the bound books lining the walls or folders stashed in the Library Shelving Facility; they sit in two desktop computers sitting patiently in the far-right corner, waiting to be dusted off and started up. “That’s where you’ll be working today,” the librarian at the reference desk said to me, gesturing towards the corner.

After spending an hour skimming through dinner party planning correspondences by Love Makes a Family’s associate director, Carol Buckheit, I stumbled upon an email exchange in which she sent a copy of Heller’s testimony to a professional writer, Alison Cashin. I double-clicked on the Word document, waiting for the software to boot up. But what appeared was not a wall of black text; it was a red sheet full of cross-outs and underlines that covered the original draft like a heavy blanket.

To professional archivists, emails and Word documents are more than lines of text on a computer screen; they are “born-digital” archives, materials created and preserved in a digital form—including audio recordings, floppy disks, digital musical scores, and entire hard drives and laptops. Two decades ago, Yale’s archives were limited to physical objects like books and manuscripts. Now, Yale owns the virtual records of contemporary public figures ranging from playwright Paula Vogel’s teaching files to poet Charles Bernstein’s academic emails. Archivists are becoming more interested in born-digital materials, which often reveal crucial information missing from physical materials. This was certainly the case in Buckheit and Cashin’s emails:

Buckheit: Can I ask your wise counsel on one question on the attached? I’m afraid some of this reinforces that gays should not have kids because we are hurting them emotionally—what do you think?

Cashin: Oof. You’re totally right, Carol. As a rule, I try to avoid anything that can be seen as reinforcing stereotypes—this totally does that…we are trying to emphasize the messages that correspond to other testifiers’ messages.

Buckheit and Cashin’s goal was simple: to frame Heller’s story in a more loving light, replacing phrases like “I wish I did not have to spend my adolescence in fear” with “I feel blessed with my mom’s love and support throughout my childhood.” Heller’s testimony was not a spontaneous release of emotions but a careful construction, crafted and approved by the organization to optimize Heller’s two short minutes in front of the judiciary committee.

The week before my library visit, I met with Mary Caldera, the head of arrangement and description at Manuscripts and Archives. She works with the archives of historically excluded groups, including ethnic minorities and LGBTQ communities. “A lot of the little off-hand correspondences used to be more formal,” Caldera said. “But now, most people have these phone conversations or write quick emails, which can be very informal and reveal a lot more about what they really mean.” By combing through essay drafts and brief emails, archivists uncover the author’s thought process. And because electronic material is often seen as disposable, born-digital archives serve as a repository for an author’s most private musings. For the testifiers of Love Makes a Family, born-digital archives reveal sentiments in more detail than physical archives likely would.

Caldera is one of four members of the Born Digital Working Group at Yale, created in January 2015 to devise guidelines and assemble resources for born-digital archives. “We want to make sure the libraries are able to store digital materials as well as we store all our other materials,” she said. One of the resources the group has incorporated is the Digital Accessioning Service, a collection of technological equipment used to redact personal information like Social Security and bank account numbers, scan for viruses, and capture files from digital media.

But employing high-tech preservation methods is not the only challenge the group faces. It must deal with issues when its forensic toolkit interferes with donors’ rights to privacy. To learn more about these ethical quandaries, I met with the Beinecke Library’s digital archivist Gabby Redwine at 344 Winchester Avenue, a long, sweeping building with lofty glass windows, home to the Beinecke’s back-end technological services. Redwine is the first person at Yale whose job is entirely dedicated to born-digital archives. “One of the main issues that comes up is intentionality,” Redwine explained. “What sets born-digital apart from physical archives is that we can capture information from digital media that hasn’t been overwritten.”

Redwine explained that when users drag their files into the trash bin, most think those files are beyond recovery. But really, the computer only deletes the file “pointer”—a roadmap that leads the computer to the file—while still keeping the file itself. This means when Redwine and her colleagues receive a hard drive, they can use the Beinecke’s forensic tools—which, she noted, are the same tools the FBI uses—to uncover mounds of deleted files that the donor may not have intended to hand over. When archivists work with materials from well-known cultural icons like Vogel or Bernstein, deleted files are a gold mine of novel drafts, essay fragments, and browsing histories. But, until they receive consent from the donor, they must follow library policy, abstaining from opening those gigabytes of potentially valuable but sensitive information.

The available born-digital archives are enough to give us a glimpse into the private lives of all sorts of people, from authors to activists to everyday citizens. Often, the most colloquial exchanges are the most striking. On October 10, 2008, more than one-and-a-half years after Heller’s testimony, Buckheit received an email from Laurel Hoskins, a friend of Love Makes a Family, about a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling:

“I KNOW you are NOT sitting around your computer right now because the decision JUST came down and Stephen and I are just THRILLED and you must be over the top! 4 to 3 decision is good enough. So what if all our money is in the toilet—start planning your weddings!”

– Amber Hu is a sophomore in Saybrook College.

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