Hyperrhiz 08: Essays

The Brautigan Library: Questions and challenges of archiving electronic literature

John F. Barber

Washington State University Vancouver


This essay highlights plans to reopen The Brautigan Library for submissions of born digital electronic literature. It asks what roles both the author and the collecting archive should take to assure long-term preservation and ability to interact with these artifacts, positing these questions against a high-level discussion of archival theory and practice at the overlap of the analog and the digital.


This essay builds on ideas presented at the 2010 Electronic Literature Organization International Conference, held in June of that year at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA. The purpose of the presentation was to stimulate a discussion of strategies The Brautigan Library, an interactive manuscript exhibit inspired by American author Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) and currently owned by the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, Washington, might employ to collect and distribute works of electronic literature. In this regard, the presentation asked more questions than it presented answers. Primary among those questions was the location of responsibility for assuring the long-term accessibility and preservation of works of electronic literature. Should this responsibility reside with the creator, the collector, or both?

Using responses gathered from the conference, this essay first explores various conceptual frameworks for archives as both storehouses and sources of multivalent digital narratives. The discussion then shifts to the archiving of electronic literature and what models might inform the efforts of The Brautigan Library to develop and maintain a collection of born digital narratives. Finally, because of its contentious response at the conference, the essay explores again, briefly, the question of where the responsibility rests for assuring long-term preservation and usability of digital literary works: with the author, the archive, or both?

The upshot of this essay, as was the desire for its original conference presentation, is to encourage discussions focusing on these and other questions associated with archiving works of electronic literature and assuring their availability for future users. One hopes for a beginning consensus that both author and archive must work together to assure the future viability of born digital electronic literature. As was noted during the conference presentation, this process will require much discussion and significant changes to authoring and archiving strategies. Perhaps the discussion can continue here.

An Imaginary Library

In his novel, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, first published in 1971, author Richard Brautigan imagined a library that collected only unpublished books on its shelves, regardless of content or quality of writing, each written by authors unable to move beyond the gatekeepers of the then more restrictive publishing opportunities yet still keen to share their stories.

According to the nameless librarian, the novel's narrator, there is no cataloging or indexing system in Brautigan's imaginary library. Instead, each manuscript is registered in the Library Contents Ledger along with the librarian's comments. After that, every author is free to place manuscripts "anywhere he wants in the library, on whatever shelf catches his fancy." It does not matter where an author places her manuscript, "because nobody ever checks them out and nobody ever comes here to read them. This is not that kind of library. This is another kind of library" (20).

An Archive

Brautigan's imaginary library is, in essence, an archive: a means by which historical knowledge and forms of remembrance can be collected, stored, and recovered.

Archives most often assume one of three conceptual forms. First, collections of information artifacts generated as a byproduct of human activity — business correspondence and records. Second, storage for infrequently required information artifacts, the last stop before their disposal. And, third, a purpose built collection of writings, papers, or other artifacts.

In each form, archives provide a series of traces, or manifestations, each with the potential to fragment and destabilize remembrance as recorded, or history as written. As a result, archives present multiple ways of sharing, and writing, narrative engagement ripe with the potential of providing the last word in the account of what has come to pass.

For these reasons, the archive has become a significant means by which collections of historical knowledge and memory are collected, arranged, and accessed, especially in such fields as anthropology, natural science, history, and art. Such collections are often planned, if not guided, by their curators. Archives are said to be successful/useful because of the influence, overarching vision, conceptualization and overview these individuals bring to the collection's display, arrangement, and access.

This curatorial attention can produce results ranging from an academic catalog of artifacts to creative, even eccentric, approaches including bizarre cataloguing methods, imagined biographies of fictitious persons, collections of found and anonymous photographs, film versions of photographic albums, and photomontages composed from historical photographs.

With the site of curatorial production now expanded to include the space of the Internet, the focus of curatorial attention is extended from the object to collection and distributed system. The curator is part of this entire system, no longer central. And, as William Kasdorf notes, while in the past, archives have been predominantly static, located in some physical space where their collections can be both shown and preserved, the advent of digital technologies has made archives mobile, able to travel to the users through various media (305).

Through the overlay of digital technologies, archives become more like collaborations between viewers and objects, with the archival objects at once present, relevant, and capable of transferring meaning, translating or editing a relationship and engagement with the viewer, and linking information through a system of delineation and promise. But, because one can never see and experience all the stories represented by the archival artifacts, the act of viewing an archive is always incomplete. One can see and experience the index, the overarching structure, but never all the residual, the traces.

As a result, archives are no longer considered neutral, transparent sites of recording or remembering, but rather as subjects and medias in themselves, sites for contested critiquing, for reliving and interrogating the substance of memory and knowledge, forcing users to acknowledge their ephemeral nature, and to question their authority. More specifically, says Jayce Salloum, archives can be seen as living entities, resting in a context of extraction, static collections capable of movement, constantly, indefinitely growing in stops and starts of which one can never see all, responding to methodologies of research, rethinking, and augmentation (186).

Any archive is, then, a leap of faith, not only that artifacts collected therein will be preserved, but that future viewers, listeners, audiences will visit the archive and use the artifacts it collects, thus allowing for connection with their accumulated narrative history.

To summarize, an "archive" refers to a purposeful collection that may provide information and knowledge experiences, functioning, says Haidee Wasson, on one hand, as the adaptive site of public education and democratic access, and, on the other, as an enduring and sacral repository for precious objects (164). Archives may be located in different/multiple places, from grand palaces to a shoebox in one's closet. Archives may be ordered/arranged in different ways, thus providing multiple ways to access their collections. Archives are often planned/guided by curators, and are often successful/useful because of this curatorial attention.

So What?

So what does all this have to do with The Brautigan Library and electronic literature?

Inspired by Brautigan's fictional library, Todd R. Lockwood, and others from the Vermont arts scene, opened The Brautigan Library in a small reading room on lower College Street, in Burlington, Vermont, on 21 April 1990. Lockwood agreed with Brautigan's sentiment, "There just simply had to be a library like this" (Abortion 22).

True to Brautigan's original vision, The Brautigan Library accepted nearly 400 manuscripts from authors keen to tell their stories. All analogue, these manuscripts were accepted regardless of quality or content; no judgment was made. The only requirement was that the work be unpublished at the time it was received by the Library.

Departing from Brautigan's vision, the entire collection of manuscripts in The Brautigan Library was available for reading. While no manuscripts could be checked out, The Brautigan Library encouraged library visitors to handle and read the books in the collection.

Staffed and run entirely by volunteers, and financed by bake sales and other creative funding initiatives, The Brautigan Library was, ultimately, unable to maintain itself and was closed and placed in storage in 2006.

Second Chance

The Brautigan Library will have a second chance, however, thanks to a partnership between The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver and the Clark County Historical Museum, both situated in Vancouver, Washington. In September 2010, The Brautigan Library was moved from Vermont to Vancouver where it was installed as a permanent interactive collection/installation within the Museum. Visitors can once again handle the physical manuscripts, read them, and interact with them directly.

Future plans include reopening The Brautigan Library for submissions of born digital manuscripts — lack of storage space and the partnership with The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program drive this decision — and their sharing with a global audience via various Internet-based technologies. As a result, The Brautigan Library becomes an installation of analog manuscripts, a laboratory in which to experiment with digital archiving and curating, and an archive of various forms of electronic literature.

Electronic literature is seen as an emerging literary form and academic field within the digital humanities defined as literary works dependent on computer-based technologies for both their creation and experience. Based on its genesis, electronic literature is considered born digital literature and may feature sound, images, animation, and video, in addition to text.

Organizers behind the relocation and reopening of The Brautigan Library draw inspiration from the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), a leading collective of artists, writers, readers, and scholars interested in, according to their website, "the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment" designed to "take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer." The ELO believes that through the inclusion of conceptual and sound arts, as well as other forms of digital media, the page might be further unbound from the traditional printed book, thus promoting new approaches to or uses for information overlay and linking. Finally, the ELO promotes "the collection and circulation of works" as a successful methodology for promoting, recording, and sharing developments in the field.

At the same time, however, this theoretical approach gives The Brautigan Library organizers pause for thought.

Digital Curating and Archiving: What Model(s) to Follow?

Digital curating, like traditional curating, its predecessor, is a spatial art form concerned with the organization of objects in particular relations or sequences to each other in order to achieve a particular effect or benefit for an intended audience. The desired result is to clarify, embellish, or historicize the collected artifacts as cultural or even fetishistic forms.

However, unlike traditional curating, with its focus on material objects in physical space (a museum collection for example), digital curating concerns itself with virtual objects in virtual, conceived, or consensual spaces engendered by computer technology and its predominant output format of the pixilated computer screen.

As a result, one might ask, as artists, writers, performers, researchers, teachers, students, and others create and distribute an ever-evolving array of digital artifacts, how can we preserve, present, and add value to these artifacts in a virtual space so that they provide benefit for broad audiences?

Additionally, how can a collection of electronic literature promote a broad range of user-driven access models? How can we collect various forms of electronic literature in a way that makes sense, and more importantly, aids in understanding the nature of the work collected, especially for those viewers/readers/interactors unfamiliar with such endeavors? Several models suggest themselves as answers, but which model is best to pursue?

For example, traditional archiving has often involved the orientation of collection artifacts with regard to perceived order of their receipt into the original collection, or the characteristics of a target audience (the "art patron" or "end user") who may wish to view the archival holdings in a certain order, chronological or subject. This approach might be called the individualized model and would seem to suggest a focus on a specific target audience.

On the other hand, a focus on the abstract individualized and mobile consumer with his/her individual interests might involve shifting the orientation of artifacts away from the notion of a specific timeline or a specific audience, and more toward an approach that is at once open source, semantic, peer-to-peer, socially networked, and available on demand.

Traditional archiving has long utilized multimedia representations of physical artifacts in order to provide access to geographically dispersed audiences. Web-based collocation of digital resources, as we are learning, provides heretofore unexplored collaborative and social-construction opportunities for encountering or experiencing an archive, as well as offering access to an archive's contents from multiple directions and levels.

Finally, moving more toward what Roy Ascott calls "the telematic embrace" — the merging of human and technological forms of intelligence and consciousness through networked communications — the utilization of various digital technologies, like the now familiar hypertext-hyperspatial model, promotes increased interactive connections between words and data. In this model, one clicks at certain points upon a seemingly flat landscape of information displayed on a computer screen and zooms into a bloom of additional knowledge. Arguably, this model has long been the de facto standard as witnessed by its prevalence in our interactions with the ubiquitous World Wide Web.

Archiving: Whose Responsibility?

But which model, or combination of characteristics from different models, might prove the most effective for the challenges faced by The Brautigan Library as it seeks to collect, catalog, and communicate a diverse collection of electronic literature, each artifact, potentially, conceived from and meant to be experienced in a different computer-based context?

It is worth remembering that new technologies are usually heralded by new forms of exploratory artistic practice — theater, radio, film, television, and new media are good examples — each replacing the previous with something newer, arguably more convergent, capable, and compact, each offering new and creative ways of experiencing content and the visions that drive its creation. The adoption of new technologies does not, however, guarantee preservation of the artifact produced. This point might be especially true of digital media where the technologies, the creative tools, are evolving more rapidly than preservation technologies that offer less than permanent results. As Beat Suter notes, "data is an elusive and volatile matter in more than one way" (450).

It is reasonable to assume that, with the continued evolution of creative tools, creators of electronic literature will continue to experiment with new ways of seeing, exploring, or explaining the world in which we live. Unfortunately, these same creative technologies, evolving more rapidly than those applied to preservation, may orphan, abandon, or make obsolete previous states, casting aside the old in favor of the new. Thus, electronic literature may enjoy only a short life span because their creators have not thought of preservation, or preservation technologies/methodologies are not readily available (Barber 2008).

And therein is the rub: Failure, disinterest, or inability to provide for the preservation and archiving of born digital electronic literature threatens its ability to serve as future markers in our collective artistic, literary, and cultural heritage.

Given the intention of archiving electronic literature in the practice of operating The Brautigan Library, and the disconnect between its creation and preservation as noted above, the question comes naturally as to whether the responsibility of assuring future access to such works is solely the province of the collector or the creator? Or, should there be shared responsibilities?

The Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) is moving to address this problem with different suggestions for and applications of preservation technologies and techniques. For example, the Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination (PAD) initiative, according to the "programs" section of the ELO website, "seeks to identify threatened and endangered electronic literature and to maintain accessibility, encourage stability, and ensure availability of electronic works for readers, institutions, and scholars." Additionally, PAD seeks to partner with other projects aimed at preserving digital media, especially electronic literature.

PAD, so far, has produced two reports, Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature by Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Born-Again Bits: A Framework for Migrating Electronic Literature by Alan Liu, David Durand, Nick Montfort, Merrilee Proffitt, Liam R. E. Quin, Jean-Hugues Réty, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin.

In his preface to the former, then ELO President Joseph Tabbi notes, "those who neglect basic preservation issues very quickly discover the mess that technological obsolescence makes, not only of individual works, but of the connections among texts, images, and code-work that are crucial for any sustained, community-wide literary practice." The report, first published in June 2004, goes on to prescribe standards and best practices to "keep e-lit alive" (Acid-Free Bits).

Born Again Bits takes as its goal helping "diverse stakeholders (authors, publishers, archivists, academics, programmers, grant officers, and others) to get just enough of a glimpse of each other's expertise to see how an overall system for maintaining and reviving the life of electronic literature might be possible."

As for preservation and dissemination of electronic literature, we can again look to the ELO for an example. The Electronic Literature Collection, published periodically by ELO, attempts to provide current and older electronic literature in stable form both online and as a packaged, cross-platform CD-ROM. The contents of each collection (the second collection was announced at the ELO Conference, June 2010) are offered under a Creative Commons license.

The ability of collecting entities, like the ELO, to assure the preservation and future access to contemporary electronic literature is limited on one hand by increasing iterations of computer hardware and software used for creating and sharing digital born works, and on the other hand by decreasing operational budgets to acquire and maintain technology resources for their collection, preservation, and distribution.

Faced with such pressures, Suter is emphatic about the author's role in the issue of preserving works of electronic literature, noting, "the electronic literature authors themselves are currently responsible for preserving and archiving their own work" (451).

Jean-Pierre Balpe seems to agree with this stance when he argues that computer-based text can be distributed on a variety of mobile screens: telephone, television, electronic game, even household appliance. "Thus, the writer has to necessarily ask by what medium he wants his text distributed and has to think about the implications that his choices of mediation would have for the meaning and the content of his text" (334).

Certainly it is not unreasonable to feel that the creator share somewhat the responsibility for assuring the long-term viability of his or her born digital work, but just as certainly this stance will elicit pushback from authors who feel it is not their responsibility to assure the preservation of their work. The solution to this stalemate would seem to suggest itself across a spectrum of collaborative possibilities.

One possibility is that contributors to The Brautigan Library be asked to provide metadata about the creation of their work(s). How did they create this work? What hardware and software versions were employed? Were any external resources utilized, and if so, how?

In addition to answering these questions, and more toward the middle of the spectrum, creators could be asked to provide an abstract or overview of the contents, the narrative theme, perhaps an artist statement describing their philosophies, methodologies, and actual practices involved with the production of their work.

Moving toward the other end of the spectrum, creators might be asked to provide generic or universal versions of their work, capable of display in multiple and perhaps more permanent contexts.

Archiving: Scope and Terminology?

Any example of born digital electronic literature may be, by its very nature, multivalent, created from a combination or overlay of digital media elements or resulting from a networking of multiple technologies and/or program applications.

In such cases, what should be archived? The work itself? A previous or historical version of the work? The work's constituent files? Perhaps even the original hardware and software used to create the work?

Furthermore, the availability of digital authoring tools has promoted an exponential growth of individuals who produce digital works in various forms where one component, say the interface, is compelling, even beautiful, but other elements, like the content, are problematic, even non-compelling.

What collection and/or archiving policies should confront such output? Should we follow the original model established by Brautigan in his imaginary library and collect and archive every submission, or only those, for whatever reasons, are deemed the best representations of a particular medium, genre, or creator?

Finally, what should we call the digital literary works that will comprise The Brautigan Library? The Electronic Literature Organization utilizes several genres including hypertext fiction and poetry; kinetic poetry; computer art installations; conversational characters (chatterbots); novels in the form of email or SMS messages, or blogs; poems and stories; collaborative writing projects; and literary performances. Lockwood and the other founders of The Brautigan Library devised The Mayonnaise System, the first library cataloging system developed since the 1876 Dewey Decimal Classification system. Manuscripts were cataloged according to date of receipt and thirteen subject categories: Family, Natural World, Spirituality, Love, Humor, Future, Adventure, Street Life, War and Peace, Social/Political/Cultural, Meaning of Life, Poetry, and All the Rest. Should we use these categories, those proposed by the ELO, or devise others?

This is an important question as we intend to create a searchable database of library holdings driven by keyword terms input by contributing authors. The problem is that neither set of cataloging terminology may best describe new creative, born digital literary expressions. In the absence of any consensus, new terms will be invented which may not enjoy broad familiarity or usefulness, a point noted by Peter Morville, widely recognized as the founder of the emerging field of information architecture and passionate advocate for the critical role of what he calls "findability" in defining the user experience. Morville says searchable databases are great tools, but are largely useless because general users do not know the keywords with which to design the most productive searches. What keywords will be utilized, and who will determine them: creators, curators, or both?


There are, obviously, a lot of questions, and just as obviously, no easy answers regarding how to best proceed with the business of reopening The Brautigan Library for the receipt and archiving of born digital electronic literature.

Indeed, as one looks ahead to the future of electronic literature, there waits, we are told, more interactive, immersive, and innovative digital visual and verbal writing and reading environments. Such developments will, over time, promote a body of knowledge and practice that potentially promotes scholarly and critical, as well as more general perspectives, both creative and applied.

The term potentially is advised because such outcomes will be dependent on utilization. As Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University, suggests in his short video, The Machine is Us/ing Us, the web (also called Web 2.0, The Machine), while it serves as a holding container for vast amounts of different content, exists only as a function of the people who use and populate its virtual spaces and potentials, its shape and structure defined by the way we use the information amassed there.

As we have seen, collective and functional utilization of digital archiving fosters a site for new, exploratory artistic digital creation and expression. Surely, somewhere between established and emerging archival practices lie the demands for the development of new theoretical frameworks and practical methodologies, new ideas of stewardship and new applications of best practices that can be applied to the creation, collection, and communication of born digital electronic literature. Looking ahead to the future, we can continue this discussion of how to create open sources for the archiving of these artifacts, thus allowing them to serve as both creative and applied inspirations, perhaps even spurring creation of new capabilities for the creators and readers of future electronic literature.

READ a response to this essay by Nicholas Schiller, 'This is not that kind of library. This is another kind of library.'


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