Why Collecting Is Important

by Dene Grigar
Director, Electronic Literature Lab

One of the early online communities I became a part of was the trAce Online Writing Centre, founded in 1995 by Sue Thomas, a professor at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, UK. My participation in trAce was an oddity in that I am not British (I’m of Czech heritage on both parents’ sides) nor a citizen of the United Kingdom (I’m an American citizen, 2nd generation). At the time (circa 2002-4), however, I had residency in England due to my post-doctoral study at the University of Plymouth. In 2003, when the announcement was made to participate in trAce’s TextLab fellowship, I applied and was selected. There I got to know Thomas, but also met luminaries who also shone light on the community––Kate Pullinger, Tim Wright, Simon Mills, Lawrence Upton, Gavin Stewart, Randy Adams, Helen Whitehead and others––and found myself like a lot of electronic writers orbiting around trAce. Following TextLab, you could find me at trAce’s conference (Incubation), taking an online course in flash poetry, publishing with trAce, and participating in its forums. Thus, I can attest that what Thomas had created was nothing short of brilliant: She had given birth to and maintained the field of electronic literature in the UK––and she did it for 10 years. That she funded all of it from grant-writing was, well, also amazing. So, when in 2004 Thomas wrote me that she had been appointed Professor of New Media at De Montfort University and was leaving the university, [1] naturally the rogue archivist in me was concerned over the potential loss of the trAce archives. But Thomas assured me not to worry, and––sure enough––for over ten years the NTU maintained the various assets on the trAce server, though the community itself had gone in different directions. Eventually, the software used for much of the site, Cold Fusion, had become outmoded, and the server itself posed a danger for hacking. It was at that point that NTU quit supporting the site once and for all, and trAce went dark, taking with it the record of the community’s historical and cultural impact on the field. And, yes, I did freak out at that moment.

Remains of walls and floors, probably from houses, from the lost ancient city of Tenea are seen Tuesday. The Greek Culture Ministry said archaeologists have located the first tangible remains of the city. (Greek Culture Ministry/AP)

It’s awful when a vibrant community disappears from human memory. Unlike the recent discovery of the settlement of Tenea, the prosperous ancient city that thrived in Greece after the Trojan War but destroyed in the Roman “takeover” of Greece in the 2nd Century B.C., [2] trAce and online communities like it dwelling on hardware and software not properly maintained are more in danger of being lost than any ancient community. At least Tenea can leave a trace (pardon the pun) of itself in way of marble statues and sarcophagi. For trAce there wouldn’t be any physical artifacts like stone walls and houses either to evince its existence once it went dark, folks, because trAce’s server was a virtual one and its many files, digital. While there are just too many of us still alive who know about Thomas’s and trAce’s contributions––and like me, have held on to conference programs and other ephemera (you have to love that term in light of this discussion)––for trAce to die entirely, overtime we too will “go dark,” our plugs pulled by mortality. If trAce’s archives were not saved, then, at that moment it will die its second and even more tragic death.

Yes, this is a long, depressing introduction leading to the topic of this blog, “Why Collecting Is Important,” but you have to admit that it is one that underscores the theme quite well and goes far to explaining why Electronic Literature Organization has been maniacally collecting online journals, museums, environments, and works for the last several years for the ELO Archives (ELA).

On a more positive note, below are four ways that ELO is handling its archive’s collection. Works can be:

  1. Saved from becoming lost by being hosted on a monitored system and curated environment

On March 5, 2016 ELO moved the trAce files from NTU’s virtual server to the ELO’s repository server, which is systematically maintained and monitored, and created a webpage for it on the ELO Repository website, explaining its importance to the field and situating it along with other influential communities. When, on December 30, 2018, ELO rolls out the repository it’s building in Samvera, all of the metadata pertaining to the 60 works of electronic literature published in its journal frAme will be available, meaning that information about them will be findable on the web. In fact, ELO has invested quite heavily in server-side development, including updating its regular server to handle the Wikibase used to host materials establishing the provenance of works in its collections. Because some of the funds come from our regular budget derived from memberships, members themselves are likewise investing in this long-term project to save electronic literature. We have also written and received grants, such as the recent award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that supported the development of the repository site. Such is the ELO’s commitment to preserving electronic literature.

  1. Maintained systematically by attending to software constraints (e.g. Cold Fusion, DRUPAL, WordPress)

Much of trAce was built with Cold Fusion 4.5, a software program created in 1995 that made webpages function easily with a database. That said, the current version of the software is not backward compatible and efforts to find an old version that is have proven to be futile. This means that we cannot yet recreate the forums and other assets for contemporary computer systems, but we have been able to reconstitute files created with HTML, CSS, and Javascript. This means we have been able to make all six issues of trAce’s journal, frAme, published from 1999-2004, accessible to the public. Net art by Mark Amerika, Christy Sanford Sheffield, Patrick Lichty, Mez Breeze, Alan Sondheim, Jennifer Ley, Talan Memmott, Melinda Rackham, Deena Larsen, Randy Adams, and other artists are still available because of this undertaking. If anyone has a copy of CF 4.5 lying around that you aren’t using anymore, please donate to us. We have computers that can run it in my lab and contribute to rebooting the site.

  1. Made accessible and findable to the public through fixing naming convention, file structures and dead links

When ELO received the frAme files, many of the works used naming conventions that were difficult to understand and file structures that were not standardized. In some cases, there were many versions of an index file for a particular issue or work, which meant we had to determine which of them was actually the one used. Some files were saved with both of the extensions .htm and .html. Many of files did not begin with an index.htm(l) file but rather the title of the work numbered by the amount of lexias it entails. frAme Volume 1 posed an interesting problem in that the files for the journal’s main interface were located along with the specific articles and e-lit works published in that particular issue. It took a while to determine the organizational structure for both. Early issues were archived on the trAce server, but later they were simply linked from the artists’ own sites. This means that many of the links no longer functioned. To solve this problem, we had to use the Wayback Machine to display the work, change relative links to absolute links, and contact artists when possible for access to a new link. When none of these approaches worked, we made a note about the missing content for the reader.

  1. Be culturally situated for a new generation of readers by providing scholarly commentary about its history and impact

As mentioned, we produced a new webpage for trAce that includes information about the community and its historical and cultural contributions to the field. But it also contains detailed scholar’s notes about the works available at the site and an introduction by Sue Thomas that provides excellent context for it. Once the ELO Wikibase is ready, we will be able to host the paper archives I have maintained and those that Thomas shared with us, making all this material available as digital files to provide provenance to the many activities trAce supported.

I mentioned that ELO has been “maniacally” collecting over the last several years. This endeavor means that we now own and/or maintain 9 collections. They include:

  1. Turbulence.org
  2. trAce Online Writing Centre
  3. ELO’s video collection of readings and performances by 10 authors at ELO events, circa 1999-2006; production files of Electronic Literature Collections, Volumes 1-3, amounting to 235 works.
  4. Pathfinders
  5. BeeHive Hypertext/Hypermedia Journal
  6. Individual artists’ archives: E-lit and digitized materials (e.g. manuscripts, publishing contracts, art)  by artists Sarah Smith, David Kolb, M.D. Coverley (Marjorie C. Luesebrink), and Deena Larsen
  7. N. Katherine Hayles’ personal collection of rare floppy disks and CD-ROMs
  8. Riding the Meridian
  9. Word Circuits

We are also in talks with Poems That Go and Hipertulia and expect to receive archives from e-lit artist Richard Holeton in the coming week. By the end of 2018 we will have documented the metadata of over 1000 works in the ELO Repository and made most of the works themselves available to the public from our archival site. We envision another 1000 works and their metadata will be available by early summer 2019.

IMHO, 2000 works represent a whole lot of vibrant life. Call it the Electronic Literature Archives, [3] if you want, but I think of it as our Tenea, in its full glory made ready for all to see and experience.


[1] Thomas, Sue. Personal email. Re: From Dene. 17 September 2004.

[2] Wang, Amy. “A lost ancient city built by Trojan War captives has been found, Greek officials say.” The Washington Post. 13 November 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/13/lost-ancient-city-built-by-trojan-war-captives-has-been-found-greek-officials-say/?utm_term=.380bd9f649f3.

[3] The Electronic Literature Archives (ELA) is the term we are using to denote the overarching collection the ELO holds. Within ELA we hold nine individual collections as stated in the essay. When preparing works for findability and accessibility to the public, works are first moved into the ELO Depository for inspection. Those that ELO has permission to show are moved into the ELO Repository; those we do not have permission to make available go into Deep Freeze, awaiting a time that they can be accessed.

Special Note: The work undertaken to reconstitute trAce and make frAme available to the public was done by a team of researchers, including four Undergraduate Researchers in my lab. I am very proud of the work they have done on behalf of ELO and electronic literature.

Dene Grigar is Director and Professor of the CMDC Program. She specializes in electronic literature, emerging technologies and cognition, and ephemera.