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About Pathfinders

[A portion of this essay by Moulthrop and Grigar has been developed into an article entitled, "Traversals: A Method of Preservation for Born-Digital Texts" to be published in The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers.]

Pathfinders can be interrogated from two perspectives: as a material object and as an idea.

As a material object, Pathfinders raises challenging questions of nomenclature: What do you call a publication that contains a central idea comprised of many discrete sections of information contributing to that central idea? What if that publication entails the use of words, images, sound, and videos for expressing the ideas? What if it is produced on the web but exported for one's own personal computing device? Certainly, we cannot call such a material object a book––at least, not in the traditional sense of the word because, well, it's not a printed, self-contained artifact one would archive on a bookshelf. In fact, the tablet on which it resides may contain other items, like a digital level or a calculator, that have absolutely nothing to do with bookish activities. It's also not an eBook because the content is dynamic, alive with movement and sound. It doesn't feel like a traditional website (though certainly its production took place on the web and the work now reside there) because it is laid out in a way that evokes the features of books (e.g. chapters, sections). The best way to think about the artifact that is Pathfinders, in its current iteration, is as a hybrid publication: a web-book––a new form of knowledge environment that experiments with web-based multimedia for providing criticism and scholarly content to a wide audience interested in experimental writing and literature of the late 20th century. But for simplicity sake and the fact that there is really no elegant name for what we have produced, we refer to it as our open-source, multimedia book.
As an idea, Pathfinders raises questions of purpose: What does one call an initiative to keep a work alive by documenting its existence, dynamism, and experience? While Pathfinders is intended as a kind of digital preservation project, is it actually preserving work when it does not migrate or emulate, for example, one single node or path of Bill Bly's novel We Descend? Even as Pathfinders features Bly's performance of the work, one collected along with vintage computers needed to read it, does Pathfinders even constitute preservation by collection? The answer is, on the one hand, not exactly. At its core, Pathfinders' purpose is to make it possible for scholars and the reading public to experience a work of digital literature as close to its original cultural context as possible by showing videos of people––the artist, readers––experiencing works in original formats and on original computers used for their production and/or presentation. A vicarious pleasure, indeed, but libraries and other venues that house early digital literature but can't or do not want to collect computers for showing it are able to supplement the experience of merely holding, for example, Judy Malloy's hand-made box of Uncle Roger in one's hands and wondering what the work is like with a video of Malloy performing it––on the computer it was intended for at the time she produced it. In this way, those studying the work can see and hear the way it functioned in 1987 on the Apple IIe, thereby able to tease out unique characteristics lost in the migrated web version or the DOSBox emulator. So, the answer is, on the other hand, in a way. The works and vintage computers make up a collection at Grigar's Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) where two of the four traversals and interviews were conducted. People can, indeed, travel to Vancouver, WA, visit ELL, and experience the collection. But for those who cannot, Pathfinders may be a helpful alternative because it does document the collection as a way of disseminating information about the work and, thereby, preserving the cultural and historical context about and providing access to early digital literature in danger of becoming obsolete and forgotten. As we have said elsewhere, we wish we had a video of Sappho performing one of the many poems she is credited for writing but are, today, lost to us. So much richer would our culture be for it.
Documenting four works of early digital literature has been a huge undertaking. Videos taken during traversals, interviews, and public readings and already edited for flow and continuity were reedited into 102 smaller clips. Photos––hundreds of them of the artists and readers––were optimized for the Scalar environment. Images of folios, CDs, and flash drive were created by scanning or photographing them. Sound files were derived from video footage and, so, reedited to make sense as aural content. Someone had to keep tabs of equipment, media, and computers. Someone had to design Pathfinders so that it is compelling and engages readers. These are tasks beyond conceptualizing the project, conducting the scholarship comprising its contents, and authoring it. However, the Pathfinders book production team was not a large one––counting Moulthrop and Grigar, only five people. Madeleine Brookman, a student in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program and a video specialist, handled all of the video editing, did a large part of the scanning and photography work, and assisted with uploading and documenting the media content for the Scalar environment. She also prepared the Pathfinders trailer that introduces the project and has served as media librarian during much of the project. Will Luers, faculty in the program, was our designer and the consultant for the Scalar platform. Greg Philbrook, the program's tech guru, made sure everything in the lab worked, and when something did not, he moved fast to fix it.  
There is much to be said about the future of the book and what constitutes reading in rich media environments, like Pathfinders, especially in light of what we have witnessed in the evolution of digital platforms in the last 25 years. Floppies, CDs, flash drives and cloud technology all speak to great innovations in digital technologies taking place in a very short period of history. Works like Sarah Smith's King of Space cannot be read on today's Macs because it's published on a 3 1/2" floppy disk. We are concerned about a great many works like Smith's disappearing from our collective knowledge. Therefore, documenting four of the many that need to be preserved is the first step in a grand gesture. The irony of producing our research (about works in danger of obsolescence due to evolving digital technologies) in digital format should not be lost on anyone. However, we have observed through our 60 years of combined experience with electronic media that the two most stable formats, heretofore, remain the web and video. For that reason, we have opted to trust them enough in order to begin this project. No longer can we afford the luxury of waiting to preserve this precious treasure that is early digital literature. We hope to inspire others to do the same.

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