Pathfinding: The Next Step

[Much of this language came from the grant narrative and so means that Stuart and I are co-authors this post.]

While Stuart and I finish Pathfinders, where we have developed the methodology for preserving the experience of early digital literature, we have already conceptualized the next step, which we are calling Pathfinding.  This phase is a two-day symposium that will bring together leaders in the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of electronic literature, computer games, virtual worlds, digital collections, online journals, and mobile media to initiate a nationwide, trans- institutional consortium for treatment of born digital objects.

The project builds upon the research undertaken in Pathfinders (Grigar and Moulthrop, NEH ODH Start Up Grant, 2013) that introduced an important innovation––the documentation of experience––to the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of born-digital productions. To support the symposium, we have written another Stage 2 NEH Start Up grant. We will know in March if it has been funded.

The symposium’s goals are to : 1) share and exchange knowledge gained from Pathfinders, as well as other initiatives relating to the preservation of born digital objects; 2) coordinate diverse approaches to work of this type; 3) broaden the scope of inquiry beyond art and literature to all types of digital expression within Digital Humanities; and 4) facilitate a critical discussion of concepts and methods in this emerging field.

Pathfinding  aims to bring new approaches and document best practices in a core area of Digital Humanities: the posterity of expressive objects developed in computational media, what we refer to as “born digital objects.”  While Pathfinders focused on documenting experience through a process we call the “traversal,” exploring collection––that is, the use of historical platforms that themselves suggest a specific cultural context––as a method of preservation, archiving, and dissemination, Pathfinding applies our findings for the purpose of opening a critical dialogue about the full range of relevant strategies, including the importance of combining migration to newer media, software emulation, and collection for this purpose.  Discussion among key innovators from a wide range of fields that generate and/or study born digital objects will improve understanding of potential and limits of various approaches and lead to better coordination of future research, both in sharing of tools, insights, and strategies, and in decisions about areas of focus.

The need for this kind of project in the humanities led by those with experience in the production and scholarship of digital born mediacannot be overstated.  As Alan Liu observes, “[w]here postindustrialism extends its baseline back only as far as the last financial quarter or year, the humanities respond by asserting that the real value of knowledge can only be gauged across centuries and millennia” (381). Writing has been the primary means by which humanists have extended their work through time, but with the advent of digital media, writing faces serious complications. Enfolded within software systems, writing and other forms of symbolic expression are subject to disruptive forces of obsolescence, in material as well as social terms. Media objects themselves grow more complex, from the basic duality between encoded or latent text, and what users see, to the particular intricacies of individual interfaces and architectures. If the humanities are to remain a vital cultural force, it is essential that humanists evolve ways of dealing with relentlessly advancing media.

It is also clear that multiple approaches are needed. Some objects may lend themselves to software emulation or system migration––two other methods of preservation––while others, constrained by property claims and other issues, may be better served by collection and the documentation of experience that we argue goes hand in hand with it. Each of these methods brings unique affordances, and each also comes with limitations. Scholars committed to the posterity of computationally intensive expression need a frame of reference that integrates approaches across a broad domain of application.

While preservation, archiving, and dissemination has long been an interest of the Electronic Literature Organization’s (ELO) PAD project, reflected in the publication of Acid-Free Bits (version 1.0) in 2004 and Born-Again Bits in 2005, much has taken place in nine years that require an extension of this work. The development, for example, of scholarly collections of Stephanie Strickland’s and Judy Malloy’s work at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University and Deena Larsen’s and Bill Bly’s at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland predicates further research in best practices for preserving born digital work. Moreover, we believe there is much to be gained in sharing what we have learned from Pathfinders with scholars and artists who study and create other forms of born digital objects so that we can determine best practices for those works where participation and interaction feature largely and continue to contribute to literary criticism and history of these important cultural works.


Talk about Pathfinders for Honors 301 Students

floppy“Pathfinding:  A Cultural Approach to Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination”


This talk centers on an approach to the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of digital media, such as computer games, electronic literature, and virtual worlds, that takes into account the cultural context of a work.  Such an approach has not yet been fully explored, but based on the research undertaken for the Pathfinders project, I argue that it can add an important component missing in current preservation techniques.


Today I am giving a talk to students in Honors 301 about the Pathfinders project.   It occurs to me that in doing so, I should try to tie into the notion of obsolescence with digital objects they value (as I focus on those I value):  Video Games.


mario“Cloud Gaming to Make Consoles Obsolete” :

Pathfinder’s Vimeo Channel:

Research Question:

What happens to literary works meant to be experienced on a computing device when the software and computer systems with and for which they are created update, change or become obsolete?  Do we allow these works also to become obsolete, or do we find ways to preserve them since they are important literary and cultural artifacts?


  • To preserve seminal works of early digital literature
  • To innovate “collection” as an approach to preservation, archiving, and dissemination (PAD) through the “traversal”
  • To inspire other scholars to undertake PAD projects for digital objects
  • To inform developers and artists of best practices for creating works with PAD in mind

Videotaped interviews and traversals* by authors and by two users who interacted with each work

All videos, as well as sound files, images, binary code, and scholarly commentary, are collected and prepared for presentation in a multimedia book produced in coding languages HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript.   This book will be distributed to the public for free via the Pathfinders website as well as other venues such as the ELO website, HASTAC, and MLA, among others.  Additionally, a co-authored print-based book, entitled Paths to PAD:  Critical Essays about Early Digital Literature and Its Preservation, that will accompany the multimedia book and containing longer critical essays is being produced.


1.  Through our research we have found that the most stable platforms for digital media development are web-based languages (HTML5, CSS3, Javascript) and video.  Unsurprisingly proprietary software poses challenges to long-term preservation of digital objects.  

2.  We also discovered that Collection, despite the difficulties it poses in terms of maintaining platforms over time, offers an important component missing from Emulation and Migration––that is, the cultural context in which the work was created.

3.  Finally, we have come to see that when preserving digital works, all three approaches should be explored in order not to missing an important aspect of the work since they each offer important affordances for understanding and interpreting them.


* Traversals entailed the author of each work, as well as two additional readers, to read the work aloud, explaining the choices made as they encountered and clicked on hyperlinks found in the work, while we captured these readings on video. Following this process, authors and readers were interviewed about their experience and their comments documented.  This approach to Collection had not yet been used.

Bill Bly’s Artist’s Statement for We Descend

We are pleased to post Bill Bly’s Artist’s Statement for his work, We Descend, on Pathfinders.  It will become part of the archive of Pathfinders, the multimedia book, which is in production now.


bly-pathfindersArtist Statement, We Descend
by Bill Bly

Almost three decades ago, while I was doing something else, five words dropped unbidden into my mind: “If this document is authentic…” I tried to keep at what I was working on, but the phrase kept repeating, until I finally turned my attention to it.

Who’s saying this? I wondered. What document? Why wouldn’t it be authentic? How would it be authenticated? Where did it come from in the first place? As I pondered these questions over a period of time, a clutch of fragmentary writings began to appear under my hands.

Almost from the beginning it was clear that each of these texts bore a double significance: each told a story, but each had a story as well. Further, their transmission as a group formed yet another story: their possible origin in some personal collection that was passed on, lost, found again, added to, broken up and scattered, all but destroyed, then miraculously pulled together again. Eventually, what came to be called We Descend took the shape of an archive of archives, an anthology of writings by numerous authors, which had been gathered and repeatedly reorganized, passing through the hands of many generations.

Every time a new Writing turned up, those five first questions crowded in along with it, followed by a cloud of proposals, conjectures, romantic imaginings — each provisional solution embodied in yet another Writing, whose own provenance had to be established or at least guessed at. Successive curators of the archives must have tried to organize and present them in whatever way seemed best, given the circumstances and the tools each had at hand. And so I tried to do the same. [Read More]

Video Documentation Completed, Multimedia Scalar Book Begun

stuart-deneI loaded all 14 of the documentation videos to the Pathfinders Vimeo Channel yesterday.  There are six for John McDaid, four for Judy Malloy, and four for Shelley Jackson.  I plan to spend this morning tagging and commenting on them so that they are easily findable and contextualized.  Right now they are organized by newest uploaded, but I plan to structure the channel in alphabetical order.

Additionally, Stuart and I have begun to develop the multimedia book that these videos, our critical essays, images, and other artifacts will be placed.  We will be using Scalar as the platform for the book.  We met with Craig and Erik this week to go over the final issues related to getting up and running on Scalar.  Will Luers is advising us on the theme and design.  The goal is to have the book in draft format by December, as stated in the NEH grant.

Pathfinders Moving Forward

photoStuart’s visit last week was a whirlwind of activity.  We spend all day Tuesday in ELL developing the plan for the multimedia book.  Will Luers, who is our Scalar consultant for the project, joined us to provide a tutorial on authoring with Scalar.  We inventoried and organized our materials so that they can be easily added to the templates.  The next day we worked on the grants for the next phase of the project.

We also had the opportunity to welcome two new members of the Pathfinders team. Madeleine Brookman, an Honors student in the CMDC program, will take over duties begun by Amalia Vacca, who is graduating this fall.  Madeleine will work with Grigar on a variety of duties, including overseeing the media assets of the project, managing its website and social media sites, and helping to develop the multimedia book.  Troy Wayrynen is a professional videographer who worked for many years at the Columbian newspaper before joining the CMDC Program this fall to pursue courses in multimedia design.  Troy will be in charge of editing the final versions of the videos.

Next Phase

Stuart will be at WSUV from August 11-14 to work with me on the next phase of the project.  Both of us have written extensively on the various works that we have selected for Pathfinders.  It is time to develop the multimedia book that will host all of the videos, criticism, code, and other assets of the project.  We are also plotting the next grant, which we envision as a symposium on digital preservation  for a variety of media objects.

Pathfinders at ELO 2014

Stuart and I gave a presentation about Pathfinders on Friday, June 20, 2014 at the Electronic Literature Organization 2014 conference, held at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  In the audience were one of our Pathfinders authors, Bill Bly, as well as other pioneers of early digital literature whom Stuart and I have identified as the next ones we wish to preserve with our project.  Questions raised by the audience are worth noting and commenting on here:

1.  Gatekeeping
Jim Rosenberg expressed concerns about the way preservation tends toward “gatekeeping”––that is, privileging some works over others in choices of preservation.  My response to Jim was that I would like to avoid what I call the “Sappho Syndrome” [1] and preserve everyone of the authors in my media library that I possibly can in my lifetime, but that Stuart and I had to begin somewhere.  So, we worked hard to develop criteria that would help us select among the early authors in a reasonable way.  One criteria, for example, involved gender equity.  Stuart and I chose to preserve two women (Malloy, Jackson) and two men (Moulthrop, McDaid).

2. Focus
Stuart and I had to reiterate to the audience that we are not preserving works but rather the experience readers have with works of early digital literature.  This approach distinguishes our project from the many that focus on emulation and migration and makes our project decidedly humanist since the focus is on people experiencing the work and not the object of their experience.

3.  The Multimedia Book
As I mentioned to the audience, Stuart and I are making a multimedia book that will contain all of the data we collected, including, in some cases, the binary code of works; polished videos of the traversals and interviews by the authors and readers; and critical commentary about the works we preserved.  While we promised in the grant that the book would be produced in Scalar, I stressed to the audience that I was making a second copy in HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript outside of Scalar in order to preserve a copy on our own server sooner than later.

4.  Next Steps
With all of the data collected, videos in the process of being polished, and the book underway, my mind naturally turns to next steps.  At the conference I spoke to Deena Larsen about preserving Marble Springs, to Jim Rosenberg about preserving Intergrams.  Stuart and I have already spoken to MD Coverley about Califia and Stephanie Strickland about True North. Stuart and I will finalize plans in the coming months.  In the meantime I am already setting the stage for preserving mobile electronic literature, or what I call “literary apps,” by decommissioning an early iPad that held many copies of e-lit works I have purchased or downloaded for free when they were first made available.  The iPad has been disconnected from the internet and, so, will contain these early versions. I will continue to decommission other iPads that contain later versions of these works so that in some future time scholars can use this data to study these works on topics relating to platform studies, comparative literature, literary history, and literary biography.

[1] By “Sappho Syndrome” I mean the consequences of political, religious, and cultural forces upon the longevity and future accessibility of a work of art. I use Sappho, the ancient Greek poet from the 7th century AD, as a model because  up until recently, only one extant poem by Sappho, “Hymn to Aphrodite,” has been available to us, despite the fact that we know that many more existed.  We may never know why a larger body of complete work by Sappho did not survive when much more produced by other ancient Greek poets has. Some scholars theorize that political, religious, and cultural forces may have impacted the perceived value of her work, resulting in its loss.  Certainly, Stuart and I seek to avoid selecting works based on political, religious and cultural criteria, which we see akin to censorship.

Madeleine Brookman To Join Pathfinders in the Fall

CMDC student Madeleine Brookman was awarded a 2014 Auvil Fellowship by WSU to work with me in ELL and on the Pathfinders project.  Specifically, Madeleine will work with me with the ongoing archival and preservation work for the  electronic literature in my media library and those collected from the recent acquisition of the online journal, Poems That Go.  We will be using the methods created for Pathfinders to our work in ELL. She will also assist in developing methods and best practices for preserving works of electronic literature created for the mobile environment, an area that is yet to be addressed by e-lit preservationists––we have just de-commissioned an early iPad for this purpose and plan to experiment with best practices for keeping versions of e-lit apps for future study. Finally, Madeleine will  serve as the Media Librarian, continuing the work of Amalia Vacca to document and organize the works in my library.

Rough Cuts of Pathfinder Videos Ready

Stuart and I have uploaded the first three sets of Pathfinders videos to our YouTube channel.  These videos included the traversals of John McDaid, Judy Malloy, and Shelley Jackson.

The final versions will be the polished ones, with video and sound perfected by Aaron Wintersong, who captured the video footage for us.

Coming next are videos of Bill Bly and Stuart.

Born Digital: Research into Digital Storytelling and E-Poetics

This article is appearing in WSUV’s Crimson & Gray (Spring 2014, Volume 4, Number 2) and features the preservation work that Stuart and I are doing in the Pathfinders project. A special thank you to the good folks at MarCom for featuring our research in this publication.



Stuart Moulthrop reading his seminal work Victory Garden with the CMDC’s technical assistant Greg Philbrook and me looking on.

Many people tremble with excitement while ripping open a box containing a new computer or electronic gadget. Dene Grigar, associate professor and director of the creative media and digital culture program at Washington State University Vancouver, gets that same tingle when she opens a box containing an old computer.

“Guess what I got today?” Grigar claps her hands together in delight. “An iMac G3!”

Grigar directs the Electronic Literature Lab, where she has collected more than 28 vintage Macintosh computers, the likes of which have long since been forgotten, donated or discarded by most people. While she delights in the hardware, it’s not the hardware itself that fuels Grigar’s passion. The computers are the medium that allow her to access and preserve electronic literature.

Read the article at the Crimson & Gray