MLA 08 Panel Report III – Roundtable on Electronic Editions and Archives of Poetry

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Monday, 29 December
520. Roundtable on Electronic Editions and Archives of Poetry
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Continental 1–2, Hilton
Program arranged by the Division on Poetry
Presiding: Cristanne Miller, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York
Speakers: Michael S. Hennessey, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Joseph Foster Loewenstein, Washington Univ.; Jerome J. McGann, Univ. of Virginia; David Radcliffe, Virginia Polytechnic Inst. and State Univ.; William Shaw, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Martha Nell Smith, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
This session is arranged in conjunction with session 692.

I arrived part way through this roundtable so the notes below don’t cover everything that was said.

Jerome McGann talked about the need for digital archives to integrate with each other rather than ending up siloing content.

He noted that digital projects don’t need to have a single author remit and that the digital environment enables a decentred approach. The aim should be to integrate materials located anywhere.

He encouraged scholars to simply try and build a site  – learning by doing and by making mistakes and subsequent modifications is the only way to progress. The online legacy for the next hundred years is being built and literary scholars need to participate.

He noted the big and unsolved issue of sustainability – when the project sponsors move on (into the next life) who will run and maintain the projects? Jerry noted that HTML is doomed and that writing code in HTML is essentially a waste of time in terms of legacy.

Finally, he noted a project now in development which hopes to have easy-to-use website templates available within 5-10 years.

William Shaw of the Blake Archive outlined 3 recent major developments:

Firstly, a virtual lightbox application, enabling users to ‘send’ items to their lightbox and manipulate them there. It will enable the gathering of images across genres and time periods. The current comparison feature only enables like-for-like groupings, e.g. here are 10 tigers – the new lightbox can mark across categories, e.g. 2 tigers, 1 lamb, etc. The feature is slated to go live in summer/autumn 2009, and it will be an open-source tool (released under the MIT license, one of the most liberal) which other archives can incorporate. He also acknowledged the work here of Martha Kirschenbaum who was an important developer of the original version.

Secondly, a site redesign offering aesthetic improvements but which will also bring the archive into standards-compliant XHTML, meaning the site architecture is less static. Slated to go live in summer/autumn 2009.

Finally, a new ‘Related works’ tool, now possible due to the change in the site’s underlying data architecture. For example, a plate will be linked to a list of related works, including earlier sketches, etc.

Martha Nell Smith, drawing on her work with the Dickinson Archive, explored the difference betweenan electronic edition and an archive.

She focussed on the born-digital archive, Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences: A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry. Launched in 1995, this project offers hypertextual editions of the correspondence of Dickinson and her family. The site is written in TEI-conformant XML.

Martha stressed the important need for a technology of self-consciousness. The process of blackboxing must be avoided, where items are rendered distinct from their creation and where criticism can seem like fact. She noted that electronic editions should still have notes that show the editorial process.

Digital archives need to facilitate transparency and turn the editorial process inside out. They use readers’ input on Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences.

She noted the provisionality of many foundational materials – who made the texts and for what purposes? The reader needs to see that part of the process.

The goal of Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences is to offer a thick editorial medium with suggestions welcomed from readers. Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences is an edition, not an archive, which shows how certain poems were formed and how Dickinson became a poet.

Q & A

One audience member asked Jerry McGann to elaborate on his warning against using HTML. Jerry explained that HTML is unstructured and can’t be migrated or maintained, especially with ever-changing browsers. He questioned whether standard HTML would even still be used in future browsers. Instead he recommended using XML.

Martha Nell Smith added that HTML is a display language which does not describe the data itself – the structure comes from the browser, not the file. XML on the other hand does tag the data.

Jerry McGann repeated his goal of having site templates where data can be loaded with minimal metadata and then marked up from within the browser, making it as easy as Word.

A discussion ensued on sustainability and copyright.

Michael Hennessey from PennSound noted that the non-profit project included contemporary poets which are not in the public domain – however, poets see PennSound as beneficial as it is promoting their work. PennSound uses the university mechanism for the project. No copyright is claimed on the editorial input, and there also no copyright license forms required from poets.

David Radcliffe noted the two options open to most projects: either to sell it to a publisher who will (maybe) sustain the project. Or you give it away and let other people use it, hoping that it will stay alive if the code is spread around like seed.

Martha Nell Smith noted that Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences is not in the public domain.

Willliam Shaw outlined how hard the process was initially to get images from museums. At first they only received 72 dpi jpegs. A level of trust had to be established and in fact the museums benefited as the Archive later returned colour-corrected images to the repositories, thus adding value in a mutually beneficial process. And where projects can’t add value to the scans, they could still hand back metadata, adding expertise.

Wiliam Shaw mentioned that the Blake Archive always writes up its documentation, offering ‘How to…’ guides, a mission statement, overview of the editorial rationale – this enables the reader to understand the site fully.

Jerry McGann mentioned the NINES site which was built to foster collaborative research and offers social software which tries to integrate the users’ interactions.

It was noted that, although students are more technical and have open ideas about the future, they are often warned away from doing digital projects as their dissertation work as its value remains unclear – the drive is still for the first book on the road to tenure.

William Shaw noted that many faculty need more training in order to be able to judge digital work, for example, how to examine the differences between a digital archive and a website.

Kivmars Bowling
Senior Managing Editor, Literature Compass

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