Is Linking Thinking? Addressing Scholarly Hypermedia
michael roy, information technology services, wesleyan university  home

Examples of Scholarly Hypermedia Publications: Collage-work, assemblage statements, or the abidication of scholarly responsibility?

What follows are four specific examples of scholars scholarly hypermedia publications. All are fairly explicit attempts to create 'new genres and rhetorical norms' through these creations.  



Perseus Project


The Perseus project offers a unique hybrid of secondary sources  that are in turn enriched and informed by the large database of text, image, and maps of primary source materials. Research of the primary source materials is facilitated by, in the words of the project's editor in chief, Greg Crane, a  "powerful set of searching and indexing tools. These tools are at the heart of our work: they form the connections between the various kinds of materials within Perseus and facilitate the exploration of these materials for general readers and specialists alike." 

secondary sources

In the cd-rom version was a path-making utility that allowed readers/users to create customized paths through the database, allowing guided tours (also known as arguments) to be made.

What is interesting about the difference between these two 'essays' are both the way in which they are technically constructed (database v. hand-made html) and their appearance on the screen. If in Lyman's words, " the database raises new questions about the unit of knowledge", it appears at first glance that the idea of taking an essay and storing it in a database, while technically sound, results in works that are (to my eye) unattractive to look at. How do you generate readable copy out of a database?



Valley of the Shadow



Like the Perseus Project, the Valley of the Shadow is both an archive, which makes no explicit argument, but also provides what Ed Ayers' calls narratives, which use the archive to present stories that will in turn help to inform further exploration of the archive. These narratives, Ayers writes are intended to provide a

"more centered kind of storytelling with strands of narrative that extend for a considerable length, with cohesion provided not only by electronic links but also by the tropes of more traditional storytelling. "

One can see the various entry points for the archive, and the clearly purposeful lack of priveledging of the interpretive essays as only one means of entrance by looking at the archives main pages.

Indeed, the whole idea of having these paths through the archive available from the main entrance drops away as one moves from the Pre-War to the War section.


A  more radical departure from this narrative method can be found at where one can go to a number of maps. Each node in the map in turn links to a database which reveals more information about the node, as well as suggesting links to even more information, including digitized primary source materials.

Looking carefully at this document, one sees that through its choice of data points (time, geography, particular geographical elements, particular battles, etc.) and the links that are available throughout that document that comprise a very different way of making an argument, although make an argument this map clearly does. What is this argument? And how does it extend and/or challenge competing traditions of Civil War-era history?


In praise of this new way of producing scholarship, Randy Bass (an Educause Gold Medal winner) writes that such scholarship allows " new expansive contact with primary cultural materials" , while preserving the undigested, pre-interpreted form of the archive and that "the archive is not subsumed or appropriated by the narrative. nor is the reader. "



Becoming Human





The examples shown up to this point demonstrate fairly closed 'close' readings of materials contained within a single system, buttressed by significant archives that the scholars created in order to make these arguments. 


Postmodern Culture



PostModern Culture, a journal which began its life on-line first as an email-only edition, and later as part of Johns Hopkins' ambitious Project Muse collection has begun the process of exploring the possibilities of this new medium through sponsoring a special issue on Film which uses the multimedia capability of the web in the words of the edition's editor Robert Kolker to learn " about the history, textuality, and culture of the films they write about and how the writing and their analyses are changed through technologies that offer new ways of seeing and (in both senses of the word) reading. "

In particular, Pete Donaldson's work bears analysis:


Of this work, he writes

"An essay within a digital archive--such a form might expand the resources that can serve as context for an interpretation, extend them to include several media, and create marked and unmarked paths to traverse. Such a form might also foster a documentary tendency, a style of interpretation in which the critic's work always includes comprehensive access to the work discussed, to its sources, and to digital records--text, film, image--of the historical and material evidence relevant to the work under discussion. These digital documents might illustrate the rich and complex traditions from whichan artist like Peter Greenaway (whose films are themselves encyclopedic and archival) draws his material. But their function would not be limited to illustration. The hypertextual and documentary aspects of such an essay would, perhaps, converge insofar as documents--virtual or material--always tell their own stories, or incite us to tell stories about them; encourage us, that is, to follow paths other than those plotted by artist or critic. Documentsalso ask us to ponder, if never fully to answer, the impossible yet sometimes urgent question of the relation between our stories and what is real. " Peter Donaldson , Postmodern Culture

This argument resonates with George Landow's thesis that hypertext makes manifest the de-stablizing claims that deconstruction makes about all forms of text. 


Having moved fairly quickly through these three examples, I will move more slowly through this last example (similar to the PMC example) of a field of study explicitly taking on the problems of Hypermedia Scholarship not through theorizing the possibilities, but by actually making hypermedia scholarship.



American Quarterly

and Commentary on the AQ experiment


The American Quarterly in May of 1998 initiated a project called Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies, which in the words of the project's editor Roy Rosensweig  "wanted to see what electronic publication might mean concretely for American studies scholarship. We also wanted to offer some of the conventional validation and peer review that scholarly publication in a journal generally offers".  Rosensweig, professor of history at George Mason University and a leading developer and thinker on the use of new media in history  laid out the criteria for selection of the essays to be published.

  • new and innovative
  • used the electronic medium to advantage
  • solid research, crisp analysis, interdisciplinary, clear prose

The project resulted in four separate hypermedia essays

"The Spanish-American War in US Media Culture"

by James Castonguay 

"Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger"
by Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz

"Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the Law of Evidence in Nineteenth-Century American Courts"
by Thomas Thurston

"From Hogan's Alley to Coconino County: Three Narratives of the Early Comic Strip"
by David Westbrook


In June of 1999, American Quarterly then printed another special issue, which was a forum designed to provide a space to reflect on these on-line experiments, inviting not only the authors  to comment on the experience of producing hypermedia scholarship, but also the editor to comment on the process of editing this project, and most importantly, for scholars to produce critical readings of the scholarship itself. 


Although the experiment provided a framework for the response essays, nearly all the writers took the opportunity to re-frame the questions in their own terms. The authors asked the following questions/made the following comments:

  • experiment with making an argument that depends on the simultaneity of interpretive threads as wells as the multiplication of archival and evidentiary materials:
  • can digital spaces be used to express disciplinary and interdisciplinary methodologies?
  • can you create something that moves forward in an overacrching idea (or set of ideas) in an environment that intrinsically lends itself to digression, juxtaposition, dissolution, interconnection, and supplantation? If you can make an argument, what would it look like? (bass)
  • how are exposition and argument shaped by what seems, in its clunkier moments, essentially a data entry and extraction machine? wilson
  • Where are the critical and productive affinities between a field's materials, methods, and epistemology on the one hand, and the inherent structure and capabilities of interactive technology on the other? (bass)


What makes this a particularly interesting set of  texts to analyze is that it was created within the framework of an experiment to address/assess the conditions of possibility necessary for this new form of scholarship to exist, and thus produced meditations not only on the new texts, but also on the reception of these texts, both with respect to the relative merits of the contribution to the intellectual field, and with respect to the formal features that enabled new forms of argumentation.  Reception is useful as a model for how scholars will learn how to evaluate these materials. The formal features of the documents produced (made largely by hand with fairly simple technologies) can provide guidance to technologists and librarians (fn) about how to design software systems and support structures that will enable the production of this type of scholarship.


Speed and Splashy Delight
Randy Bass' questioning of the suspicious and false dichotomy characterized by techno-enthusiasts who think that "the engaging power and linking capabilities of multimedia will revolutionize learning and eradicate the need for teachers and schools altogether" versus what a group he calls the elegists, who believe that "etexts and networks are pure ephemera, offering us only speed and splashy delight" .  Considered within this polarized framework, the responses to the hypertext projects were, not unsurprisingly varied. Not surprisingly  what many considered to be the largest weakness of a given project (and of hypertext scholarship) turned out to be for others its most endearing quality. In this manner, the shift to a different delivery mechanism/medium changed not a thing, simply shifting the on-going ideological differences to a new space for disagreement.


Thurston, author of the Hearsay of the Sun,  notes that these creations that exist only on the network are far less stable than they would be had they been committed to paper. While it is a wonderful thing that one can revise a document for as long as you might wish, it is also the case that the social relations that allow for access to the documents are fragile."People make their own web sites, but not on the servers of their choosing. It is as if the existence of every book in every library depended upon the ongoing collaboration of every author, publisher, reader, and librarian, a Schrodinger's cat experiment designed by Rube Goldberg. A lot of social links must be maintained to keep this contraption going, and over time these links dissipate. "

For Thurston the ability to continuously revise is a mixed blessing which he in the end ends up declaring to be a feature rather than a bug, for others, in particular Wilson, this 'provisionality' equates to a resistance to revision and undermines what is good about the peer review process.


"Better than a tight, logical argument and  The Sterility of Caption-Making"
Many of the authors of the AQ pieces, and others that we have looked at, have found the interaction between scholarship and the development of an archive to be a liberating experience, as they feel that their readers can examine their sources in their entierity and (perhaps) come to their own conclusions. In its extreme form, this position can be charactereized as it is by the authors of the site on Arnold Schwarzenager in language that echoes Donaldson's views on the interaction of argument and archive:  "we all have drawers and basements full of notebooks and videos and scribbled napkins and emails that lead us through our subjects better than a tight, logical, proper argument". While not all of the essays are as experimental and open ended as their essay, the other authors do say things like " Rather than simply serving as a means towards a single rhetorical end, a hypertextually annotatted primary source has the potential to become a meeting place where different analytical threads can rub against and play off of each other. My hope is that the reader will be able to use my analyses to tease individual contextual threads out of an image, tying these threads to broader historical narratives without losing sight of the image's thickly layered whole." (Westbrook) " and " I was able to reproduce the vertiginous excess of the period that I was studying." What Randy Bass describes as the " shifting relationship between argument and artifact " he claims is a shift from the creation of an argument to the creation of an environment. Thus, one would expect to see some protests around this shift. Wilson in his essay notes wryly that  "with the archive as the center-piece, there is a fear that scholarly work will be reduced to 'sterile caption making'" , and worries that a " link between text does not describe a causal explanation for their apparent similarity" . For Smulyan, the lack of physical constraints of paper leads to lack of intellectual discipline. She wonders if the inclusion of primary sources benefits authors as much if not more than readers, who may be less interested in direct contact with archives. In her strongest statement of dissent, which echoes Wilson's worries, she suggests that by using this methodology, "authors abdicate their responsibility to declare their own positions." On a practical note, she wonders about the financing of this sort of scholarship, which clearly takes more time and more resources to produce. Will publishers pay for this? Or Universities? Who will provide the glue for this type of activity?


The interpretive problems created by these interventions result as much from methodological disputes within the field of American Studies as from anything inherent in web technology. Thus, depending on one's position with respect to closure, authoritative voice, the proper balance of evidence to assertion, one will either celebrate or dimiss this particular way of doing scholarship, which as Rosensweig points out, inevitably arrives with both technological and ideological requirements/strictures. 






intro | not hypermedia scholarship | examplesstandards | conclusions 


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