From Pathfinders to The NEXT

Dene —

I’m writing from Santa Cruz, where I’m at a workshop Noah’s organized for CS and digital humanities types.  Anne Balsamo’s here, and has told me about the project you and she have discussed, to make video records of readings of early e-lit works.  I’ve agreed to help Anne draft an NEH proposal. . . . 


Those are the opening lines of the email message Stuart Moulthrop sent on August 27, 2012 inviting me to participate on a potential NEH project to document early electronic literature published on floppy disks and CD-ROMs. We did indeed move forward with a proposal, though Anne had dropped off the project. In April 2013 we learned that “Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature,” was funded. 

When all was said and done, “Pathfinders” offered (and continues to offer) a formal methodology for documenting fragile works of digital literature. Because these works feature varying degrees of interactivity, some amount of reader participation, and a rich, multimedia experience, Stuart and I realized that to provide future generations of readers a good understanding of such work, we had to include with the video recordings––which we came to call a “Traversal”––documentation of the physical media, readers’ responses to the work, authors’ reflections about production, and a critical look of its contribution to literary history. All of this material would then be collected and shared through an open-source, multimedia book built.

Out of “Pathfinders” came the co-authored book, Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing (The MIT Press, 2017), that articulates the theory of preservation Stuart and I arrived at with with “Pathfinders.” Put simply, we view preservation not only as saving a work of literary art but also capturing the experience readers have with that work––and this experience includes the way it feels to touch and hold the work, hear and watch it launch, to engage with and immerse in it, and to situate it in its cultural moment. A time-consuming approach towards preservation, to be sure, but ultimately one with the potential of leaving a robust historical record.

After Traversals I was emboldened to continue with the “Pathfinders” project by documenting all of the works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. that I held in my personal collection of electronic literature in my lab’s library. Entitled “Rebooting Electronic Literature,” the project is in its fifth year and has, to date, documented 27 of the company’s 48 titles, along with three others published by other organizations and individuals. My lab mates and I extended the “Pathfinders” methodology by turning the Traversals into live events via YouTube and utilizing social media channels. This innovation to the project makes it possible for viewers to respond to the performances and interact with the authors and readers via YouTube chat in real time as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram before and after the event. As with “Pathfinders,” this data is also gathered and included with the rest of the material in the open-source, multimedia book.

As my lab was starting the “Rebooting” project, I realized that the challenge was not just in documenting electronic literature before the physical media were rendered completely inaccessible. A bigger challenge was knowing where copies were being held and how scholars could find and experience them before they were gone. I knew The Deena Larsen and the Bill Bly Collections were held at MITH, and The Judy Malloy, Stephanie Strickland, and Rob Kendall Collections, at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Some online journals could still be found on the web, but so many others had lost their domain names, access to servers and ISPs, or technical support and so had disappeared. Where were the thousands referenced by the Electronic Literature Directory, like Diana Slattery’s The Glide Project or Patricia Monaghan’s “Examination,” that I used to teach and write about? This concern was the impetus for “COPE” (Comprehensive Online Portal of Electronic Literature), the project I began with Leo Flores, Nicholas Schiller, and Chance Chase in 2018 that built a repository of electronic literature. Our goal was to bring as much electronic literature together into one online location so that scholars could find works to study and actually access–or, at the very least, access robust documentation about them. “COPE” was, in essence, “Pathfinders” on steroids. 

With $42K seed money awarded us by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we created the working prototype needed for conceptualizing a hybrid model of a digital museum and library where works held on physical media and as digital files could be hosted together in one place and preserved for posterity. Very quickly we collected online journals dating back to the earliest days of the web browser and personal collections developed over the years by artists and scholars. As a concept, the ELO Repository (as we named it) was a success; as a system, it needed serious reworking in order to achieve our goals. What was required to build out our model was a large team of dedicated designers, programmers, and content specialists to work with my lab to produce a site befitting the participatory, interactive, and experiential aspect of the literary art we had collected.

And so in the fall of 2020 my lab––with support of the ELO––renamed the ELO Repository “The NEXT” and set out to reconceptualize the interface and user experience with an eye toward capturing the liveness of the works. Six students from the Creative Media & Digital Culture program were brought in to work with the lab’s tech guru Greg Philbrook to code the templates that our designer Holly Slocum created from the concepts I saw as crucial for hosting participatory, interactive, and experiential works in an online space. By January 2021 the lab was ready to build the newly envisioned virtual space. Thirty-nine seniors from the program’s Senior Seminar used the project for their Capstone experience. Students specializing in design created the 1000s of images for the space. Students specializing in video production produced over 30 videos. 3D modelers re-created some of the physical media held in the space. 2D and 3D animators made simulations and animations. And the programmers used the templates to produce the 3000+ spaces needed for The NEXT.

During that same time Adobe had stopped supporting Flash. This meant that all of the Flash works collected at The NEXT were no longer accessible to our visitors. Proposals to the NEH that addressed this concern were not funded. Despite this, we earnestly began saving the works anyway. Two juniors from the program, Andrew Thompson and Arlo Ptolemy, were trained as Flash preservationists, and from spring 2021 onward, the two of them saved over 700 works of electronic literature created with Flash or produced video playthroughs of those that could not be saved.

By May 2021, the space was built, and works were accessible. The lab continued, however, to refine the space. Holly and Greg re-coded The NEXT using Semantic Mark Up Language and ARIA so that it would be accessible to visitors with disabilities. Richard Snyder joined us as our metadata specialist and enhanced the information for all of the works The NEXT held. Some of the graduates from the program who had worked on the project during the spring stayed on: Joel Clapp continued producing videos; Kathleen Zoller, Ruth Woodcock, and Sarah West, images; Kathleen, animations; and Viet Nguyen, the programming for the Visualizations space. 

All of the fall 2021 has been devoted to adding collections, building exhibitions, refining workflow, saving Flash works, redesigning spaces, enhancing metadata, and adding more videos and images. The NEXT now makes 26 collections of about 2500 works to the public, with five more collections ready to go live this spring. Stepping back and reflecting on what is about to be a decade since the inception of “Pathfinders,” I can say that the evolution that has led to The NEXT came naturally and methodically, with each step leading to the next. The documentation of electronic literature needed to end up as a museum where it could be exhibited to the public; it needed to serve as a library where visitors can find and access works and included detailed information about the works; and it needed to undertake preservation in order to keep the works alive for the museum and library. Of course, it did––but only in retrospect does The NEXT make sense. All I was thinking about when I started on the “Pathfinders” project with Stuart nine years ago was making sure early electronic literature endured for some future reader.

Stuart ended his email, saying: “I assume you’re already on board, in principle, based on earlier discussions with Anne, but want to make sure you know what we’re up to, and have no objection. Advice is always appreciated, and if you don’t mind, I’ll send you the draft proposal when it’s done. Could be a great chance to collaborate.”


Thank you, Stuart and Anne, you helped all of us at the Electronic Literature Lab find this terrific path that has led to The NEXT.


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