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

Pathfinders as a Human-Centered Methodology

How can we make an interactive, multimedia work of born digital media created on outmoded hardware and software accessible to today's readers in a way that preserves the experience of that work?
How can we make an interactive, multimedia work of born digital media created on outmoded hardware and software accessible to today's readers in a way that preserves the experience of that work?

This was the question driving Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop's research with their Pathfinders project. They answered this question by developing a methodology that included detailed documentation of the work along with video recording author-reader performances of a single path into the work using time-appropriate hardware and software. They called their methodology Pathfinders, and the videotaped performance a Traversal. They used this method for documenting four early works of electronic literature: Judy Malloy's Uncle Roger, Version 3.3, John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1992), Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995) and Bill Bly's We Descend (1997). They compiled all of their data into an open-source, multimedia book, entitled Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature, and published it on June 1, 2015. To date, the book has had over 25,000 views from readers from 58 countries representing 275 universities, centers, libraries, and schools. They followed this project with Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Digital Writing (The MIT Press, 2017), a book of critical essays about the four works.

In 2018 the ELL Team expanded Grigar and Moulthrop's Traversal process by streaming the performances and the Q & A session following it live on YouTube to provide better access to the public and engaging them in a real-time YouTube chat so that they could interact with the authors. We also incorporated social media channels, Facebook and Twitter, to broadcast information and allow for additional ways to involve audiences.

Capturing a live Traversal introduced a few new challenges. First, because there is a audience viewing the Traversal both on-site at the lab and online via YouTube, role of the reader, the one who is navigating the work, is performing for two distinctly different audiences. For that reason, this year we moved the Traversals from ELL to the MOVE lab, a video and sound studio where there is more room for the audience and better equipment for broadcasting. Second, since live broadcasting removes the option of splicing together multiple takes in post-production, the reader’s role requires more preparation and rehearsal. Additionally, the video and audio mixing process requires more camera angles and microphone positions, as the live performance does not allow for the set to be taken down and re-arranged between reading, author interview, and Q & A portions of the Traversal. To address these challenges, this year we brought artists for an additional day so that they had more time to revisit their work on the legacy computers used for their performance and the opportunity to practice with the cameras.

Capturing live social interaction enables us to capture audience participation during the Traversal process. Undergraduate researchers working in the lab cultivated audiences and captured conversations taking place on Twitter using the #ELitLab hashtag, on Facebook using ELL's page, and with YouTube's live chat mode. These social media networks allowed us to add live conversation to the Traversal that involved scholars, interested viewers, and the authors themselves. After the event, the content of these three social media feeds, plus photographs taken during the live event, were gathered and included in the book.

Underlying our methodology is what Grigar calls "human-centered" [1]––that is, putting the focus on the human experience with digital objects that results in stories that ultimately give a work its own “life” beyond the lives reflected in the content of the work itself. In terms of archiving, it affords works of electronic literature their own histories through documented stories. Performing Traversals of e-lit live, online, and using social media channels makes it possible for us to keep these seminal works alive by sharing their stories with a wide audience, capturing more of the depth and richness of the scholarly conversation surrounding these works, and recording the ensuing conversation for posterity. 

Like with the Pathfinders and Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 1, we have collected background information on the works, author information; photographs of all of the material components of the work; critical essays; and resources. Along with these, however, we have videos of all live Traversals and screen captures of the Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and YouTube chat that took place during the live performance. Taken together they document the work as well as the readers' and audience's experience with the works.


[1] See Grigar's "Provenance and Collecting E-Lit: A Case for Human-Centered Collecting," Electronic Literature Lab Website,

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