The Walt Whitman Archive – Price 3
Kenneth M. Price
3What about the digital form—as opposed to working with the materials in analogue form, for example—works well for you, and what does not? How does this site’s digital form contribute to the archive’s strengths and weaknesses?
Kenneth M. Price
Co-Director, The Walt Whitman Archive Hillegass University Professor of American Literature – University of Nebraska-Lincoln
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 A comparison of the Whitman Archive to its print predecessor, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman,[ref]When The New York University Press ceased publishing the Collected Writings in 1984, they had issued twenty-two volumes, many more than were originally projected. Despite the magnitude of what had been accomplished, many of the original objectives of the edition were not met. For example, the poetry manuscripts and periodical printings of Whitman’s poetry were never collected, and the long-promised journalism, projected to appear in six volumes, never appeared in the NYUP edition. Peter Lang eventually published two volumes of the journalism in 1998 and 2003, though these volumes cover only the period from 1834–1848, leaving Whitman’s innumerable contributions to periodicals in the final forty-four years of his life still to be edited. The Peter Lang volumes are produced so as to replicate the appearance of the New York University Press edition, though the editors of that series (all now deceased) did not oversee their production. Arguably, the Peter Lang volumes constitute volumes 23 and 24 of the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, and a 25th volume, treating recently discovered correspondence, edited by Ted Genoways, was published by University of Iowa Press in 2004.[/ref] helps to clarify the advantages and disadvantages of digital and analog forms. Despite the many achievements of the print volumes in the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, this editorial project ultimately became quite chaotic. Whitman’s outgoing correspondence, for example, has been the subject of editorial treatment since the 1960s, when Edwin Haviland Miller edited five volumes of Whitman’s correspondence. Miller arranged the volumes chronologically, and with the fifth volume, he published an addendum of sixty-five letters that he uncovered even as the first four volumes appeared. Although this addendum meant that some letters would always be out of order, the complications of working with this single addition or revision were not insurmountable. Nine years later, however, a sixth volume appeared, and it included one hundred additional letters, complicating the organization further. Then, in 1991, Miller published fifty new letters in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, and Ted Genoways published third and fourth supplements of nearly one hundred letters in the journal in 2000 and 2002. In 2004, the University of Iowa Press issued a seventh volume of Whitman’s correspondence, which included all of Whitman’s letters found since Miller’s sixth volume. In the end, there were nearly as many supplements as the number of Miller’s original volumes, and over the last six years, even more letters have surfaced. This one aspect of the Collected Writings illustrates how print editions can devolve into disorder, even when the initial aim is to bring order to the literary record. I am confident that after the Whitman Archive “finishes” work on the correspondence previously unknown or lost letters will surface somewhere. It is a great strength of the digital medium that when this happens, new material can be integrated seamlessly into the collection.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In a related way, our “Integrated Guide to Walt Whitman’s Poetry Manuscripts” aggregates facsimile images of all surviving drafts of Whitman’s poems regardless of their geographical dispersion. The digital images and integrated guide bring order to the manuscripts and, for most purposes, erase the need to travel in order to study the manuscripts. (Individual repositories may have labeled an item by its first line or its working title, but we have created an overarching virtual order for all repositories, and we have labeled each individual poetry manuscript with what we call a “work” identifier based on the title of the last published version of the manuscript.) The high quality color facsimiles available on the Archive offer significant advantages for the study of the manuscripts; the images can be manipulated in photo-editing software to help us decipher otherwise illegible handwriting or zoom in on features of the ink, paper, and other characteristics such as pinholes, in order to offer new readings about the manuscripts and their relationships to one another.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Despite the integrated guide’s utility, however, it remains an under-utilized resource. Indeed, one of our challenges has been how to make sure people find the content and tools most useful for their research questions. Perhaps a downside of bringing together so much material in one place is that doing so can inadvertently re-bury material (in some places, the organizational hierarchy of the Archive is fairly flat or one-dimensional, and in others, it is quite structured). It is hard to get a sense of the magnitude of the Whitman Archive at a glance. The more we enrich the site, the more challenging it becomes to keep the interface simple, straightforward, intuitive, and sufficiently informative.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Books are sometimes more convenient in various ways. The failure of a server does not make individual volumes of the Collected Writings temporarily disappear. For most practical purposes, the Collected Writings as a resource stays stable (and carries all the advantages and disadvantages of that condition). Print can rely on nicely developed interface and design that evolved over centuries, but digital conventions are still relatively young and therefore sometimes neither clear nor aesthetically pleasing.
You’re describing something akin to “feature creep” here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feature_creep). Or maybe “content creep” would be a more appropriate term . . .
Despite the integrated guide’s utility, however, it remains an under-utilized resource. Indeed, one of our challenges has been how to make sure people find the content and tools most useful for their research questions. Perhaps a downside of bringing together so much material in one place is that doing so can inadvertently re-bury material….
These are insightful comments, yet another indication of the extent to which the Archive editors do a praiseworthy job of self-assessment as the project moves forward. I would be interested to have Ken expand on what steps have been taken to date “to make sure people find the content and tools” of the Archive. There are traditional methods, such as submitting news notes or even paid advertisements to relevant academic newsletters and journals; tried-and-true digital steps, such as posting announcements to discussion lists whenever the Archive reaches another milestone; and there are the still somewhat novel Web 2.0 avenues, such as creating a Facebook page, creating a blog, and regular Tweets.
How many of these paths, and how often, it makes sense for the Archive to move forward on, is difficult to assess, because time and resources expended in publicizing the project are time and resources not available for developing the site. Assessment is difficult, too, because of the opacity of the cost/benefit equation—30,000 unique visitors is a lot, but is it anywhere near as many as “should” be visiting, and what do we base “should” on? A comparison to similar sites? Research (I’m not sure any exists) on the existing “cost per visit” for websites? And do some visitors matter more than others? If so, how do you identify them and weight them?
Such questions bring me back to my fourth essay. “My plea is that we do start asking, that we do start expecting to define quantitative and qualitative measure of the costs and benefits of such projects and, by extension, of our bricks and mortar archival endeavors as well.” I believe the Whitman Archive is the most likely project to pursue some of these difficult answers, because it has already demonstrated its willingness to ask the accompanying questions.
One brief note about a downside of bringing together so much material in one place is that doing so can inadvertently re-bury material—it is an eerie echo of debates within my profession about whether the digital age eliminated the necessity of appraisal/selection. There were many who argued that with digital material, infinite quantities could be searched infinitely quickly and with (eventually) infinite precision. Therefore, we should just “keep it all.” It has not turned out that way, of course, as almost any Google search might make evident; but the concern that even an ultra-focused Archive such as this one can effectively “bury” its growing contents should further weaken remaining claims keyword searches can find anything.
It really is fascinating to read what Ken has to say about his own work. It is indeed admirably open of you to do this, and must act against the immediate impulse to defend your creation from even the most minor criticism. I think that it will be very valuable for other creators of DH resources both now and in future to be able to read this, and wish more people would write such reflections on their work.
Indeed. The point about design conventions in print as opposed to digital form is one that is discussed very thoughfully by Christian Vandendorpe in Du Papyrus a l’Hypertexte of course.