Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 2: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Introduction to Rebooting Electronic Literature

Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 2  is the second of a series of open-source, multimedia books documenting works of electronic literature held in Dene Grigar's Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) collection at Washington State University Vancouver. The five works selected for this volume are among the most unique and fragile in the collection. All constitute long-form writing produced with stand-alone hypertext authoring systems available during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The hypertext novels include Kathryn Cramer's In Small & Large Pieces (1994), Richard Holeton's Figurski at Findhorn on Acid (2001), and Tim McLaughlin's Notes toward Absolute Zero (1995). Also featured is Stephanie Strickland's long narrative poem, True North (1997), and Deena Larsen's anthology of interconnected hypertext stories, Samplers (1997). All were produced with Storyspace, the software program created by Michael Joyce, Jay David Bolter, and John B. Smith in 1987 and licensed by Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 1990 [1]  and published by the company. Additionally all were released on 3.5-inch floppy disks. Most works were migrated later to the CD-ROM format. That said, Strickland's True North came out both on floppy disk and CD-ROM versions close to the same time. Cramer's In Small & Large Pieces, on the other hand, was never migrated to CD-ROM format. With the demise of the CD-ROM drive as standard equipment on contemporary computers, access to all of these works is in danger of being lost to the public.

Documentation Methodology: Pathfinders
The documentation methodology used for this project is an expanded version of the Pathfinders methodology pioneered by Grigar and Moulthrop [2]. It centers on two important processes: First, live performances––or what they call Traversals [3]––streamed on YouTube by readers and/or authors performing the work on the hardware and software on which the works were originally intended; second, the addition of audience engagement via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube live chat. Along with videos of the live stream Traversals and screenshots of social media posts, the book features images of the packaging of the work, such as folios, floppy disks, manuals, and paper inserts. The documentation methodology also has us include historical information about the work and essays for each work.

In developing the project, we aim to provide information helpful to scholars. Publication dates, versions, and production methods have been vetted by publishers and artists and, when possible, verified with archival material collected by the Electronic Literature Organization or found at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. We vet this data with the intent of clearing up discrepancies as well as adding previously unlisted details about these works. The three versions of Strickland's True North, for example, have been known for a long time as having been published in 1997. Through conversations with Strickland during her visit to ELL to give a Traversal of True North and subsequent email exchanges, as well as research on the work in the Stephanie Strickland Papers at the Rubenstein Library, Grigar was able to provide a more exact order of the work's production. The floppy disk version for the PC, for example, was begun first because Strickland used a PC to create the work and did not have access to a Macintosh, the operating system for which Storyspace was originally built. This version of True North reflects one of the first works of electronic literature published for the Windows operating system. Strickland began working on the Mac version after she had begun the PC version when she found out the company also wanted the poem for Macintosh computers. Both were released in 1997. It would be two years later that the CD-ROM version would be published. This means the publication dates stated in various scholarly databases, like WorldCat, is incorrect. Providing precise information regarding the development and provenance of the work ensures authority control, mitigates potential confusion and ambiguity, and, most importantly, helps to explain the development trajectory of particular works and establishes their contribution to the field. The publication history of True North shows the speed in which digital technology changed in the late 20th century and exerted pressure on publishing houses to stay abreast of technological innovation.

Selection Critieria
As mentioned previously, this project aims to document works of born-digital media found in Grigar's collection of electronic literature held in her lab, the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL). A prodigious personal collection begun in 1991, ELL consists of 300 copies of electronic literature, 61 functioning vintage computers, and software pertaining to authoring and design dating back to the early 1980s. Of most concern to this publication are those works published on floppy disks and CD-ROMs not currently or soon will no longer be accessible to the general public. The works featured in this volume, therefore, are those from the collection selected for Traversals this year. It is the goal of the Rebooting Electronic Literature series to document all of the born digital hypertext works published on removable disks found in Grigar's library. To date, there are 29 works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. that are still in need of documentation that will be featured in future volumes of this book.

About the Written Documentation Found in This Book
Writing about electronic literature and literary games published on 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch floppy disks and CD-ROMs with software no longer supported by contemporary computers is vastly different than writing about literature still in circulation and found on people’s bookshelves or tablets. When a reader can’t touch the packaging the work comes bundled in, experience its interface, follow its navigation; or read the words, see the images, or hear the sound, it’s important to ask, “What is the best way to write about inaccessible works of born-digital literature so that readers get a good understanding of it and its contribution to the literary tradition?”

As Grigar and Moulthrop concluded for the Pathfinders project, description––that is, what they call ekphratic writing––is optimal for video clips and photos for providing detail and context and allowing for media objects to be read by computers for audience members who may be visually challenged. We follow this model, adding this form of writing for the social media posts associated with our Traversals and going as far as including the exact wording found on pages of a manual, for example. We also tease out the most salient points on the video clips of the Traversals or interviews so that readers can more readily find information they may be seeking.

For writing about the works themselves, however, we took a different approach than Pathfinders. Rather than featuring critical essays, we instead offer a combination of explication, analysis, and criticism.

Explication is important because it allows for a detailed description of one’s experience with the work––essentially a blow-by-blow interaction with it. Analysis, on the other hand, calls for a deep dive into the work’s most salient features. Finally, criticism provides the opportunity to discuss the work’s connection to larger trends, to the larger body of work, to other works and authors. Taken together, these three types of writing provide our audience, reliant upon an essay to learn about the work, as close of an experience with it and its cultural context as possible. For how else can scholars follow an argument about structure and meaning in Deena Larsen’s Samplers if they do not have a copy of Samplers and, so, cannot see for themselves the way in which Larsen names her paths? When writing the essay about this work for this book, Grigar found herself explicating the process of navigating the paths, discussing the names attributed to them, and then describing the lexias to which they lead. Likewise, how can scholars gain an understanding of the way Larsen employs the metaphor of stitching and sewing in Samplers? Here, Grigar analyzed the quilt and sampler that bring the nine small hypertexts together into a whole. How can scholars get a sense of the way Larsen’s work contributes to the zeitgeist of the period? It is here that she ties Samplers to Kathryn Cramer’s In Small & Large Pieces and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, three women writers who work against the notion of fragmentation so popular in hypertext theory of the period by literally suturing up text, ideas, and characters in their narratives. So few of the early hypertext literary works are available to the public. Eastgate Systems, Inc. has re-released Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl on flash drive, and numerous work from the mid-20th century onwards are still available on CD-ROM. But for most readers without CD-ROM drives on their desktops or readers who only use tablets and phones, anything produced on floppy disk and CD-ROM technology is unaccessible. It is imperative that those of us with access to these works write essays about them using these three approaches in order for the works to be documented and live on through our scholarship for future publics to know they have existed and why they are important to read and study.

About the Book's Authors
Written and produced by the ELL Team––Dene Grigar, Nicholas Schiller, Holly Slocum, Mariah Gwin, Kathleen Zoller, Andrew Nevue, and Moneca Roath––Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 2 features approximately 50,000 words devoted to artist biographies, descriptions of media, and essays; over 200 photos of artists, works, and their original packaging; and over 40 videos of artist readings and interviews and Live Stream Traversals. Producing a collaborative book such as this one meant we had to draw upon specific expertise and strengths each team member possessed and, at the same time, all be willing and able to jump in where needed. [4] We also recognized that because five of our team members are undergraduate researchers who may want to apply to graduate programs or one day seek employment––and one of which is graduating in December 2019––we acknowledge the importance of calling out each member's primary duties in the development of this book:
  • Dene Grigar, PhD: Conceptualized the book, wrote the introduction and all essays
  • Nicholas Schiller, MLIS: Copyedited the book and wrote selected author biographies
  • Greg Philbrook, B.A.: On-going technical support and HTML design
  • Holly Slocum: Managed the project and took photos for the book 
  • Moneca Roath: Recorded and edited all Traversal videos and wrote descriptions for all of them for the book
  • Kathleen Zoller: Wrote the copy for photo descriptions and social media descriptions for each of the works
  • Mariah Gwin: Wrote some descriptions for the book and took photos
  • Andrew Nevue: Created the resources for each of the works and wrote descriptions of the social media posts for each of the works
We also wish to acknowledge artist Will Luers who developed the art for the "cover" of the book.

Finally, we thank the Electronic Literature Organization for its leadership in developing methods for evaluating quality of digital creative and critical works and its insights into cataloging its growing body of digital fiction, poetry, and other literary forms––activities from which this research grows.


[1] Belinda Barnet outlines the development of early hypertext programs like Hypergate and Storyspace in her book, Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext. London, UK: Anthem Press, 2014. See pages 131-133.

[2] See Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop's Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature. 2015.

[3] They define a Traversal as "a reflective encounter with a digital text in which the possibilities of that text are explored in a way that indicates its key features, capabilities, and themes" (authors' emphasis). They also state that "a Traversal must take place on equipment configured as closely as possible to the system used to create the work or on which the work might have been expected to reach its initial audience." See Moulthrop and Grigar's Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017, 7.

[4] Our philosophy of collaborative team structure follows that of a "seamless design of network knowledge" argued for by Aaron Mauro, Daniel Powell, Sarah Potvin, Jacob Heil, Eric Dye, Bridget Jenkins, and Dene Grigar in which "collaboration [is] locally-determined,  designed, and mutually productive, regardless of standing within or without academic institutions; there must be an intentional ethics that is both transparent and adaptive to the needs of the team." See "Toward a Seamless Design of Network Knowledge: Practical Pedagogies in Collaborative Teams. Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2017 11.3.

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