In search of (lost) digital American literature archives

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Women writers at the original SSAWW site at Lehigh, still awaiting scholarly attention.

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Or “Ubi sunt . . . ?” Where are the disappearing author archives of ten years ago?

In our English 573: American Authors and Online Editions class yesterday, the students and I discussed work by Sui Sin Far,  an essay by Mary Chapman, and chapter 3 from one of the books we’re reading this semester, Amy Earhart’s Traces of the Old, Uses of the New. 

Then we kept discussing current sites and lost sites, the individual sites put up as a labor of love in the late 1990s like those of Alan Liu, Voices from the Gaps, NativeNet, A Celebration of Women Writers etc. before the MLA had even adopted its standards for site information in 1999. We talked about how these sites had been made to make reading versions of unavailable texts available (pre-Google Books, remember) and, as Earhart describes, to make a more diverse set of  texts available.  We talked about Jean Lee Cole’s Winnifred Eaton archive, too, which has fortunately been resurrected here: https://jeanleecole.wordpress.com/winnifred-eaton-digital-archive/.

We discussed the difference between HTML and TEI, between (pre-DH? Certainly, as I’ve been told repeatedly, not DH) individual sites and the large, well-funded, and deservedly praised and vetted-by-scholars Walt Whitman Archive or The Mark Twin Project, not to mention the various ways in which we can look visualize data now.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 9.16.19 AMWe looked at the underlying coding of the early HTML sites. I told them about the pre-Web Taylorology from 1993, that, when we looked at the code, of course did not change because it is plain text.

But we also went on a little virtual tour, sometimes courtesy of the Wayback Machine, and I told them about sites that had vanished completely, like Jim Zwick’s Mark Twain and Imperialism, or walled up their texts behind a paywall or university access, like the University of Virginia Text Center or the Women Writers Project–great and innovative projects, no question, but not now available to most of us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 9.26.21 AMWe also looked at page that had once served a purpose, like the W. D. Howells novels typed or scanned, organized, and mounted on the web that had been given to the Howells Society by Eric Eldred.  (Using Eldred’s format for consistency, I scanned and corrected An Imperative Duty for the site, and it took a while.)

We don’t need these now as when we only had individual sites, the Making of America Site and Project Gutenberg. Now we have Google Books, Hathi Trust, and any number of exciting large-scale projects (just go to NINES and look); new ones are announced seemingly every day, and they’re great–metadata, maps, interactivity, great TEI encoding, or whatever.

I keep hearing that the era of the archive is over and so is the era of recovery.

But if it’s over, why are we still, in some cases, shoring up texts and authors that are in no danger of going away?  Why are we leaving the authors who were recovered on those early sites like the SSAWW one still lingering in a limbo–readable but maybe not findable (because metadata), not celebrated, and without all the modern digital accoutrements that would allow them to find a new audience?

 

 

 

 

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