The Walt Whitman Archive – Whitley 3
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?
Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies – Lehigh University
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Archive co-director Ed Folsom once noted that printed editions of Whitman’s works have had the unfortunate tendency of becoming irrelevant the moment that scholars unearth a new letter, manuscript, or biographical fact about the poet. The Whitman Archive, however, has the benefit of being able to change and adapt as often as new discoveries are brought to the attention of the directors. In such an environment, Folsom writes, “All users are potential co-editors.”[ref]Ed Folsom, “Projecting Whitman: The Evolution and Remediation of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman,” The Walt Whitman Archive, accessed December 2, 2010 http://www.whitmanarchive.org/about/articles/anc.00003.html.[/ref] I love the notion that everyone is a “potential co-editor” of the Whitman Archive, and I’d like to consider how the Archive could make better use of its digital form as a way to more fully realize this potential. I would never advocate for crowd-sourcing the Archive on the model of sites like Wikipedia, but I would like the Archive directors to take more seriously the implication that “All users are potential co-editors.”
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I have a tremendous amount of respect for how the Archive directors have responded to public criticisms from other scholars. In a 2007 PMLA forum on the Whitman Archive, for example, Meredith McGill took the Archive to task for decontextualizing the poems that Whitman had published in newspapers and magazines by clipping the poems from their original sources and excluding all the other articles, poems, and advertisements that appeared alongside Whitman’s poems.[ref]Meredith L. McGill, “Remediating Whitman,” PMLA 112.5 (2007):1594.[/ref] The Archive promptly responded to this criticism by including the entire page of the periodical where a Whitman poem appeared. But not every user of the Whitman Archive can get the attention of the Archive directors in the pages of PMLA. And even those fortunate enough to do so don’t have a mechanism for providing additional feedback to the Archive directors regarding their response to suggestions for improvement. I wonder, does McGill think it was sufficient to include the complete newspaper page where a Whitman poem appeared, or would she rather that the Archive include the rest of the issue is well? Or would she even prefer a link to some external site that hosts the entire run of the paper?
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The Archive could make better use of its digital form by providing “user accounts or other community-hosting capabilities,” as Matt Cohen has recently suggested.[ref]Cohen, “Design and Politics,” 241.[/ref]Integrating Web 2.0 components such as user accounts and a comment section to the Whitman Archive would have considerable implications for the Archive: while a comments section would give scholars such as McGill a much more dynamic venue for engaging with the Archive’s directors, it would also make the Archive feel less like a scholarly edition of Whitman’s works and more like a Facebook fan page. Nevertheless, Archive co-director Kenneth M. Price has already said that “scholarly edition” doesn’t necessarily describe what the Whitman Archive actually is. Instead, Price has characterized the Archive as something more like a workshop, or, as he puts it, a “group of people who are now joined together for a common purpose.”[ref]Kenneth M. Price, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” The Walt Whitman Archive, accessed December 2, 2010 http://www.whitmanarchive.org/about/articles/anc.00346.html.[/ref] If that group of people could also include the hundreds (if not thousands) of scholars, students, and non-academic readers who visit the Archive every day, it would not only make better use of the digital medium, but it would also go some distance toward fulfilling Folsom’s claim that “All users are potential co-editors.”
“All users are potential co-editors.” “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” There is no question about Web 2.0s capacity for enabling users to comment, suggest, even improve the content of sites like the Archive. But as archivists have already begun to find out, while using Web 2.0 venues to welcome user input about everything from the accuracy and completeness of online finding aids to the identification of digital photographs, it can be time consuming to separate the gold from the dreck.
And it is one thing to ask the site editors to spend the time accomplishing such separation, harvesting the gold and ignoring the tailings; it is another to assume that users can make similarly accurate judgments about the comments from other users that they encounter on such a site. The Archive, following the lead of some archival sites, can post a disclaimer that comments from outside the site are not endorsed by the site editors, but while this keeps the site largely above the fray it does nothing to assist users in interpreting the growing number of outside comments attached to the site.
None of which is to say the editors shouldn’t pursue Ed’s advice, but if they do it should be done with as much consideration as possible for the pros and cons.