Hockey, Susan. Electronic Texts in the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Susan Hockey’s Electronic Texts in the Digital Humanities is a concise introduction to various digital text topics: corpus projects, OCR, TEI (and more outdated text encoding schemes), SGML, text analysis (before the many online text analysis tools freely available today), and stylometrics. Although the book’s ten-year-old publishing date leaves much of the technical material outdated (e.g. discussing CD-ROMs of electronic texts–though I believe E-Lit Volume 2 is available on CD-ROM, so that’s not so much dating in itself–and calling multimedia “bells and whistles” when it’s more like mortar and scaffolding to a useful digital text project), the book can be read in part as a history of electronic textual work.
Uh-oh, Binaries (Scholar vs. reader, searcher vs. browser)
Audience and the project mission dictate design decisions in digital text projects. As dangerous as binaries can be–especially when they artificially ensconce people in non-overlapping categories–I’ve found that the goals of most literary digital texts (that is, scholar-focused digital texts) are so different from the genre of reader-focused digital text that laying some of these dichotomies bare could help us arrive at more specific design recommendations for a reader audience. Because of my interest with projects that privilege the audience as critical participants, thinking about digital texts in terms of the museum is a good starting place. I’ll have more to say once I’ve finished reading Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum, but I suspect there’s something to be said for the difference between traditional galleries and the more recent emphasis on interactivity and “living collections” at museums. The digital archive is often a catalogue of textual items with excellent metadata but no tools to assist non-specialists in juxtaposing the items or gaining a macro view of a collection–not so different from the static holdings of a museum; the collaborative, interactive, reader-privileging “reader-focused” genre of digital text I’ve been working to define is more like an immersive exhibit at one of our better museums.
The very massivity of scholarly digital projects means their deep database structure often forces through, or at least deeply influences, their site design. The more-or-less obvious catalogue look of the great digital archives is great for searching, but not so much for browsing. Susan Hockey recognizes this distinction between digital text design for (re)searching and for browsing (which I claim is a reading rather than a research activity*): “Several of these projects have taken to calling themselves an ‘archive’ rather than an edition, simply because they present a lot of source material to the user but much less in the way of editorial annotations or navigational tools… the onus is on the reader of the edition, the user, to determine what is useful and to choose what route to take through the material” (132-133).
Scholarly digital texts often make it hard for a reader to get a sense of the whole (133), something a digital edition should be able to do better than an analog edition. An analog edition has a table of contents you can skim over and pages you can visually measure with a quick glance at the width of the book’s spine (unless, like Douglas Hofstadter suggests, publishers start to add extra pages to books so that the number of pages ahead don’t give away the nearness of the ending), but its physical properties do not represent an overview of the textual content in any interpretive sense. A digital edition, on the other hand, can provide a number of macro views of the material; for example, a digital text of Ulysses could include an interactive map of the paths different characters take through Dublin or a clock representing the different points in the novel’s day.
Another useful binary I’ve been considering is the difference between “browser” and “searcher” digital text user personas–a difference of reading in a broadly defined area and seeking specific answers (I explored this divide in my 2010 digital text user study). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, one of the few literary digital texts I’ve found to really bridge scholar and reader audiences, underlines this divide by offering separate “browse”, “search”, and “interpret” modes (see? binaries aren’t so bad).
To help me start to look at the design features that feed into assisting a particular digital text audience, I’ve come up with the following ten dichotomies illustrating the difference between scholar-focused digital texts (i.e. the majority of digital text projects) and those digital texts with more aesthetic, immersive, reader-focused aims:
|Scholar-Focused Digital Texts||Reader-Focused Digital Texts|
|analysis of the text with scholarly performance (e.g. monographs) as an end||performance of the text|
|immersion in the item via mark-up, image analysis tools, etc.||immersion in the text’s discourse field|
|bibliographic data||cultural references/discourse field|
|specific research queries||conjectural play|
|specific engagement, fixed goals||broad engagement, open goals|
|segmented, individual items in catalog-based archives||connections and juxtapositions|
|more texts per project||fewer texts per project (if more than one text, often with a single text showcased among them)|
By looking at where current digital text projects fall on the overlapping spectra of usefulness for scholars and readers, I’m hoping to pull out more specific design features that support the latter’s needs. I’ve begun work on a chart listing the scholar-focused and reader-focused features of some of the more well-known digital text projects–to be blogged here in the future.
If You Build It, Would They Come? (or, Would developing more reader-focused digital texts be worth it?)
Two of the defining characteristics of scholarly as opposed to reader-focused digital texts–that they target professional scholars, and that they tend to offer more of a warehouse than a boutique presentation of texts–are largely practical. The audience for digital texts will always include scholars; many projects are created by user-developers (e.g. The Walt Whitman Archive) who rely on the tools they create. Giant archives make sense under the growing pressure for a more public humanities, for tools serving more of the revelers in the Big Tent, for the availability of large corpora; they can serve more people and uses for a longer amount of time than a smaller project around a single text, and are easier to argue as meriting funding.
How, then, might we countenance smaller–let’s say, single-text–projects?
The Digital Ulysses project (a.k.a. Ulysses in Hypermedia), a single-text digital text, garnered attention and funding over the years of its development in part because Joyce’s novel is so different from most single works. As one of the more encyclopedic fictional works, Ulysses is a very large text in many ways. The hyper-referentiality of the work invited hypertexting, while its puzzles (both solvable and unsolved) and the challenge it presents to the first-time reader argued for an interpretive performance of the book, something like bringing Harry Blamires’ beloved Bloomsday Book online.
Almost any digital text project centered on a single text of less than Ulysses‘ status, however, is going to raise questions of audience size and audience frequency: is the funding or effort spent on the project going to be rewarded with regular use? Specifics of different single-text projects will vary, but I suspect that anything significantly smaller in scope than Ulysses might have an audience smaller than the typical large-scale DH project (almost by definition), but perhaps parallel to the audience size, shelf life, and use frequency of analog literature projects (e.g. monographs, journal articles). If we’re only addressing the average audience size for the bulk of a humanities field, is that a problem? And might we even be addressing a wider audience than most analog monographs–isn’t the amateur but critical reader of Blake a wider audience than the limited circle of Blake-devoted scholars?
Another argument for a wide audience: reader-focused digital texts, since they are not bound by an underlying catalog structure, can better present the discourse field around a text. With a project like my Digital Dos Passos work, which seeks to present the many media instances referenced in Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, the goal is to create an engagement with material that is not only pertinent to the Dos Passos scholar, but to readers interested in American history, media, subcultures, and literary and political Modernisms. By presenting the world around a text, reader-focused digital texts can engage a wider audience than more specific scholarly productions.
Digital text production might arguably involve higher costs (e.g. hosting, hiring programming assistance, extra time to set up the code framework for literary content), but viewing this as an impediment to producing single-text projects errs by applying the needs of large-scale projects to productions that can be accomplished by one or two people over the same span of time taken for a dissertation or part of a book (e.g. Tanya Clement’s excellent electronic edition).
Current poles for digital literary work seem divided between the commercial (“e-text”: stuff designed for popular consumption on the Kindle or iPad) and the scholarly (the big digital archives). Reader-focused work might seek to align itself with commercial sponsors; indeed, there are some great examples of performative, immersive literary work in the e-lit field from which digital versions of analog texts could take a page (e.g. Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs). Perhaps shifting the source of sponsorship for digital projects could help smaller endeavors; libraries, academic presses, and digital humanities centers are all sites that might assist in the production of smaller, reader-focused digital texts. Part scholarly academic production, part package for reader-focused consumption, Digital Ulysses pointed to an audience that wasn’t purely commercial publishing or scholarly research (sponsored at various times by the University of Pennsylvania Press, the Voyager Company, and the Mellon Foundation). If we can move single-text/reader-focused digital text projects away from their history of one-off, unreusable boutique design, demonstrating new features and standards in our digital text design work, individual digital text projects could advance the field as a whole while also serving readers.
* 2012 retraction: not sure what I meant by that, but I definitely think browsing can be a useful research action–cascading-style access, even more so than random access, can help develop research questions grounded-theory style.