Turning the Page on Re-mediated Texts: Archives and Digitizing Nostalgia

For my digital essay, I’d like to build off of some of the ideas raised in my X1 blog post for this class, which in turn derived partially from a project begun in Heidi Kaufman’s Fall 2012 “Archival In(ter)ventions” course.  In that course, my seminar paper was titled “(Re)born Digital: The Yellow Book and Adaptations of the ‘Archive’,” and it used the digital archive The Yellow Nineties Online as a case study by which to examine the online re-mediation/adaptation of a particular Victorian periodical, as well as the functions of the archives and online research environments in which such texts are stored. My argument for that paper was most interested in how the ways in which archival texts are made digital force us to reevaluate the role of an “archive” as well as the act of archiving itself. I have been itching to work further on this project with other affordances, so this digital essay project seemed like a golden opportunity to do so.

As I think I admitted in my very first entry on the course blog, much of my scholarly work deals with aesthetics and the ways in which the presentation/juxtaposition of various texts within a larger (con)text (like a periodical) shifts the ways in which the former text is read and interpreted. For this digital essay project, I plan to look more closely at the ways in which the re-mediation of such archival texts (which mimic the original layout but present the information in a new format and/or simulate a book-based reading experience by aesthetic and faux-tactile means) play into our sense of nostalgia for the print-based (an idea that was raised initially in our discussions of Dennis Baron).

For a paper of this length, I will naturally only be able to scrape the surface of digital aesthetics, but I hope that by limiting my focus to a particular digital archive that deals in historical documents (rather than looking at website or digital book design more broadly), I will be able to draw some reasonable conclusions. I’d like to once again use The Yellow Nineties Online as my primary text to focus on, but I will likely also refer to other archives that deal in Victorian materials (such as The Rossetti Archive) as well as broader repositories that function in similar ways, such as Internet Archive.

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that in working with a continually-updated online repository like The Yellow Nineties Online, many of my initial points are already defunct in the face of the intervening one-and-a-half years’ worth of changes. So, while I am admittedly returning to a project that I have already spent some amount of time on, I will in many senses be starting from scratch: I will not only need to (perhaps completely) reevaluate my former claims, but I will also be expanding on just one branch of the larger issues I had tried to tackle in my paper for Heidi’s class.

To sum up:

  • My primary texts/materials will be the online archive(s) I engage in, but I also anticipate drawing from Denis Baron’s A Better Pencil, Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web, and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation.
  • Some additional questions/problems are: How are texts whose original conception was already highly invested in the aesthetics of the page re-presented and re-mediated in digital environments? What is gained (or lost) by reproducing/simulating these original formats as closely as possible? How do these concerns play into larger ideas of nostalgia for old forms and formats, now incongruously simulated in the digital?
  • Ironically in a project invested in aesthetics, the aesthetics of my own work is what is giving me the most trouble. So, I am as yet uncertain as to what format would be best for this project: at the most basic level, I’d be happy to use a format like WordPress that easily allows for the incorporation the images, hyperlinks, etc., while on the more sophisticated, I’d be interested in trying my hand at creating my content in a simulated book form, like the Cooking School essay that we had initially looked at as a model (though I have, at this point, no idea how to do that).
  • My remaining questions for all of you: Any ideas or advice in regards to format for this project? How is the scope of this project looking so far (is it too broad, or by contrast, not broad enough)? Relatedly, would it be useful to widen my scope somewhat to talk more generally about the simulation of print-based reading experiences, outside of the archive as well as in? Are there any other online archives with interesting formatting or presentation of materials that you could point me towards?

7 thoughts on “Turning the Page on Re-mediated Texts: Archives and Digitizing Nostalgia”

  1. Petra,

    This sounds like a fascinating project—although I have to admit that, in terms of content, these materials will all be new to me, so in that sense I will be a very amateur reader.

    I think your questions about the gains and losses involved in re-mediating print are perfect starting points, and my quick look at The Yellow Book suggests that it will be a rich case study for you.

    For now, I’m not sure that you need to worry that much about format. Start (re-)reading, making notes, finding texts and images you think you’ll want to cite—basically, assembling your materials and organizing your thoughts about them. I suspect that as you do, both a form and format will begin to emerge for you.

    Good luck!


  2. Petra,

    [Were you at the TEI workshop last year? I know you attended some of those DH seminars and I can envision one of them when I sat next to you, but I can’t remember if you came to this one]. I hope that you will be considering TEI in this paper, since this is a programming-based way of trying to reinterpret archival documents! IN fact, there is a huge guide for coding different elements of documents in TEI (inkspots or paper-tears, for example), which I could (probably) find and send to you if you wanted it.

    1. Katie–I sadly missed the TEI workshop last fall (I had a Friday seminar that rudely interfered with my attending all the workshops), but I’ve been meaning to try my hand at it–and I’d love if you could point me to the guide you mentioned, which sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks!

  3. I think you have some really great questions. I am particularly interested in the one regarding gains/losses in simulating/reproducing original formats, as that is a question I myself have considered when doing online research with primary sources. I think it might help if you did widen to talk about print-based reading experiences in general- I think it’ll open up the way you frame your argument and not be so limiting.

  4. Whoa, I just looked up TEI. That is crazy! And seems like a really interesting and clear example of the ways the digital world is trying to deal with the challenges of translating the archive into a digital environment. And it also seems to offer a good way into the question of gains vs. losses in digitizing the archive.

    It seems to me the decision about whether to discuss the simulation of print-based reading practices in general, or to focus in specifically on the archive, should be driven by the aim of your project. If you open up to all kinds of simulation of print-based reading, then nostalgia seems like the driving force behind the project. But looking at the archives specifically seems like a richer area for discussing what might be gained and lost. Personally I’m more interested in the latter, but that’s just me.

    I’m also really interested to hear how you think you might use Baudrillard. I did some work with Simulacra and Simulation in the theory class last semester and really enjoyed it. Does the digitized archival text act as a “deterrence machine” in tricking us into thinking that the experience is somehow more removed from the real, when really, the experience of the physical archive was already a simulation of reading something in its “original” form and context?

    This is an awesome project. Godspeed!

  5. A suggestion: there might be a parallel aesthetic/readerly function between the periodical and a certain type of digital context–metadata. Things like search tags, archival categories, and even searchable terms create a new sort of periodical that texts can inhabit (imagine, for example, how the #685dw hashtag on Twitter groups all of our tweets into a sort of rolling periodical, providing differences in meaning and reading depending on whether some guy just looks at my tweets or looks at all #685dw tweets). In accordance to your shift in affordances, adding a perspective on the metadata of the archive might be fun–and is also one of those things that drives me nuts about digital archives, since I always find what I want in them by *not* looking for the right words.

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