Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Electronic Knowledge Sites and Hyper Nietzsche

This posting comes to you from a desk somewhere at the University of Queensland, composed on a screen that delivers, at my request, large quantities of information every week from web-sites across the world. The homepage that appears every morning after the browser boots up is http://www.austlit.edu.au/, offering a portal to the world of Australian literature with information on authors, their works and references to a plethora of reviews, essays, books, films, performances and many other phenomena. In most cases, the information is contained within the AustLit web-site, but occasionally I am directed out of that container to web-sites hosted elsewhere.

Working on the Aus-e-Lit Project frequently makes me consider the possibilities of my position in front of the screen supported by a suitable machine. I am certainly not the first to consider these possibilities. In his important book From Gutenberg to Google (2006) Peter Shillingsburg dreams of an electronic resource that provides everything a literary scholar could hope for:
[I]f one had comprehensive scholarly compilations of the documents of a knowledge area, beauty of presentation, imaging, collation on the fly, constant self-check for authenticity, writer's tools for annotational linking, multiple forms of output (to screen, to print, to XML, to WORD, to TEX, to PDF, to others), sound, motion, decent speed, decent holding capacity, user-friendly interface, quick navigation to any point (three clicks or less), and scholarly quality - and if one had these capabilities in authoring mode, augmenter's mode, and reader's mode, in a suite of programs with similar interfaces all workable on multiple platforms so that they were not too difficult to learn or to port from one set of equipment to another, and so that the tools developed for one archive could be easily adapted for use with another archive - then we would have something to crow about. (91)
Something to crow about, according to Shillingsburg, because we only have 'multiple experiments that rarely talk to each other and are not easily transferable. The dream that Shillingsburg describes is what he has called an 'electronic knowledge site', a collaborative enterprise that will outlive its originators by providing a resource that 'can grow and develop through changes in intellectual focuses, insights, and fads and accomodate new knowledge in configurations that may augment or correct rather than replace the work that went before.' (95) Shillingsburg's book is worth a reading not only for this view of possibilities, but also for its acknowledgement of the economic, technological, physical and cultural realities of scholarly work.

Gutenberg to Google is also important for its direction to digital projects in Australia, the USA, Great Britain and Europe. One of the most interesting is the HyperNietzsche Project which will soon be available on-line as NietzscheSource. Delivering digital images of manuscripts, books and articles and supporting the authorship of essays, commentary and critical editions, NietzscheSource promises to be an important example for any project that aims to deal with print-based modes of expression. Of particular interest to Aus-e-Lit in its third stage of development will be the organisational structure of a 'dynamic ontology' that maintains a record of the complex relationships between digital objects while at the same time enabling linear sequencing according to genetic, chronological or thematic criteria.

A core group of strong and enduring digital projects will inform the development of Aus-e-Lit. The NINES project at the University of Virginia is already informing the technical and conceptual thinking of the Aus-e-Lit team. When it comes on-line in the near future, NietzscheSource will offer another significant inspiration as we move towards an idea that's not far removed from Peter Shillingsburg's notion of an 'electronic knowledge site'.

Friday, October 17, 2008


This PynchonWiki has little to do with Australian literature, but it demonstrates the possibilities of collaborative annotation.

The PynchonWiki was established soon after the publication of Against the Day in November 2006. Between that time and June 2007 more than two hundred contributors annotated the book by page and topic, accumulating more than 450,000 words about Pynchon's long and complex book.

This phenomenon attracted the attention of two academics who have published 'Literary Sleuths Online' to describe the events and assess the results. The article presents the PynchonWiki as an exemplary example of e-Research collaboration, but acknowledges some 'weaknesses of this voluntary, amateur and low-tech type of online collaboration'. Compared to Weisenburger's 1988 companion to the earlier novel Gravity's Rainbow, the PynchonWiki offers considerably more information and the ability to link to a large variety of digital resources with a quality of scholarship that can be revised and expanded at will. While the quality of scholarship frequently lags behind Weisenburger, the collaborative venture is an admirable example intense engagement with a single text that 'is bound to encourage learning among contributors'.

Any discussion of open and collaborative annotation will ultimately lead to the question of quality, but the example of the PynchonWiki demonstrates that a carefully managed resource can produce positive and useful results for a community of enthusiastic readers.

The Aus-e-Lit annotations services will be supported by a large amount of full-text in the AustLit Primary Source Texts hosted by SETIS. The ability to annotate by line or word in a searchable dataset across two hundred years of Australian literary history will provide an unprecendented resource that will grow and evolve with time, leaving a record of individual and community reading that will inform general readers and researchers into the future. When the Aus-e-Lit annotation services come online during 2009 calls for volunteers will be broadcast and some specific annotation events will be coordinated.

I'm sure that such events will result in significant discussion about the quality and benefits of collaborative annotation in Australian literary studies.

Scholarly Editing and Digital Editions

Among the ARC Discovery Projects for 2009 announced yesterday was a major scholarly edition of the work of colonial poet Charles Harpur. Chief investigators are Professors Paul Eggert and Elizabeth Webby and Dr Peter Robinson. The Project aims to make all the manuscript versions of Harpur's poems available for study through SETIS, and to support literary criticism, teaching and collaborative editing through a project web-site, providing a model for future projects.

This project will add to the large body of work that has been produced at the Australian Scholarly Editions Centre (ASEC) under the direction of Professor Eggert. Ten volumes in the Academy Editions of Australian Literature were completed by 2007 and eight volumes in the Colonial Texts Series had appeared by 2004, a significant achievement in textual criticism and scholarly editing. Work on these editions have informed a number of articles on editorial theory, many of which have appeared in major journals in the field such as Textual Cultures and Studies in Bibliography.

In addition to the print volumes, ASEC has supported investigations into the development of electronic editions, hosting editions of Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life and Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter as experimental models. Eggert summed up the technical and theoretical issues of these projects in 'Text-encoding, Theories of the Text, and the "Work-Site"'.

The scholarship and theoretical foundations of these scholarly editions will strongly inform the development of annotation and authoring services at Aus-e-Lit. Similar to Eggert's notion of the 'work-site', the tools developed by the Aus-e-Lit Project will support active engagement with database records and available full-text records, helping to foster collaborative research in the fields of Australian literary studies, book history and print culture.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

SETIS: Sydney Electronic Text and Image Service

One of the major problems for students, researchers and general readers of classic Australian literature is the unavailability of texts in print form. Of course, an enthusiastic reader could probably find copies of many of these books in second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, or borrow them from their local council or university library, but such opportunities are limited and the condition of ancient or well-worn books do not make suitable reading copies. In an attempt to make important works of Australian literature more accessible and to help preserve the material copies that are still available, the Sydney Electronic Text and Images Service (SETIS) has supported a large-scale digitization project that is a magnificent resource for present and future readers and researchers.

Among the many texts that have been digitized at SETIS, more than one hundred are sponsored by AustLit, selected on the basis of academic surveys and advice. Ranging from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s, the AustLit Primary Source Texts form a core group of texts that have significantly contributed to Australia's literary history. The first books of many well-known writers are included, but neglected writers such as Chester Cobb are also represented in the list. Important nineteenth century women writers such as Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, 'Tasma' and Catherine Martin are included and the series of Bulletin anthologies edited by A. G. Stephens provide a glimpse of the literary content of that famous weekly newspaper. Primarily using first editions as a source for transcription and delivering text to readers in PDF format, SETIS draws readers as close as possible to the original publication without providing a digitized image of each page.

SETIS enables searching within and across the texts it hosts, but Aus-e-Lit plans to provide a richer searching infrastructure for the AustLit Primary Source Texts, linking their data to that held within AustLit and other target databases. In the next three months testing will begin on the first phase of federated searching and a demonstration version will be available for feedback by July 2009, just in time for the annual ASAL conference.