The Guiding Principles for The NEXT
by Dene Grigar
One of the lab’s main activities has been creating and managing the Electronic Literature Organization’s The NEXT. Two of the The NEXT’s founders are ELL staff members, and all of the production has been done by the lab’s faculty, staff, and students.
The evolution of The NEXT from a simple repository for born-digital literature to what is now a very complex virtual museum/library/preservation space for born-digital art and expressive writing occurred over a four-year period, 2018-2022. Most of the “Aha moments” took place during many sleepless nights of the pandemic when I found myself locked down and unable to travel (and worried about the spread of COVID) and on January 6 when I feared the mob storming the Capitol Building could just as easily turn its anger toward the Library of Congress or the National Archives, both less than a mile away. Angry mobs destroying things is how we lost Sappho’s poetry, folks. What was needed for fragile works of born-digital art and expressive writing was to bring materials together in one place, undertake the necessary preservation work to keep them accessible, and then share them broadly with others at other locations (Re: Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe).
As with everything I do, I start with a set of guiding principles that underpin decisions I make. My professor in grad school Rainer Schulte stressed to us the importance of having an “overarching conceptual framework” for any work we did in his courses. This idea stayed with me, and in the case of The NEXT, there is a mission (“to create a space that makes archives accessible for the next generation and responds to the growing need for open-access, travel-free cultural and research experiences for today’s public and scholars”) and nine guiding principles that address it. Also impacting the principles is the nature of the archives: physical and digital files of works that are, in varying degrees, participatory, interactive, and experimental; and the accompanying historical records associated with them.
- Born-digital art and expressive writing involve digital works that exhibit, in varying degrees, features of virtuality—that is, they can be participatory, interactive, and experiential.
- Just as traditional art and printed texts inspired the development of spaces that reflect their physicality—that is, brick and mortar museums and libraries—born-digital art and expressive writing need spaces that reflect their virtuality. So, while The NEXT resides on the online environment of the web, it is built to exhibit the virtuality of the objects it holds. [Hyperlinked icons move at the touch; physical artifacts held in The NEXT are rendered into 3D models that can be manipulated or viewed as turntable videos]
- In regards to the design of the virtual space needed to reflect the virtuality of born-digital literary art, we are not recreating the physical world in the virtual but rather rethinking the fundamental metaphors associated with our space. [Objects can just as easily move “in” and “out” and “around” as they do “up” and “down” and “side to side.” In other words, we have imbued a 3-dimensionality to the space.
- Additionally design motifs common to interface design like icons are designed to be conceptual rather than skeumorphic. [The Online Journals icon hints to texts rather than designed as one.
- Capturing state of the form––its virtuality––goes hand in hand with aptly describing the object through its metadata. To that end we extended the MODS (Metadata Object Description Schema) schema to include aspects of our objects’ uniqueness from print texts and address the needs of all visitors to the space.
- The contemporaneity of the project affords us the ability to work with living artists who can contribute their voices to their collections by greeting visitors and relaying information about the work visitors will encounter.
- Wherever possible we aim to keep the works themselves accessible, going so far as migrating them to contemporary formats, videotaping play throughs of works, and documenting them in other scholarly resources.
- Ultimately, we want scholars and the public located anywhere in the world to be able to access materials at any time they need them and so not be constrained by traditional working hours or the need to physically travel or be present to access them.
- The NEXT has been containerized so that it can be shared at other sites for the purpose of making it redundant and so can withstand local political, economic, and social stresses.
These guiding principles will continue to be fine tuned and evolve over time, but you can understand the rationale for the decisions we have made in The NEXT’s development after reading them and visiting The NEXT.