What’s the Rationale?

If for McGann, the “Rationale of Hypertext” is based on the “decentralizing” character of hypertextual archives (“that fabulous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”), then what is the Rationale of the Library? It seems to me that the library is itself a “decentered” system. Indeed, McGann concedes that “libraries are conceived in the same spirit as the Internet and hypertext”. A library contains no centralized text, each document is independent and can be “separately addressed”, a user creates (sometimes arbitrary) connections between available documents, many libraries are even actually “hypermedial”, including listening rooms and photographic slides….

McGann acknowledges most of these similarities in “The Rationale of Hypertext”  and we probably all have a “yes, but—” to add to most them. Listing them here serves two purposes, I think.

1) While the convenience of accessing a digital library in our pyjamas should not be undervalued, the limitation of the library is primarily the limitation of the printed book. The book is “fixed” in a way that electronic text is not because “the book form forced editorial scholars to develop fixed points of relation—the ‘definitive text’” etc. As Olivia has pointed out, as librarians engage with the digital humanities, libraries become access points to digital archives and are further “decentered” by the potential inclusion of archival objects outside of the online network.

2) McGann makes a distinction between works in which the relationship between form and content are “incarnational” and those that are “vehicular”. He points out that the print based economy has really not served the work of writers like Blake and Dickinson. Is it possible that digitization will not serve the work of certain writers who emerge in full awareness of the limitations of print and push the limitations of print in a way that would be lost without the form they manipulate? This may not be the strongest example, but I was recently reading this online publication of Bp Nichols’s reworkings of his first published poem “Translating Apollinaire” and was struck by the following comment: “It took us some time to work out what to use and how to reproduce it in print. The poems presented here are those that seem to make the transition to the web without problems”. This comment was written in 1996 so I think we’ve progressed beyond some of the issues implied here but I was just really interested in the layers involved in a) deciding how to curate work into print, and then b) dealing with the limitations of digitizing curated print work.

I think I’ll go ahead and end my post like I did last week. As far as I understand it, what we’re dealing with is not Wikisource vs. the Library but rather a tedious process of deciding what best suits the work at hand. McGann is right that if the form of a work is “vehicular”, it should unquestionably by digitized for the purposes of accessibility and functionality. On the other hand, not all work in which form is “incarnational” is like Blake’s and Dickinson’s and we should consider what best serves the work itself.

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One Response to What’s the Rationale?

  1. michelle.keith says:

    I think you highlight an important point in your post, Claire. So often with the course readings and our discussions of print vs. digital, there is a common acknowledgement of “I see why it’s important and why the result is significant.” But it is always followed by a “but” phrase and explanation of why we disagree or have reservations. I think that making this distinction – that it’s NOT the library vs. wikisource, or print vs. digital – is a significant step. We do need to open up the discussion and start a dialogue about which medium works the best for each individual source, and acknowledge that we cannot lump every piece of literature or printed work into one category.

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