Designing Digital Editions: Inclusivity vs. the Literary Canon

I’m designing my Infinite Ulysses digital edition website toward including readers usually left out of critical discussions of complex texts through participatory design. One result of that thinking has been discovering multiple ways to define and address “inclusivity”: inclusivity as web design that is universally accessible to users; as invitation to participation; as scaffolding to make a site not only welcoming, but usable by new community members.

My project is, at its core, about designing interfaces for meaningful conversations around difficult texts. I’ll be learning some things about my sample text Ulysses along the way (what actually happens to Joyce’s hypertext when it becomes digitally hypertextual and hyper-annotated?)—and using Ulysses as my example text is crucial to my project’s success (as I’ll explore more below)—but my intervention is one of inclusivity through interface design, rather than at the level of scholarly editing.

I’ll talk about whether what I’m making is a “scholarly digital edition” in a future post (short answer: no and yes and it’s complicated). Traditionally, scholarly edition work focuses on establishing for other scholars a reliable text prepared according to a rigorous methodology that intervenes at the level of textual paragraphs, words, and characters, and that isn’t what I’m doing in this project. That’s obviously not to say I’m presenting an unreliable text, but that my critical work and argument are bound up in the interface framing a text, and not on the level of the words on the pages1. Although I’m departing from the usual set of scholarly actions in my edition work, instead focusing on designing for participation and exploring different categories of literary annotation, my digital edition does become part of the works making up our digital edition canon—and as such, I wanted to spend some time thinking about how this project of mine might be more inclusive as regards what authors and works are represented in the digital canon.

A quick overview of digital texts and canonization

.@jessicadespain notes only 11/86 projs funded by NEH Preservation & Access in 2006-2011 had a topic other than a white male writer #nmalh

— Ryan Cordell (@ryancordell) December 6, 2013

If you’re interested in reading more about canon-formation—particularly in regard to the role authors’ race plays in what makes it into the canon—I strongly recommend Amy Earhart’s piece “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon” (available in Debates in DH online). Earhart provides a fantastic overview of the canon as it has applied to digital text projects past and present, as well as how canon-awareness might shape our future work: “the narrow digital canon should remind us why we cannot stop digital edition work”.

Expanding on the digital text examples Earhart names, some digital editions for authors who are not cis male, white, and English-language from the top of my head plus a quick Googling:

There are many more examples (though never enough), but there is no perfect central resource for discovering all digital editions, archives, and literary engagements on the web—something that makes awareness of just what kind of digital canon we’re constructing difficult. Greta Franzini has made an amazing start toward such a resource with her Digital Edition Catalogue (some slides on the project here state that one of her findings about digital edition coverage is that it’s Anglocentric). If some DH body with high international visibility (ACH? ADHO? DH Commons?) were to create a way for digital editors to add to this catalog from their main website, I could see this being an ongoing and thorough resource.

Why is Ulysses a problem? Why is it a solution?

The problem with doing a digital text project around Ulysses is just the (perhaps obvious?) one: it’s another digital edition around the well-known work of a white Anglo male writer, when the digital text canon already feels biased toward authors fitting that description (I’d love to see some stats on this, but again, we’d need to do a good job getting the word out to add any digital texts you know of to the dataset, first). Though the exact degree is uncertain, I expect there is a chilling effect to digital editions of many non-canon authors not existing, not being widely known or used, not being funded, or not being reused by other scholars and read by everyone. The body of DH work out there does say something about our valuing of inclusion: who does DH? who do DH projects focus on? who are DH projects meant to serve? who is welcomed, explicitly and implicitly? what assumptions about intellectual power and authority are invested in our designs? who gets to create a scholarly edition of x canon author? Lindsay Thomas’ blog post “Open Access and the Digital Humanities” reminds us that “making something freely available online does not necessarily guarantee that thing is public, or that it will be used as a public resource”; public does not mean participatory, and likewise a project being public, participatory, diverse, accessible, or inclusive does not necessarily mean it also advances any of the other characteristics in that list. This blog post is a way for me to share some of my thoughts on making my project benefit and welcome a wide audience both for using the edition and reusing my code, and solicit feedback on making a better project.

I’m a Joycean as well as a textual scholar, and I’ll admit it’s fantastic for me that I can learn things about Ulysses while building to improve the public humanities. Ulysses is an important text for me personally: it’s why I stayed in an English major despite not enjoying how most of my literature courses were taught; creating a Joyce site was a driving factor behind learning HTML and various digital art skills, which set me on the path to becoming a web developer; it’s how I got into the digital humanities and found a community of people with similar interests (who knew I didn’t need to choose between literature and web development?). How much do I love Ulysses? This much, and this much, and this much. It’s unclear to me, however, whether I’d be building a site around Ulysses—or any other text that’s already comfortably in the canon and public view—if my project didn’t call for a very specific type of text.

There are good intellectual reasons for creating a participatory digital edition of Ulysses: I’ve discussed precedents to a participatory digital editions of Ulysseshere, and some of the scholarly questions designing, building, and testing such a site can help me explore here. Many of these scholarly questions could be explored with other texts, though. For example, a participatory edition of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood could help me explore how hypertextualizing/hyper-contextualizing already-hypertextual Modernisms affects the text, but I’d run up against copyright issues that Ulysses no longer faces2, but more importantly I wouldn’t be able to attract enough readers to support the main focus of my research, interfaces for participatory critical discussion.

Ulysses is special. What other difficult texts are so much in the public consciousness? Hamlet‘s a play, religious texts are divisive, Finnegans Wake is too difficult. But Ulysses is difficult enough that everyone’s glad for help in reading it (you’re missing out if you’re not reading some side material to find out about its legal history, interpretation, and context), but reading it is also a reachable goal—a marathon of the mind, if you will. People hold reunions with the book clubs they read Ulysses with decades ago, tweet their frustration and triumphs during the reading experience, and celebrate a yearly holiday on the day the book is set (mark your calendars! Bloomsday is June 16, a date also important in Joyce’s courting of his partner Nora Barnacle). As such, it’s the perfect text for testing an interface supporting active public conversation around a difficult book:  a book that’s widely known as both difficult and beloved.

And we’re off! #UlyssesRBR starts today. I’m going to try and read about 40 pages per day. What are your goals? — Adam ツ (@RoofBeamReader) December 15, 2013

Thanksgiving question from @PENamerican: “For what book are you most thankful?” Answers? I vote for Joyce’s Ulysses. http://t.co/eCuKicRE3v — Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) November 25, 2013

“It’s a book like no other that you can return to again, and again, and again” – Stephen Fry on #JamesJoyce‘s #Ulysses — Sylvie Hill (@JamesJoyce_OTT) October 15, 2013

My approach to designing for critical participation hinges on user-testing, as well as a speculative experiment imagining how the site would handle millions of users and annotations. To test the site’s usability and usage by real readers and gain meaningful insight not just into the Infinite Ulysses site, but into how any similarly participatory digital edition might be designed, I need to use a text that people are this excited about reading, that they’ve already heard of but haven’t read (or want to reread)—and I can’t think of another text that fits this need like Ulysses does.

Stokes: It’s very easy to build things, put them online, and assume people will use it. But if we build it, they may not come. #sortingDH — lindsay thomas (@lindsaycthomas) December 4, 2013

The scariest DH question: what if you build it and “they” don’t use it? #Stainforth — Kirstyn Leuner (@KLeuner) December 5, 2013

My research hinges on having my site used, and being able to understand what people want in their reading of a difficult text through that use. The Ransom Center has shown that the public is interested in participating in a project with a not-radically-popular focus—identifying medieval manuscript fragments:

Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself). —Micah Erwin

Projects like Transcribe Bentham and the NYPL Lab’s What’s On the Menu? and Building Inspector, too, show that public DH is very possible, but these are still fairly few projects with strong institutional backing rather than the work of a single junior scholar; these examples are heartening, but not enough assurance for me to base my project around a text without Ulysses‘ popular allure. For a site that requires repeated visiting and extensive online reading3, Ulysses is a necessary choice.

What I’m doing to make my project more inclusive

Here are some of my ideas toward making my project more inclusive, for the multiple meanings of the word:

  • Design with first-time readers of the novel in mind. Survey people who’ve read the novel on what tripped them up and what places in the novel were especially hard; focus annotation efforts on places readers identified as where they gave up reading the novel.
  • Make the interface as intuitive as possible, and test it with visitors who aren’t use to DH or other academic sites to make certain you’re not taking certain navigation commonplaces for granted. Create multiple paths for starting to use the site so that readers can jump right in, read suggestions for site use, or watch a short video tour for the site.
  • Welcome use and input from all readers frequently (on the front page, and at greater length on another page) and sincerely (back up the claim that everyone’s contributions to the conversations are important by highlighting contributions from diverse categories of user).
  • Explore mechanics for rewarding site use (such as highlighting a user’s annotations for viewing by other readers) based on activity level and depth/quality of content, rather than outside identity (e.g. submissions by “amateur” readers vs. tenured scholars as identified in user profiles) to encourage welcoming conversation about the novel from diverse readers.
  • Create safe, private mechanics for asking questions. Make routes for feature requests and bug reporting simple and obvious.
  • Design the site to be as universally accessible as possible given dissertational time constraints. Test the site with various available tools (pa11y, screen readers, grayscale and high contrast color palettes). Research how similarly complex interfaces (e.g. library catalogues) address usability.
  • Consider user privacy (allow pseudonyms? option to keep annotations private? option to make annotations that are questions private?), but make sure any option for privacy doesn’t discourage users from being part of the public conversation.
  • Consider a reverse speculative experiment of no one using the site (or people reading but not contributing annotations) so that the site is just as useful for a few lone users (a useful experiment even if many eventually use the site, since the site has to start with someone being the lone user even if super-briefly).

And a couple ideas that specifically address inclusivity and the digital text canon of which this project is part (a short list that I hope to lengthen!):

  • The premise of the site—a public, participatory conversation around a complex text—augments canon interpretations of the novel by inviting infinite annotations from diverse readers. I can support this further by creating a reading list resource for readers who want to explore existing interpretations of Ulysses, along with highlighting which interpretations have been historically popular, and examples of viewpoints that haven’t yet been a large part of the conversation.
  • Document my work and release my code so other scholars can easily spin up a participatory edition on any writer or topic, not just canon ones. Encourage this usage by suggesting complex, conversation-worthy texts outside the canon and in the public domain (especially when there’s already a reliable prepared text freely available for use).
  • In my guide to using the site for teaching, suggest lesson ideas for discussing the issue of canonization of Modernist voices, certain lines of interpretations, and of digital text creation.
  • Suggest possible uses of my code/design work to expand the canon. One model I admire is the Shelley-Godwin Archive, a participatory scholarly edition site that focuses on a circle of writers, some more and some less canon, creating a site that highlights a network rather than a single author.

Tactics from Existing Digital Communities

Part of my work is to repurpose things that are already working in non-scholarly digital communities that handle user-generated text. To that end, a few ideas I’ve drawn from around the Web…

Drupal’s home page (scroll to the bottom) includes a world map that shows where Drupal community activity is happening (possibly in real/near-to-real time?). It might be welcoming to Infinite Ulysses readers to have some sort of similar reflection of the diversity of the site’s community.

My site will include a welcome statement on the front page as well as a longer page discussing inclusivity, the site moderation system, and community behavior. I’ll model these texts on wording from sources like the Speaking in Code website and the Ada Initiative’s sample conference policies.

I’ve previously discussed StackExchange’s “theory of moderation“, which grants progressive privileges as your participation on the site increases:

  • Users with 15 rep can flag posts.
  • Users with 2,000 rep can edit any question or answer in the system.
  • Users with 3,000 rep can cast close and open votes.
  • Users with 10,000 rep can cast delete and undelete votes on questions, and have access to a moderation dashboard.
  • Users with 15,000 rep can protect posts.
  • Users with 20,000 rep can cast delete votes on negatively voted answers. (Jeff Atwood, “A Theory of Moderation“)

SE’s moderation rules are a great step toward basing community authority on participation, but there are still ways that it could fail at inclusivity;  some who want to take part in the community might not have the time or the internet access to establish commitment this way. I want site visitors to be able to use the full features of the site from their first visit, but I might be able to model some site behavior (e.g. what user content gets automatically highlighted on the front page?) on SE’s plan.

Suggestions?

It’s important to me to make the Infinite Ulysses site as welcoming, supportive, and otherwise accessible as possible, and to more broadly advance how we design and promote public, participatory DH. Have any ideas for Infinite Ulysses or toward making digital editions in general more participatory? Maybe you’ve run into an issue in another digital edition or archive that you’d like to see addressed? I’ve added a space for sharing suggestions and requests related to inclusivity and accessibility in my sign-up form. You can sign up to be notified when the site goes live at by filling out this form, or feel free to tweet me @Literature_Geek with any questions or follow me to hear when the website goes live.

  1. I’m using the text prepared by the Modernist Versions Project and in particular digitized by Matthew Kochis and Patrick Belk. []
  2. Well, the 1922 Shakespeare and Co.’s public domain status in the U.S. is “contested”, so that’s not completely true. []
  3. Something everyone seems to “know” is unpleasant, but spend all their time doing anyway… I’ll be interested to see via user-testing how much reading online is actually an issue, and whether the iPad/tablet version of the site allows more comfortable reading []