Providing access to born-digital collections

Providing access through the Stanford Digital Repository

The primary way the BDPL makes digital materials accessible is through a trio of connected Stanford resources: the Stanford Digital Repository (SDR, our preservation repository), SearchWorks (our catalog), and Spotlight (our exhibits platform). Our goal is to accession all our digital content into the Stanford Digital Repository. This strategy requires that materials be cleared for PII, as we need to ensure that any high-risk data is confined to a secure server. Accessioning born-digital content into the SDR also requires distinguishing between and generating original and access copies, recording any changes to filenames, packaging hierarchical content to preserve hierarchies, and setting access rights at the file level.

The level of access we are able to provide through the SDR, SearchWorks, and Spotlight depends on a number of factors including copyright status, privacy concerns, and the terms of the collection's deed of gift. You may encounter digital objects within the same collection that have different rights statuses. Visiting the reading room, which is open to the public, will give you access to all objects with the below rights settings:

  • World (anyone can download the files)
  • World/no-download (anyone can preview or stream the files)
  • Stanford (only logged-in Stanford users can download the files)
  • Stanford/no-download (only logged-in Stanford users can preview or stream the files)
  • Reading Room (only visitors to our physical reading room can download the files)
  • Reading Room/no-download (only visitors to our physical reading room can preview or stream the files)

The BDPL handles many obsolete, interactive, or otherwise technically complex file types. Some of these files are impossible to render in our viewer and have to be downloaded or emulated to be accessed. The combination of rights restrictions and technical viewer restrictions means that many types of digital files can’t be rendered for remote researchers. If you encounter a digital file that you are having trouble accessing online, please contact the holding department (contact information is often listed under “Access conditions” on the object page), or click the “Feedback” link at the top right of every page; we can work with them to find an access solution.

The photo below, from the Amos Gitai film archive, has been made available to the public online through the Stanford Digital Repository, with world/no-download rights.

Amos Gitai on the set of "Plus tard tu comprendras." Amos Gitai film archive (M2266). Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.

Providing access through legacy workstations

In some cases when the BDPL needs to provide access to files that rely on legacy software and hardware, we provide access to the materials on the legacy equipment itself. For example, if materials were created on a Mac in 2007, we can source a 2007-era Mac on which we could install any necessary software and stage a copy of the files for access. This approach allows researchers to have the exact same experience accessing the files as the creator did.

While some files in the Amos Gitai film archive can be delivered through the SDR (as seen above), the collection also includes a huge number of video editing projects created in the course of making his films. Access to these projects relies on an obsolete operating system and version of Final Cut Pro. Working with the Stanford Media Preservation Lab, the BDPL provided access by determining and acquiring the required computing environment for these files. The resulting machine is accessible in the Special Collections reading room.

Providing access through emulation

In other cases, the BDPL provides access by emulating the original operating system on modern hardware. In computing, emulation is when one computer successfully imitates another computing device, which allows us to render and interact with born-digital materials as they would have been experienced at the time they were created.

We have provided researcher access to emulated materials through the Emulation as a Service Infrastructure, for which Stanford has served as a node host. This approach allows remote access to the materials and does not require us to maintain and troubleshoot legacy equipment. You can read a blog post about an emulation project accessing a Stanford faculty member's educational software at the Software Preservation Network's website.

Screenshot from "The Would-Be Gentleman," by Carolyn Lougee. Stanford University, Academic Computing and Information Services, Academic Software Development Collection (SC0589). Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.

Providing access to email collections

Stanford Libraries holds many collections of email, which Special Collections staff process using ePADD—free and open source software developed by Stanford’s Special Collections & University Archives. The BDPL helps transfer, extract, convert, and preserve email files within collections.

Once mailboxes are ingested into ePADD, the software uses machine learning, natural language processing, and named entity recognition to extract entities, topics, and emotions from the messages. These entities give researchers a wide range of entry points into the collection.

You can browse processed email collections at

While browsing email collections remotely, you'll notice most terms are redacted. You can see the full text of the email by visiting the Special Collections reading room in Green Library.