This page is referenced by:
Collection of Early Digital Literature in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL)
A description of the Electronic Literature Lab's collection and list of early digital works
Pathfinders innovates the method of digital preservation called “collection” by making the collection experience widely available to audiences through traversals––that is, documentation of artists' performing their works or users' interacting with works on vintage computers in collections like the ones found in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) and at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). ELL contains over 300 works of electronic literature––many of them produced and/or published before the introduction of the browser––and over 60 vintage Apple computers dating from 1983. A complete inventory of works and computers can be found in the ELL Catalog. Early digital literature, like those featured in Pathfinders, was created with an authoring system or programmed in languages like BASIC and, then, published on either 5 ¼” or 3 ½” floppy disks. Some works completed just as CD technology was becoming prevalent, like Bill Bly's We Descend, were published simultaneously on both a floppy disk and CD. They were sold and distributed through catalogs or by publishers, like Art Com Catalog and Eastgate, the developer of Storyspace and Tinderbox that also pioneered publishing methods for electronic literature. ELL’s early digital literature features these titles, below, from Eastgate. Missing from my collection are two works published by the company: Christiane Paul's Unreal City and Mark Bernstein and Erin Sweeney's The Election of 1912.
Mark Bernstein and Erin Sweeney, The Election of 1912, 1988 Robert DiChiara, Sucker in Spades, 1988 Michael Joyce, afternoon: a story, 1990 Clark Humphrey, The Perfect Couple, 1990 Stuart Moulthrop, Victory Garden, 1991 Sarah Smith, King of Space, 1991 Carolyn Guyer, Quibbling, 1992 George P. Landow, The Dickens Web, 1992 George P. Landow & Jon Lanestedt, The In Memoriam Web, 1992 Judy Malloy, its name was Penelope, 1989-1992 John McDaid, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, 1992 Mary-Kim Arnold, Lust, Diskette 1993, CD-COM 1998 J. Yellowlees Douglas, I Have Said Nothing, Diskette 1993, CD-ROM 1998 Deena Larsen, Marble Springs, 1993 Jim Rosenberg, Intergrams, 1993 Kathryn Cramer, In Small & Large Pieces, 1994 Giuliano Franco, Quam Artem Exerceas?, 1994 David Kolb, Socrates in the Labyrinth, 1994 Kathy Mac, Unnatural Habitats, 1994 Rob Swigart, Directions, 1994 Edward Falco, Sea Island, 1995 Richard Gess, Mahasukha Halo, 1995 Diane Greco, Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric, 1995 Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl, 1995 Judith Kerman, Mothering, 1995 George Landow, Writing at the Edge, 1995 Deena Larsen, Century Cross, 1995 Judy Malloy & Cathy Marshall, Forward Anywhere, 1995 Michael Van Mantgem, Completing the Circle, 1995 Tim McLaughlin, Notes Toward Absolute Zero, 1995 Christiane Paul, Unreal City: A Hypertext Companion to T. S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land," 1995 Michael Joyce, Twilight: A Symphony, 1996 Robert Kendall, A Life Set For Two, 1996 Jim Rosenberg, The Barrier Frames, 1996 Jim Rosenberg, Diffractions Through, 1996 Richard Smyth, Genetis: A Rhizography, 1996 Bill Bly, We Descend, 1997 Wes Chapman, Turning In, 1997 Edward Falco, A Dream with Demons, 1997 Deena Larsen, Samplers, 1997 Eric Steinhart, Fragments of the Dionysian Body, 1997 Stephanie Strickland, True North, 1997 M.D. Coverley, Califia, 2000 Rob Swigart, Down Time, 2000 Richard Holeton, Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, 2001 Judd Morrissey & Lori Talley, My Name Is Captain, Captain, 2002 Roderick Coover, Cultures in Webs, 2003 Megan Heyward, of day of night, 2004 Mark Bernstein, Those Trojan Girls, 2016
A discussion about the material object and idea behind Pathfinders as well as the people involved in its production
[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.