Do we need an E-lit Short Title Catalogue?

September 3rd, 2013 Comments Off on Do we need an E-lit Short Title Catalogue?

I’ve spent the day successfully viewing the copy of William Gibson, Dennis Ashbaugh and Kevin Begos Jr.’s Agrippa: book of the dead at the National Art Library (once I’ve gathered my thoughts and reorganized my notes – I’ll write up my findings regarding the differences between this and other editions of the text) and being unsuccessful in an attempt to see Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post currently installed next door at the Science Museum. These are two works of hybrid physical-digital literature that can’t easily be replicated and distributed widely among the community, but equally are incredible works that require physical interaction in order to fully appreciate them. Certainly, Agrippa was a completely different physical experience than I had imagined from any description I had read.

Along with other important works of digital literature, there are very few, if more than one, functional copies of these two artefacts. Preservation has been a pressing need within the community as the wealth of recent literature would suggest. In recent years there have been a promising number of acquisitions of important digital literature author’s papers in libraries and a number of laboratories doing important work such as the Media Archaeology Lab, UCSC’s large collection of Japanese videogames, MIT’s Trope Tank, etc (As an aside, I don’t know if there is any such lab in the UK yet?). The currently on-going NEH Office of Digital Humanities project, “Pathfinders” has been instrumental in the promoting preservation through documentary and “Let’s Play” practice. This is useful work for the institutionalization of digital literature but access remains an issue.

If some of these works are still executable in their original form, or preserved in some other form if they take are very physical (e.g. Where can I access works built to run with CAVE?), how do we find out where these places are? Catalogues of digital works are being built: ELMCIP, Electronic Literature Directory, I ♥ E-Poetry, and so forth, but a common finding aid for where to travel to when you actually want to interact with these works is still missing.

A useful analogy for what might solve this problem can be found in one of the great undertakings of bibliographers in the last 150 years: the Short Title Catalogue (STC). The STC was a monumental undertaking to document the existing copies of books printed between 1475 and 1640 in the British Isles and notes the libraries that held the titles. Rather than noting all books that could have existed, it focused instead on those that survived. This allowed researchers to find copies of these rare materials. Surely many of digital incunabula deserve similar treatment?

Now, the short title aspect of the work is no longer important as digital bibliographies allow for longer records, and the STC itself is now online with much more metadata than the crammed references of the printed original. Equally, the records of locations has changed since the revised edition, and with issues such as the Senate House Library’s proposed sales of their Shakespeare Folios, the catalogue remains in flux and libraries may no longer have the same holdings. The STC instead offers a starting point.

The finding aid aspect of the STC would be of great use for scholars interested in the material aspects of digital literature. If we had a centralized database offering the locations and any system requirements based upon the limitations, this could aid access to the original artefacts and enrich our understanding of early digital literature. Setting up such a database would be another step towards legitimizing the form as it would once more demonstrate the importance of the material form as something worth traveling for, rather than relying on the description of those earlier scholars lucky enough to interact with some of the more elusive and ephemeral works.

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