The Electronic Literature Lab and the Pathfinders Project: Answering the Challenges for Digital Literary Achiving

The paper below is taken from my presentation to be given at the British Library on Monday, April 4, 2016 at the Archival Uncertainties symposium. Following it are the four research questions I posed in relation to the challenges of archiving electronic literature.



“The Electronic Literature Lab and the Pathfinders Project”

rubenstein table

The Malloy Papers, Box 3

In October 2015 I visited the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University to conduct research into Uncle Roger, the first commercial work of electronic literature by pioneering artist Judy Malloy. There, among the 27 boxes comprising the Judy Malloy Papers, I sifted through notebooks, computer readouts of code of her works, images she took of her many works, correspondence with other artists, and exhibition papers.  The materials associated with Uncle Roger were contained primarily in Box 3. At the time I was doing this work, I was researching four versions of Uncle Roger that Malloy had reported she had made between 1986 and 2012. Despite the fact that Uncle Roger was limited to one box and was organized in folders, it was still difficult to determine what constituted one of the


Uncle Roger, Version 1.0 as Topic 14 on The WELL

versions or where a version was located. Furthermore, one version––hand-made artists boxes with hand-designed inserts––were dispersed in different folders in the box, and the floppy disks themselves
were archived separately and, understandably, inaccessible for use. Unless someone knew exactly what she was looking for among the materials in the archive, she have not known that the item entitled, “Topic 14: A Party in Woodside, as first told on WELL, 1986 December,” represented Uncle Roger, Version 1.0, or know to look for four inserts for Version 3.3.


The Breathing Wall with its Headset

My experience with Uncle Roger is not unique. Electronic literature scholars can point to many examples of works where digital and analog materials are packaged together as “the work.” Some, like John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, include music cassettes.  Kate Pullinger, Stefan Schemat, and Chris Joseph’s The Breathing Wall, for example, came packaged with a headset with a microphone along with a CD. Even web-based works like Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, may necessitate a print book. In light of current archival practices, how does one make such works available for study so that they retain their integrity? Herein lies the challenge.

I have attempted to address this challenge with the lab I have built for works of electronic literature at Washington State University Vancouver and the documentation I’ve been doing in that lab for these works. The lab is called Electronic Literature Lab, or “ELL,” and the documentation project is called Pathfinders.

[Here, I describe electronic literature and some of its recognizable features.]

Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) at WSUV

 I want to turn my attention now to a discussion of my lab. ELL consists of 45 vintage Macintosh computers and two PCs, all representing various operating systems and media affordances dating back to 1977. I own these computers and have collected them specifically to read electronic literature and document it for future generations.

ELL also consists of a personal library of over 200 works of e-lit. I began collecting it as I was a grad student in the early 1990s. As time passed, I became acutely aware that works produced a mere 20 years ago were quickly becoming forgotten and overlooked. After the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007 which eventually rendered works produced in Flash obsolete, I shared my collection through exhibits, which I have done at the Library of Congress in the U.S. and the Modern Language Association conferences in 2012, 2013, and 2014, among other venues. Information about the computers and works are available through an online catalog.

While preservationists make some e-lit works available via emulation and migration, something is indelibly lost in moving e-lit from its original source material into a new format. ELL, instead, follows the model of preservation called “collection,” by making it possible for scholars to study works on the

Bly’s Macintosh PowerBook 520

device on which they have been originally produced or for which they were originally accessed. In that regard, I own the laptop used by author Bill Bly to produce We Descend; I have a computer outfitted with Netscape Communicator so that scholars can read the full interactive version of Talan Memmot’s net masterpiece, Lexia to Perplexia.

The problem with ELL, like any specialized lab or library, is that few people get to visit it. This is one of the many archival uncertainties we face as scholars. I’m located in Vancouver WA, just across the Columbia River from Portland, OR. And though I get many visitors––scholars who want to do research in the lab––my location limits easy access to most people.

Enter Pathfinders, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities and led by my collaborator Stuart Moulthrop and me.  In 2013 we harnessed ELL to document four seminal works of early digital literature: Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger (1986-8), John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse (1993), Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995), and Bill Bly’s We Descend (1997). [I describe our project, which is outlined in detail on this blog site]


John McDaid giving a Traversal of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse in ELL

The method innovated for documenting these is called the Traversal, which Stuart and I define as audio and video recordings of demonstrations performed on historically appropriate platforms. . . . The term is borrowed from Michael Joyce who used it in his essay, “Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext Fiction,” to refer to any particular reading of a hypertext (581). His use of the term was  influenced by Espen Aarseth’s notion of the “traversal function” described in his book Cybertext [but  . . . . ] for  Stuart and me the Traversal always involves human agency, even though it may be strongly inflected by program logic or machine operations.

Our Traversals method requires the author and then two readers to perform the work, talking through choices they encounter. Passages are read aloud, hyperlinks are selected and announced, and experiences with the words and media elements are expressed. Stuart and I videotape the Traversals, photograph the floppy disks, the containers with which they were sold, and other materials in the package. In some cases we include sound files of works. We provide an ekphrasis of the liners of the jewel cases and the notes packaged along with the folios, providing detailed information such that if someone in the distant future wished to recreate the ephemera that accompany the work itself, he or she could with the information we provide. The result of our effort is a multimedia book published in June 2015 on the open source Scalar platform, containing 173 screens of content, including 53,857 words, 104 video clips, 204 color photos, and three audio files. To date we have had over 10000 scholars from close to 250 universities, centers, libraries, and schools.

at work

At the Rubenstein with Pathfinders on my Laptop

What Pathfinders Means for the Literary Archival Experience
Imagine with me, if you will, another type of experience with the Judy Malloy Papers at the Rubenstein. This time the scholar is carrying her iPad or Android tablet and has accessed the section on Malloy at the Pathfinders book. She is interested in looking at Version 3.3 of Uncle Roger, so she opens Box 3. She knows from Pathfinders that she should probably study the materials in the folder marked “A Party in Woodside, Apple II version written in BASIC, 1987.” She also knows that she probably needs to look for the folder, “The Blue Notebook, Apple II+ version, written in BASIC, 1988,” and should also consult “Terminals, stand alone copy (disk removed),” as well as “Packaging, disk components” and “Packaging, disk versions, Apple II (disks removed).” In fact, any folder that alludes to a disk for an Apple computer is more than likely related to Uncle Roger, Versions 3.1 and 3.2. And because she cannot access the floppy disks, she can watch Pathfinder’s videos of Malloy traversing through a section of the work and hear the author talk about the production of all three parts of it in videotaped interviews with her. She can compare the materials she is examining in the boxes with the images of Version 3 used for the Pathfinders project. Doing so provides her with an understanding of the variances between the different artist boxes hand-made by Malloy, thus coming to see the level of material practice involved the digital production of this work.

Stuart and I have begun Volume 2 of Pathfinders. In this volume we are documenting Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story, collected at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. We are also documenting M.D. Coverley’s Califia and Stuart’s own Victory Garden––the archives of these works have yet to be collected. Since both of these works are inaccessible to readers due to technological obsolescence, the work that Stuart and I are undertaking with Pathfinders in ELL to make them available for study, even at the level we are doing, contributes to long term study of them.

Research Questions
My work with documenting electronic literature raises four important questions about digital preservation.

  1. For what kinds of digital objects is one approach to preservation more desirable than another?

I have been, for example, experimenting with preserving literary apps and have found that each new version of an app’s operating system can result in a new version of the work, or that the work itself is updated to fix bugs and include new and better features. It is not possible to save multiple versions on the same device because the new one wipes out the old. Thus, in order to preserve each version of an app, I have to have as many smart devices as updates––an expensive endeavor. Also beta versions I am sent to review are limited in terms of the time frame in which I get to access them. This limitation makes it impossible to compare the commercially published version with the beta or to collect betas for long-term study.

  1. How can differing approaches be combined or coordinated to best serve the interests of future scholars?

In the case of Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, the 1995 migrated web version (Version 5) and 2012 DOSBox emulated version (Version 6) both provide readers ongoing and ready access to the authorized version of the work. The latter especially attempts to recreate the visceral experience of interacting with a 1980s computer in that it simulates whirs and clicks of a 1980s computer. But it emulates the PC experience and not the Apple, on which the work was also read and experienced. The experience of ELL’s collection, however, adds to our knowledge of the work by providing the cultural context time-stamped as it is by the original hardware and software––with all of its unique features and quirks.

  1. What can researchers working on one sort of digital production (electronic literature, for instance) learn from those concerned with different but related areas (e.g., video games, digital writing more broadly conceived, or social-network discourse)?

I have been guiding students in my academic program (the CMDC Program at WSUV)  with documenting video games with the Traversal method. One such project, Chronicles: Documenting the Articulation of Culture in Video Games by Madeleine Brookman, documents the iconic Japanese Role-Playing-Game, Chrono Trigger, released originally in 1972. This publication made an excellent case study for the application of the Traversal method to other media forms and showed that it does lend itself to documenting games. I see any form of media where sound, movement and interaction figure as part of its narrative strategy or poetics to benefit from our approach to documentation.

  1. How can researchers approaching the posterity of digital texts from diverse directions benefit from exchange of perspectives and results?

I think of this anecdote: A little over a month ago, I received an email message from Michael Joyce, author of afternoon: a story, considered one of the most important works of American e-lit today. It was published in 1990 on 3 ½-inch floppy disks and later migrated to CD technology. However, Apple computers running the El Capitan operating system cannot read the work. Curators of the Paraules Pixelades exhibit at the Art Santa Monica in Barcelona wanted to show afternoon but could not. Michael wanted to know if Stuart and I had produced a video of a Traversal of it. We had not. But within a week we produced one––James O’Sullivan, an e-lit scholar at University of Sheffield who was visiting ELL, served as a reader for a Traversal, which we videotaped. We were able to send the video to the curators, and the work could be exhibited as a documentary video. We fully understand that what the audience saw was not the work itself; but what they got to experience was a performance of it, and it allowed the work to live on to a new audience.

Giving a Talk about Digital Archiving at the British Library

UnknownOn April 4, the British Library is hosting “Archival Uncertainties: International Conference on Literary Archives.”  The Plenary Speaker is Trudy Huskamp Peterson. The event has this focus:

While information technology is changing rapidly and bringing new possibilities for the democratisation of knowledge, debates remain about intellectual property, ownership and access rights to individual archives.  Uneven investment in knowledge institutions contributes to a complicated understanding of how archival values can be realised – as commercial, cultural, national, global – and of how the ethics of preservation and rescue can be addressed in the face of climatic and ideological threats. Includes lunch and a drinks reception.

John Barber (WSUV), Kate Pullinger (Bath Spa) and I are presenting in a panel entitled, “Challenges to Archiving and Documenting Born Digital Literature: What Scholars, Archivists, and Librarians Need to Know.”

Early born digital literature was published on floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs, but the advent of the web made sharing it online with a global audience popular from 1995 onward. The introduction of smart mobile devices in the mid-2000s drove artists to innovate their art for the app environment. To remain accessible to a reading audience, many works have been updated to newer platforms and software iterations––sometimes many times––resulting in numerous versions of a work. In cases of literary art produced as apps, it is not possible to study versions of a work saved on a single device because upgrading to a new version of a work overwrites the previous version completely. Contributing to the challenge of archiving born digital literature is that many of these works are published as a combination of digital files, accompanying documentation websites, and ephemera. Some, like John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse (1993) include audio cassettes that are part of the narrative. Others like Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger Version 3 (1987-8) were packaged in containers that themselves are works of visual art. Kate Pullinger, Stefan Schemat and Chris Joseph’s The Breathing Wall (2004), a digital narrative produced with Flash, unfolded through the reader’s breathing registered by special software and hardware that today requires older versions of Windows to experience. Sound-based literary works offers a double challenge in that both the art form and the artifact are ephemeral and confound long-term access. In a word, born digital literature differs widely from traditional digital texts and yet, to date, there are no specific methods used for handling this form of literary art. This panel, generating from archival research by artists and scholars from the Electronic Literature Organization, provides a starting point for discussion.

Presentation #1: Dene Grigar, Washington State University Vancouver, “The Electronic Literature Lab and the Pathfinders Project”
This presentation recounts efforts to document works of early digital literature, circa 1986-1997 undertaken in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) and for the Pathfinders projectfocusing primarily on the collection found at ELL and the method developed for documenting born digital literature. She argues that while migration and its close cousin, emulation, which aims to deliver a completely seamless re-creation of an original system’s function on a newer platform, have value even to researchers interested in other means of preservation, experience with Pathfinders fed an emerging sense of a larger project. This thinking was further advanced by discussions with colleagues working on other methods of preservation, archiving, and dissemination of digital texts, notably Matthew Kirschenbaum and Lori Emerson. These contacts inspired her to think about combined and coordinated approaches across multiple sites, underscoring the value of expanded collaboration and application to other forms of digital media and leading her to frame four essential questions regarding digital preservation that she will raise in her talk:

  1. For what kinds of digital objects is one approach more desirable than another?
  2. How can differing approaches be combined or coordinated to best serve the interests of future scholars?
  3. What can researchers working on one sort of digital production (electronic literature, for instance) learn from those concerned with different but related areas (e.g., video games, digital writing more broadly conceived, or social-network discourse)?
  4. How, in other words, can researchers approaching the posterity of digital texts from diverse directions benefit from exchange of perspectives and results?

Presentation #2: John Barber, Washington State University Vancouver, “Sound: A Literary Memory Media Art Experience”
This presentation considers sound-based literary archives: recordings of spoken voice and/or sound-based art, narrative, storytelling. Sound is ephemeral, disappearing soon after its production. Sound recordings, meant as archival sources are also, over time, ephemeral. Traditionally, archival practices have focused on preserving the original, but rapidly changing information technology makes it impractical/impossible to hear the original. Questions include:

  1. Is the literary experience lost?
  2. What does this mean to our knowledge of history, culture, human experience?
  3. Can a balance between archival values, preservation, rescue, and democratic utilization be realized?
  4. Once available, how can literary sound artifacts promote a multidisciplinary dialogue between artistic practices and technological affordances?
  5. Might such artifacts contribute to the creation of spaces for collective critical thought, as well as engagement with past literary events through the act of listening?
  6. To archive, curate, and exhibit sound, we can consider new forms of museology, including repurposing existing mediums for memory transmission.

This presentation speaks to the author’s practice-based research as grounded in interactive installation / performance works regarding sound as a means for communication and consumption.

Presentation #3: Kate Pullinger, Bath SPA University, “Letters and Penguins: A Writer’s View of the Archive”
As well as working as a novelist, Kate Pullinger has been collaborating on works of multimedia and multimodal fiction since 2001. Within her own practice her primary goal as an author is the next creative challenge and the next new work while issues around preservation and obsolescence are of secondary importance. In this presentation Pullinger will discuss two large participatory media projects on which she worked: ‘A Million Penguins’ (2007) and ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier’ (2014); the former (1500 participants), commissioned by Penguin UK, now only exists as a few pages accessible via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine; the latter was a publicly funded digital war memorial marking the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 with 22,000 participants and had archival concerns embedded in it from the project’s inception. Pullinger will also discuss her on-going project ‘Inanimate Alice’ which began life with using the now outmoded software Flash in 2005; episode six, creating using Unity, will be released in 2016: this project, with its unusually long creative life, both exemplifies and undercuts the problems around preservation of digital works. Pullinger will consider a range of questions:

  1. Should literary artists consider the archive more carefully when making work?
  2. Can obsolescence itself become a creative force?

M.D. Coverley to Give a Traversal of Califia


On Monday, March 14 and Tuesday, March 15, pioneer electronic literature artist, M.D. Coverley (aka Margie Luesebrink) is giving a traversal of her hypertext novel, Califia (2000) at the Electronic Literature Lab as part of Pathfinders, Volume 2, which we plan to release next fall.

As is noted in Califia’ entry in ELMCIP:

Spanning five generations of swashbuckling Californians, Califia is the story of Augusta Summerland’s epic search for a lost cache of gold. Join Augusta, and her friends Kaye and Calvin, on their adventures in modern Los Angeles, where they unearth mysteriously incomplete documents in local archives, discover old California myths and legends, and connive to outwit an edgy businessman with his own designs on the elusive Treasure of Califia.

I was first introduced to the work in 2001 at Kate Hayles’ NEH Summer Institute  (named “Literature in Transition”) when the author spoke to our group about her work. The work was published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. and has become one of the best-known works developed for CD-ROM technology.


Reader Traversal of Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story

afternoon2The Reader Traversal of Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story by scholar James O’Sullivan has been completed. The video will be screened at  the Barcelona exhibition of electronic literature, “La paraula pixelada. La literatura a l’era digital,” curated by Giovanna di Rosario. A special thank you to James for taking the time to read the work and Shane Staub for video graphing and editing the footage so quickly.

Pathfinders in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

The article written about the Scalar 2 platform by ProfHacker for The Chronicle of Higher Education mentions the Pathfinders project:

“The built-in visualization tools for the text are also a great improvement, as shown below in a screenshot of Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop’s Pathfinders. It’s also much easier to integrate media throughout the book with detailed formatting options which resemble the options WordPress supports when importing media.”

Thank you to Will Luers who worked with Stuart and me to design the template for the book and provided guidance for working with the interface, and to Madeleine Brookman, my research assistant, who helped us so much with the media content.

See the entire article here.

Pathfinder Stats Update

Pathfinders Promotions Statistics, from Launch to Present (June 1, 2015-January 24, 2016
These stats represent varying levels of engagement with the book by the public. Using a third party system called StatCounter, we have been able to determine who is visiting the site, where visitors are coming from, how long they stayed on any given page, and what pages they visited, and much more information. We initiated tracking at the moment of the book’s launch at noon PDT on June 1, 2015 until 12 noon PDT, January 24, 2016

Total Visits: 8258
83.9% are first time visitors
Sites driving traffic: Pathfinders blog, ELO website, WSU online press release, Scalar blog

Countries: 54
Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, UAE, UK, the US, Venezuela, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe

Universities, Centers, Libraries and Schools: 220

U.S.: 165
Amherst College, Arkansas State University, Arizona State University, Art Center College of Design, Art Institute of Chicago, Augustana College, Austin College, Austin College, Bard College, Bates College, Boston College, Bowling Green State University, Brown University, California College of the Arts, California State University San Marcos, California State University Northridge, City University of New York, Claremont University, Colby College, The College of William and Mary, Colleges of the Fenway, Columbia University, Concordia University, Cornell University, CUNY Graduate Center, Dartmouth College, Davidson College, Dobie Center, Duke University, Emory University, Fashion Institute of Technology, Fayetteville State University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida International University, Florida State University, Garner Webb University, George Mason University, Georgetown University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Perimeter College, Georgia State University, Georgia Southern, University, Gettysburg College, Hamilton College, Hampshire College, Harvard-Westlake School, Houston Community College, Illinois Wesleyen University, Indiana University, Kansas State University, Kirkwood Community College, James Madison University, Lake Forest College, Lasalle University, Lehigh University, Library of Congress, Longwood Medical and Academic Area, Loyola Marymount, Maine Libraries/Dept. of Education, Marist College, Marshall University, MIT, Miami University, Minnesota University System, Molloy College, Montana State University, Muhlenberg College, NASA Glen Research Center, National Library of Medicine, New York City Public Schools, New York University, Northeastern University, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, Occidental College, Oregon State System Of Higher Education, Oregon State University, The Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Purdue University, Reed College, Rice University, Ripon College, Rhode Island Network for Education Technology, Salem State University, Rutgers University, San Diego State University, Seton Hall University, Smith College, Susquehanna University, The New School, St. Catherine University, St. John’s College (Sante Fe), Skidmore College, Smith College, Sonoma State University, Stanford University, State University of New York at Albany, Temple University, Texas A & M Commerce, Texas A & M University—College Station, Texas Christian University, Thomas Edison State College, University of Alabama, University of Alaska, University of Arizona, University of California Berkeley, University of Buffalo, University of California Davis, University of California Irvine, University of California Los Angeles, University of California Riverside, University of California San Diego, University of California Santa Barbara, University of California Santa Cruz, Regents of the University of California President’s Office, University of Chicago, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Connecticut, University of Denver, University of Florida, University of Hawaii, University of Illinois Chicago, University of Illinois Springfield, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, University of Iowa, University of Kansas, University of La Verne, University of Mary Washington, University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Miami, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri Columbia, University of New Mexico, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon, University of Puget Sound, University of Rochester, University of San Diego, University of South Florida, University of Tennessee, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin Madison, Valparaiso University, Vanderbilt University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Washington and Lee University, Washington State University Pullman, Washington State University Vancouver, Washington University, Whitworth College, Williams College, Wheaton College, Xavier University, Yale University

Canada: 15
Carleton University, Libraries and Archives Canada, McMaster University, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Ryerson University, Simon Fraser University, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, University of New Brunswick, University of Guelph, University of Ottawa, University of Prince Edward Island, University of Toronto, University of Victoria

UK: 12
Goldsmiths University of London, National Library of Scotland, Oxford University, University College Falmouth, University of Bristol, University College London, University of Glasgow, University of Leicester, University of Surrey, University of Wales Aberystwyth, University of Wales Bangor, University of Warwick, York University

Australia: 5
Brisbane Catholic Education, Monash University, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, State Library of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology

New Zealand: 2
Auckland University of Technology, University of Canterbury

Singapore: 1
Singapore University of Technology and Design

Korea: 2
Taejon Institute of Education Science, Chungnam National University

Austria: 1
Danube University Krems

Denmark: 1
Danish Network for Research and Education

Germany: 6
Hochschule Fuer Technik, Wirkschaft Und Kultur Lei, Humboldt University Berlin, Techische Hochschule Mittelhessen, Univeristy of Leipzig, University of Siegen, University of Trier

Greece: 1
Greek Research and Technology Network

Finland: 1
Aalto University

Poland: 1
Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry Polish Academy

Romania: 1
Universitatea Babes-bolyai

Sweden: 3
Malmo University, Sunet Swedish University Network, University College of Gavie

Switzerland: 1
Universite de Fribourg,

Chile: 1
Pontificia Universidad Catolica De Chile

Colombia: 1
Pontificia Universidad Javeriana

Mexico: 1
Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico

Traversal & Interview Completed


James O’Sullivan Traversing Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story

James O’Sullivan’s Traversal and Interview of Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story––like the others that Stuart and I have done for the other early works of e-lit––provided some treasures. Here are a few from James:

  1. The realization that every word of the narrative was a hyperlink
  2. The awareness of the bread crumbing that Joyce did in order to lead readers from the world of print to the world of the electronic medium
  3. The understanding of the tension that fragmentation of the text creates

My favorite comment, though, was his response to the question, If you had to use a metaphor or analogy to describe this work, what would you choose?. His response was one I had not yet heard used for hypertext literature: a Rubrik’s Cube––the idea that the reader reorganizes many little cubes, puzzling over them, arriving perhaps at a larger concept.

We plan to have rough cuts of both ready next week. They will debut in Barcelona at the end of the month.

Reader Traversal of Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a Story



We love serendipity.  When everything lines up and makes some miraculous event possible, it’s easy to blame the stars for the good fortune.

Our good fortune is that Michael Joyce’s wrote us yesterday asking if Stuart and I had made a video of traversals for afternoon: a story and, if so, could he use it at the upcoming exhibit in Barcelona, curated by Giovanna Di Rosario? The request came at the same time that DH/E-Lit scholar Dr. James O’Sullivan, my co-editor for the book, Electronic Literature: Contexts, Forms, and Practices (University of West Virginia Press, 2016) was visiting me and giving a talk about his research to students and faculty in the CMDC Program. Along with that development, I also happen to have a darn good student videographer, Shane Staub, working with me on another project (Game Changers). And finally, we were just celebrating the re-opening of the Electronic Literature Lab this week after three months of planning and moving equipment.

So, today we are hosting a serendipitous reader traversal featuring James of Joyce’s hypertext novel, an event that will be memorialized on video by Shane. Greg Philbrook, my  tech guru will be on hand to handle any equipment needs, and I will be present taking copious notes and tweeting the experience for everyone else.

Maybe we should not blame the stars, but rather thank them because Stuart and I have now planned for formal traversals with M.D. Coverley and her work Califia in March and Joyce of his work in late spring.

When? 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. PST, Friday, January 15, 2016
Where? Electronic Literature Lab, VMMC 211A, WSUV
Who? Dene Grigar & Stuart Moulthrop, PIs; James O’Sullivan, Reader; Shane Staub, Videographer; Greg Philbrook, Tech Support

Reader Mediations in Electronic Literature, #s734

Below is an abridged version of the paper, entitled “Preserving Literary Apps,” I gave at the MLA 2016 on Sunday, January 10, 2016 at the Reader Mediations in Electronic Literature panel with (organizer) Elika Ortega, Kathi Inman Berens, and Rita Raley; Mark Sample, Chair. The original paper is 25oo words in length and the slide show, created in Keynote, contains 29 slides. Much appreciation to Eileen Clancy who created a Storify about it.




For the past four years I have been involved in preserving works of electronic literature through a project called Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature with colleague Stuart Moulthrop from the University of slide2Wisconsin—Milwaukee). Our efforts have focused on pre-web hypertext fiction and poetry, from 1986-1995 produced with programming languages like BASIC or authoring systems like Storyspace and HyperCard and require a degree of interactivity between the reader and the work. These works were also among the first to be sold commercially in the U.S. and, because of their availability through commercial distribution, were influential in shaping literary theory and criticism that, today, are used to discuss born digital writing. They are also literary works in danger of becoming inaccessible to the public because they were produced on and for computer platforms that today are obsolete.

slide4While some very popular works of electronic literature from this period, like Judy Malloy’s ground-breaking database novel, Uncle Roger, have been emulated for use on contemporary computers, or like Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, have been migrated from their original floppy disks and CDs to flash drives, the bulk of the works produced during this period are in danger of slide5becoming lost to literary scholars because they literally cannot be read due to the fact that they require software and hardware no longer available.

Stuart and I see this as a serious problem because these works represent an important aspect of our late 20th century-early 21st century cultural experience in that they demonstrate the moment when literary artists began to make the leap from paper to the electronic medium for the purpose of creative expression and experimentation.

slide7Our research led us to document four works––Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, Version 3.3, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, and Bill Bly’s We Descend, an activity that has culminated to date as a multimedia eBook, entitled Pathfinders published last June and a book of critical commentary called Traversals forthcoming with MIT Press this year. Our work is ongoing. Now as we are planning for the next round of e-lit to document, I am also turning my attention to literary mobile apps, which I see as another body of born digital literature facing comparable challenges as a durable art form.

“What is a literary app?,” you may ask.slide10 These are narratives, works of poetry, or essays produced and distributed to the public as an app for mobile devices. Examples include Erik Loyer’s haunting digital narrative Strange Rain, a work that received much notice in the press when it was first released in 2011. Mark Sample presented a paper on the work at the MLA in 2012 ( Jason Edward Lewis has produced seven poetic works as apps in an award-winning series called The P.O.E.M.M. Project, or “Poetry for Excitable [Mobile] Media” ( Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannazarro’s mobile narrative, Pry, is another award-winning, well-regarded work produced as an app. Abraham Avnisan’s Quantum Collocations. The literary work my colleague Kathi Inman Berens will be discussing,TOC: A Novel by Steve Tomasula, was originally produced on DVD but reworked for the app environment.

slide15Many artists have experimented with apps for some of the same reasons the authors Stuart and I documented for Pathfinders ––that is, the desire to explore a new medium, creative curiosity, the realization of a different—and with the advent of the web—a broader audience. Others recognize that apps provide an opportunity to sell one’s work in a way that has not been heretofore possible when published on the web. Even at $5.99, a literary app offers the possibility of netting more income than a work of web poetry. To put this into perspective, when Judy Malloy sold her boxed set of Uncle Roger on floppy disks in 1988 through the Art Com Catalog, it was for $15, and she sold 20 copies. By comparison, the app market is expected to be a $77 billion industry by 2017, with close to 50% of those apps costing $.99 or more ( Challenges aside, which I am sure Kathi will discuss, literary apps offer a way to generate income from writing.

But there are some very serious drawbacks to publishing one’s work as an app for a mobile device. Let me quickly explain the three types of apps so that the point I will be making later makes sense. The first type of app is a web-based app. This is essentially a website that has been optimized so that it is responsive to all computing devices. These are generally produced with HTML, CSS, and can include javascript, JQuery, and other languages. I’m not worried about this type of literary app because like other hand-coded websites, even those created in the early days of Netscape Navigator (1994-1997) and Communicator (1997-2002), they are readable and accessible. It is the second and third types––the hybrid and native apps––that are optimized for distribution through the proprietary operating systems of Apple, Android, or Windows. Native apps are programmed in more complex languages like Objective C, Java, sometimes C Sharp and, then, prepared for the mobile market with the software development kit, or SDK, indigenous to a specific platform, while Hybrid apps are created with HTML, CSS and Javascript like web apps but are wrapped in software like PhoneGap or even game engines like Unity before they are prepared for the specific mobile market they are aimed at.

slide17So, here are the problems as I see it. The first is obvious: Unless the source code for a literary app is made openly available to scholars, it will not be possible to preserve the work, whether it is to migrate or emulate it. Luckily Jason Edward Lewis does indeed make his source code available off his website, but many others, like the first literary app, The Carrier, published in 2009, do not. And so when the work is no longer supported by the artists, it becomes obsolete. In fact, that particular app––a geo-locative graphic novel that includes 680 panels of story, takes place over a 10 day period, and incorporates many of the phone’s features as storytelling devices, like sending updates to the user via email––is a particularly telling case in that it required such server-side support. If in the past you have downloaded a copy of it to your mobile device, you will find today that though the splash page loads, the app itself does not launch. It is now not possible to document the work. All that is left is the project website, which offers mostly promotional information.

The second problem may not be as obvious, but it is not any less challenging for scholars: We cannot easily study versions of literary apps because once an app is updated, the previous version is wiped out or access to beta versions shared slide19for study expires. My beta version of Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s “The Ice-Bound Concordance,” which I was sent to me because I supported their Kickstarter campaign, has expired, and I am no longer able to access it for the purpose of comparing it to the official version once it is released.

[break in text here]

slide28What I am just starting to do to mitigate these problems with literary apps in regards to preserving them, now that I have moved my Electronic Literature Lab to its new space two weeks ago, is to decommission mobile devices with various operating systems, taking them offline, and saving literary apps, different versions of them on the various devices. This is an expensive endeavor, but one that needs to be undertaken in order to preserve this literary form for future study.

My call to action for Digital Humanities scholars is this: Join me in my endeavors to document born digital literature. Here is what you can do if you make literary apps: Make the source code for all versions of your work available to others from a public site. Here is what you can do if you want to study literature apps: Publish scholarship about literary apps and in your work provide information documentation of the work through screen shots, descriptions of the contents, and the kind of interaction that occurs. These are not difficult activities to engage in but are important ones for the purpose of providing present and future scholars to understand the significant experimentation taking place in regards to literary production in the 21st century.

Pathfinders Taught in Course on Electronic Literature

We are very excited to learn that noted scholar Mark Sample has included the Pathfinders project in his course on Electronic Literature. It is a 6-week course that has attracted approximately 200 participants. It is a free course offered through Davidson College. Here is the course description:

“Love letters generated by a computer. An online poem two hundred trillion stanzas long. A mystery novel in the form of a wiki. The story of Inanimate Alice, told through videos and instant messages. An ocean buoy tweeting remixes of Moby Dick. Welcome to the weird world of electronic literature—digitally born poetic, narrative, and aesthetic works read on computers, tablets, and phones.”