This week, I’m presenting on the Walt Whitman digital archive. I love good old Walt, and I think his work is proto-multimodal, as he works within and outside of poetic forms, playing with notions of poetry, and as he becomes sort of multimodal himself, referenced in works ranging from Langston Hughes’s “Old Walt” (not to mention “I, Too,” written in response to “I Hear America Singing”) and Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” to this new visual edition of “Song of Myself” and even this scholarly essay on a student’s digital interpretation of “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” which can be found here.
Reading Kenneth Price’s “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?,” I see even more multimodalism in Whitman’s work. Price quotes Ed Folsom’s “Database as Genre” as thinking about how “Whitman formed entire lines as they would eventually appear in print, but then he treated each line like a separate data entry, a unit available to him for endless reordering, as if his lines of poetry were portable and interchangeable, could be shuffled and almost randomly scattered to create different but remarkably similar poems.”
Anyway, Whitman and his poetry is just really ripe for digital work.
Dr. Travis gave us questions to think about in our evaluation and, rather than write a cumbersome narrative with all of this info buried within, I thought this week, I’d answer the questions in bullet format.
- What contribution does it make to scholarship? The biggest and most important contribution, to me, is the idea of free and open access to all of Whitman’s manuscripts, letters, and digital images of every edition of every text. Viewers are even able to access images of Whitman’s scribal work from his law office days, as well as several incredible audio files of Whitman reading his work. In addition, a section for teachers includes syllabi and other links available for use.
- What is being done with this project that could not be done in print-based scholarship? Obviously, the audio of Whitman is impossible to incorporate into print-based texts and, although all of the scanned images could be used, the cost of reproducing that quality of image might be prohibitive for print-publishers. The most interesting thing, though, is a really cool data tool called TokenX, which allows for all kinds of searchability, as well as visual representations, concordances across editions and texts, etc.
- Is the purpose of the site/project/archive clearly articulated? In a section titled About the Archive, editors spell out the purpose of the site: “to make Whitman’s vast work freely and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.” Special attention is paid to the interpretive trickiness of the vast number of editions of Whitman’s work, which is why, I’d assume, each edition is included in typed and scanned form.
- Is the site easy to navigate? Mostly. A tour is provided, although I don’t think it’s necessary as the site is laid out quite clearly. However, TokenX is buried pretty deeply within a series of links. I think that’s truly indicative of some of my complaints about the site, which I detail below.
- How can you use it for your research? A critical bibliography is included for researchers, as well as all of those editions, so I’d imagine that traditional Whitman scholars could find what they’re looking for here. And TokenX provides research tools for DH people, who will feel more comfortable with the kind of data mining capabilities it possesses.
- Is it aesthetically pleasing? Is it searchable? static? The site is nicely designed, in terms of aesthetics. When it comes to searchability, though, my concern becomes most apparent. Unlike a digital archive like the Internet Shakespeare Editions, which has search tools across texts and lots of data mining opportunities front and center in each works’ page in the archive , in addition to images of all of the folios, quartos, etc, the Whitman Archive doesn’t seem to be interested in fully utilizing the digital platform with which it’s been provided. As I said previously, the burying of TokenX means either that it’s not important to the site or that site editors don’t believe that the majority of users will be interested in searchability.
- Who are the authors/contributors? Their roles? There is a long list of collaborators, from full profs to graduate students and everything in between. The list is strongly skewed toward Whitman scholars, though, at the expense, perhaps, of more DH specialists.
- Is it a collaborative project? It’s collaborative insofar as there are quite a few staff members, but there is no outside collaboration in terms of crowd-sourcing, etc. Overall, this feels like a print collection, just put online.
- Who is the primary audience? Although the audience is stated, in the About Us section, to be “scholars, students, and general readers,” this archive very much feels as if it’s geared primarily toward the first–and traditional scholars and students, at that. Even the section for teachers is minimal in comparison to the critical bibliography and other info directed at researchers. In addition, the fact that every collaborator is an academic makes the site feel like the novice is largely excluded. Students are strangely insulted in a list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Can you help me do research for my paper (please hurry it’s due tomorrow!)? We regret to say that we have neither the resources nor the time to help you with your research.” Maybe the editors are making an attempt at humor here but, regardless, I think we can assume that students are not the primary target of the archive.
- What are the strengths? What are the weaknesses? Overall, as I’ve said, this site feels largely like the online version of a print archive. I love that it makes available this enormous collection of editions, manuscripts, and critical works, but I feel like so much more exciting stuff could be done with an off-the-wall but still squarely canonical poet like Whitman. There’s something about this site that, while really beautifully put together, just feels kind of stodgy to me. I think it all comes down to the hidden state of TokenX.
I’m curious to find out what my classmates thought about this, and I’m hopeful that I may be finding fault where there is none. Maybe this is just my analysis and others found it a much more engaging and stimulating DH site!
Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA 122 (2007): 1571-1579. Print.
Folsom, Ed and Kenneth Price, eds. The Walt Whitman Archive. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.
Price, Kenneth. “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.3 (2009). Web.