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New Grant to Preserve Born-Digital Poetry

The Washington University Libraries were awarded a two-year grant by the Mellon Foundation to support an exploration of essential questions surrounding the acquisition, discoverability, preservation, and use of born-digital poetry collections. The $250,000 award will enable the University Libraries to develop online resources and systems to process, preserve, and steward the collections of a new generation of digital-native poets. Leading the project will be Nadia Ghasedi, associate university librarian for Special Collections, Preservation, and Digital Strategies, Joy Novak, head of Special Collections, Joel Minor, curator of the Modern Literature Collection, and Kelli West, digital preservation specialist.

The project, Born-Digital Poetry: Planning for the Future of Literary Archives, will be centered in the University Libraries Modern Literature Collection, which was launched in 1964 as an archive for contemporary English and American poets and has currently grown to include materials of more than 175 authors, among them James Merrill, May Swenson, and Mary Jo Bang.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Mellon Foundation we will be able to more effectively solicit, acquire, process and provide access to the “papers” of younger poets, which keeps us in the founding tradition of the Modern Literature Collection from 60 years ago, while working with the various electronic formats poets are working in today and even tomorrow,” said Joel Minor, curator of the Modern Literature Collection.

Whether generated as Microsoft Word documents or other computer-mediated formats, all born-digital items are created in a digital format and utilize computation and digital technologies at every stage of the creative process. Born-digital items are distinct from analog items that can undergo digitization, such as paper-based manuscripts and archives.

Professor Mary Jo Bang. Photo by Matt Valentine.

The first of its kind to focus on issues of acquisition, preservation, and wider access to born-digital materials, the project will process a wide range of digital materials from the archive of poet and academic Mary Jo Bang. Consequently, the project will eventually make it possible for students and researchers to access born-digital collections and gain a better understanding and insight into the unprecedented ways in which poetry is created in a digital era. The project also aims to lay the foundation for new benchmarks and guidelines on preservation and access to born-digital archives at libraries and museums and for personal poetry archives.

Bang, a professor of English at Washington University, is the author of more than 10 collections of poetry, as well as translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. Among other honors, she has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for her poetic works. In 2014, University Libraries acquired the Mary Jo Bang Papers, which include literary and personal papers from her entire career. Her literary digital materials (1992–2019) will now be processed and made available for use and reference like their analog counterparts.

Foundational work done as part of the project will enable the Modern Literature Collection to effectively steward the collections of early-career poets who are digital natives, thereby increasing representation and diversity in the poetry collections.

The funding will allow for the hiring of a Born-Digital Poetry Fellow who will work closely with archivists and special collections staff to process born-digital content, as well as facilitate workshops and engagement with poets, scholars, students, and special collections professionals. Workshop topics will be devoted to best practices of digital preservation and the creative processes of contemporary poets.

“We are deeply committed to increasing representation within the Modern Literation Collection. To preserve and make accessible the work of a new generation of poets, we must understand their creative process and develop ways in which we can educate them on the issues of digital preservation. We are so grateful to the Mellon Foundation for this opportunity to move the needle forward,” said Nadia Ghasedi, project principal investigator and associate university librarian for Special Collections, Preservation, and Digital Strategies.