Digital Humanities Abstracts

“Electronic Archives: Creating a New Bibliographic Code”
Jennie Evenson Department of English Language and Literature University of Michigan

Electronic archives have two distinct bibliographic codes: that of the original texts in the archive, and that of the archive itself. With the rise of bibliographic code scholarship among textual theorists such as Jerome McGann and Peter Shillingsburg, editors can no longer assume that the new bibliographic code produced by the design and apparatus of electronic archives is transparent °. The purpose of this paper is to distinguish between the two bibliographic codes in electronic archives and to identify some of the ways these new bibliographic codes reflect modern editorial decisions and interpretations of the text. Issues of copyright limitations, rapidly obsolescent technology, visual privileging of hyperlinks, constructed searching, and economic and political associations of software focus the discussion of electronic archives on the visual display of information. Jerome McGann created and helped design the first demonstration model of the Rossetti Archive at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia in 1993°. The images of manuscripts and paintings are blurry and difficult to read. The bibliographic code in the Rossetti Archive reveals that it was created several years ago. Rapid improvements in digital imaging technology preclude longevity of quality for the bibliographic code preserved in images. The level of imaging technology within the archive, then, begins to carry meaning. The visual display of images also shapes the meanings of the text. The Electronic Beowulf shows a number of independent images from the text of Beowulf, including that of Beowulf's battle with Grendel in an historiated letter°. The thumbnail image of the manuscript is cropped to place the focus on the violent action in the drawing, highlighting the battle portion of the text with images. The full image is relegated to another screen. The cropping of the image and displacement of the original text exposes the modern editorial interpretation of the manuscript. Hypertext pervades the design of electronic archives. Because hypertext is often underlined and a different color than the surrounding text, hypertext is visually disruptive°. The color distraction of hyperlinks gains the semantic value of privilege. Information about archives often consists of text and hypertext combined, as in the Electronic Dickinson Archive°. The word "alabaster" is highlighted repeatedly within the site, emphasizing this word and all its connotations of whiteness, purity, frailty, and most importantly, femininity. If one of the purposes of the archive was to take Dickinson's manuscripts from their pure, removed existence and to make visible the "paste marks, stains, pinholes, and gradations between pencil and pen" of the manuscripts, then highlighting this word works against this purpose °. In addition, copyright limits electronic archives. Despite intentions of disseminating the visual aspects of Dickinson's work, the archive is riddled with the difficulties of constructing a complete electronic archive under copyright law. The lack of complete materials impacts every aspect of the archive-from access to materials to searching-and the user will only be able to view what is available. The searching and navigation systems of the electronic archive also influence the information available to the user. Search engines function as part of the navigation system and as part of the indexing process. Results given by the index and the search engine determine what information will be found and used; as such, it influences what the user views in the electronic archive. Editors encode decisions within the tags that are administered in the textual mark up process; that is, the editors chose tags and decide how the tags will be used °. Information returned on a search reflects these choices. A search engine, as part of the standard apparatus, is constructed and thus shapes the indexing of the electronic archive. The markup language and computer programs aid in constructing the layout of the archive. Like a printer's colophon, the computer language used by the archive can encode certain meanings. Each language-from SGML to Java-is owned by a company and carries political currency. Sun Microsystems, the owner of the computer language Java, has been embroiled in legal battles with Microsoft over the usage of Java °. One of the results of this dispute is that Microsoft's Web browser Explorer does not support certain sections of Java applications. The William Blake Archive uses Java in some sections of the archive to support the image functions°. These sections of the archive application written in Java encounter problems on the Macintosh computer, which uses a operating system that competes with the systems created by Sun Microsystems and Microsoft°. Computer languages used to structure the archive can carry an economic and political charge, with consequences that affect the bibliographic code of the archive. Like the political associations of the Dun Emer (Cuala) Press discussed by Jerome McGann in Black Riders, the computer language that produces the archive text and images transfers association°. Editorial decisions encode interpretation in all mediums, including the electronic medium. Each electronic representation of archival material is a new scholarly edition, and as such is a new performance of the text. The overall design, including background color, typeface, and spacing may seem to hold only aesthetic value, but visual schemes in the electronic medium garner structure and meaning°. Dust jackets, which were once thrown out by collectors as an unimportant or "expendable" part of the book according to James L. W. West III, are currently being reviewed for their "effect on interpretation" and how the "images become yoked to works for long periods of time"°. Like dust jackets, the overall design of the electronic archive has the potential to impact the users' experience of the work. Recognizing that the new bibliographic code created by electronic archives often reflect modern editorial decisions and interpretations of the text will help editors of electronic archives ask the right questions about the presentation of information. Editors, therefore, need to move toward understanding the new bibliographic code of archive presentation in the electronic medium, and move away from assumptions that the electronic archive environment is static and transparent.