in Cyberspace -Camden
Table of Contents
When Mickle Street Review, the Rutgers-Camden scholarly publication dedicated to Walt Whitman, was created in 1979,it started, as many academic endeavors do, as a labor of love. Largely founded through the efforts of English professors Geoffrey Sill and Frank McQuilkin, and financially through the support of the Walt Whitman Association and the Rutgers Camden provost's office, the publication became an outreach to help build a connection to the place where Whitman spent the final years of his life. At the time of its inception, Whitman's Camden house had fallen into disrepair and the creation of MSR became instrumental in increasing the visibility of the house's preservation effort by rallying support and activity in the poetry community. Utilizing Whitman's continued popularity, evident in the substantial number of poetic Whitman homages, a sub-genre of American poetry based on what Ed Folsom has described as a need to "talk back to Whitman," MSR was flooded with submissions and letters of support. The first issue was a modest, staple-bound, 6"x 9" journal, containing 95 pages of poems and prose. Operating with a very limited budget, which went entirely to printing and distribution costs, the publication was forced to rely on collaboration and the determined grassroots resourcefulness of its founders: not only was all artwork created by John Giannotti, the chair of the art department, the provost's secretary, Terry Single, was recruited to type the issues. With this strong showing of support, New Jersey was ultimately convinced to invest in the house and the surrounding properties, effectively saving Whitman's heritage in Camden.
Publication continued under MSR's original format until 1985 when the journal changed the focus of its content and endeavored to create a more professional appearance. Moving to a perfect binding, MSR continued to publish poems, but also began accepting increased submissions of scholarship and analytical approaches to Whitman. Noted Whitman scholar David Reynolds was brought onboard in 1988 to solidify this direction and head the newly formed Walt Whitman studies program. In 1990, after Reynolds departure and due to rising production costs, the journal was forced to cease publication, disappearing from the literary landscape.
It would be a disheartening tale if it ended here, but through the efforts of Rutgers-Camden English professor Tyler Hoffman, the activity generated by the newly formed Camden Online Poetry Project, and the increased accessibility and cost-effectiveness of the Internet, MSR received a second life. Instead of winding up a victim of the modern state of print scholarship, MSR instead became a case study in how a small scholarly journal could survive online through the same teamwork and ingenuity that originally propelled the print journal. In 2001, out-of-house web designer Tom Hartman set to work developing MSR’s first online version (Issue 14: Museums and Memoirs); it was the first issue in 11 years. Retaining the publication's aim to provide a "common ground" for those with an interest in Walt Whitman and his work, MSR attempted to utilize the benefits of the Internet to continue bringing these diverse admirers together in one place. The focus of the journal also expanded, accepting works that did not deal exclusively with Whitman; a more general American studies approach allowed MSR to highlight a broader range of work, diversifying the scholarly representation of the journal.
This transition online, caused by a sequence of unpredictable twists of fate, essentially freed MSR from its binding and with this opportunity came the chance to re-imagine the journal. After two online issues, though, the journal remained, for the most part, a direct translation of its print precursor. Although the documents were now digitized and interlinked, the journal retained the rigid format and layout of a standard journal or newspaper.
When I took over as Managing Editor of the publication in 2004, the journal had once again entered a transitional stage; having lost the persons responsible for the technical creation and maintenance of the site, the journal threatened to fall once again into the void, this time a digital one. Initially struggling to find direction, I took the opportunity to look back over one of the few surviving complete runs of the print journal for inspiration; what I found was remarkable: a fictional encounter between Kerouac and Whitman in the afterlife, a personal narrative from the Whitman house’s caretaker, amazing illustrations by Giannotti and many of his students, and a rich poetry collection including works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Rutgers-Camden poet JT Barbarese. It was a diverse, creative publication that truly reflected that deep-seated connection to and continuing creative influence of Whitman. It seemed only fitting that the new MSR should continue capturing this spirit, but now with a greater focus on exploring the potential of the Internet and hypertext systems. Just as the origins of the MSR proved inspiring, it also seemed necessary now to look back to the beginnings of online scholarship and hypertext systems to fully understand the groundwork that had been laid in the field for further direction.
It should be noted here that although there are certainly other writers worth exploring and currently being investigated online, I only wish to look at online scholarship as it applies to Whitman. The scope of the field is certainly too large to conduct an appropriate investigation in this space; I merely wish to examine how we can approach Whitman and use his inspiration to create a place and a body of work that honors his poetic spirit.
The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-joined scheme—myself disintegrated, every
one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the
walk in the street, and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.
(Poetry and Prose 308)
How often when reading Whitman we find ourselves inhabiting a time-space that is unstable, fluid, and decentered. Although the poetic voice originates from this East River ferry, few other concrete, descriptive details are forwarded to allow a grounding in the poetic moment. We find Manhattan to the north and west and Brooklyn to the east and south, but which direction is the ferry moving in, which port are we traveling to and from, how far have we traveled and how fast? We seem to find ourselves moving in “slow-wheeling circles” with the sea-gulls overhead. Coupled with this positional ambiguity is the motion created through the use of water imagery, which further de-stabilizes the reader through its constant ebb and flow, its current's swift rush. Temporally, we become disoriented as well; the poetic voice melds past and future together, generations and hours are fused in a fluid union. Yet, underlying this there is stillness, a centeredness, to the poetic voice surrounded by flux. Whitman reassures his reader, "It avails not, time nor place--distance avails not, / I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence" (Poetry and Prose 308). We are subsumed into his compact, well-joined scheme, and yet it is not disjointing; we are strangely comforted. What Whitman in effect creates is a virtual environment, one that the reader experiences as a subjective entity connected to and disintegrated into all spatial and temporal structures. In a manner this disruption allows us to participate in Whitman's poetry with him; a leveling of all distances so that readers can insert themselves into Whitman’s environment and in a sense join him. It is in appreciating poems such as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that we start to get a sense for how well suited Whitman’s work is for examination online.
From its inception, hypertext and hypermedia systems (more specifically websites and the Internet) held great promise for Whitman studies, especially in addressing his life-work Leaves of Grass. Due to the multiple revisions made to the text throughout his life, changes which constantly altered the overall meaning and physicality of the work, Leaves of Grass has always presented a unique challenge for scholars. This continuous evolution uproots text as a fixed and immutable entity by transcending spatial and temporal constraints; Leaves of Grass is an organic masterpiece that speaks to the ever-changing nature of human thought and creation. Each successive edition captures an important history included in a larger continuum, which allows scholars to appreciate Whitman’s poetry at different moments, and, in a larger scope, his life connected to that poetry. Such a complex undertaking often requires the ability to draw abstract correlations, to “think outside of the box”--experimental explorations that hypertext is perfectly positioned to accommodate. Early theorists felt that hypertext’s ability to reorder, categorize, and draw associations between information represented a transition to a more natural way of experiencing text, a methodology that moved away from the sequential, linear text of print scholarship to one that more closely resembled the processes of human thinking (Landow and Delany 7). In his essay "Reading Hypertext: Order and Coherence in a New Medium," John Slatin explored this difference: "linear thinking specifies the steps it has taken; associative thinking is discontinuous--a series of jumps like the movement of electrons or the movements of the mind in creating metaphor” (158). This conceptualization, he found, was ideally suited to handle "complex, highly diversified bodies of information in such a way as to emphasize their interconnectedness" (166). With the innumerable discrepancies revolving around nine authorized editions of Leaves of Grass, the countless manuscripts, thousands of letters, images, and scholarship pertaining to each, Whitman's work certainly fits this criterion. Whitman’s poetry itself, most notably its break from the linearity and rigid structures of traditional poetic form through the radical development of free verse, celebrates communication that speaks to all members of society. One need read only one of Whitman’s lengthy catalogues, or note his preferred punctuation choice, the ellipsis, and its pervasive use, for further evidence of this associative connectivity; the smallest elements, the tiniest minutiae, are always connected to a larger whole, the surrounding “kosmos.”
As Whitman stated in “Song of Myself,” “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” (Poetry and Prose 83). Just as his progressive works challenged assumptions and altered the face of poetry, many felt that hypertext could be employed to inspire a radical transformation in academia. Jerome McGann assessed that by moving outside of traditional approaches we don’t simply receive a new point of view on the materials, but a perspective that "lifts one's general level of attention to a higher order" (55), one that can expand perception and coexist with traditional materials in developing scholarship. For him, this differed greatly from the constrained analyses of print scholarship which occurred on the "same conceptual level” as the materials being studied (82). George Landow and Paul Delany, early pioneers in hypertext study, felt that scholars and authors had internalized the bounded and fixed conditions of traditional texts "as the rules of thought" (3). They applauded hypertext's structure for its potential to be "anti-hierarchical and democratic" and commended its potential to bring texts in direct relation to one another, "blurring the boundaries between them" (29, 11). This direct relationship would cause an individual text to lose its "physical and intellectual separation" from the other elements in the network, "destroying the physical isolation of the text, just as it also destroys the attitudes created by that isolation" (13).
It was not exclusively the linking together and association of materials that held appeal for Whitman scholarship, though; it was also how it could be organized that portended a radical shift in the field. Jay Bolter, author of Writing Space, found that by replacing authority and fixity with the flexibility and responsiveness of networked hypertext models, "paths that weave their way through textual space" would be created (34). This, in turn, would generate a multiplicity of meanings and interpretational prospects that would undermine the univocal authority and subordination present in traditional texts (1990 Bolter 112), a decentralization extending to a user a myriad of subnetworks within any network (206). Bolter saw these hypertext constructions as alternate organizations or "subversive texts-behind-the-text" (1990 Bolter 109-110). McGann also noted the decentering aspect of hypertext and understood it as "radiant” structure, which creates an "open and interactive" experience (25). In this model, an organization focusing attention on "one particular text or use of texts" is dissuaded and a "decentralization of design" allowing an indefinite number of expandable, interchangeable "centers" is encouraged. He found that this environment encourages one “not so much to find as to make order--and then to make it again and again, as established orderings expose their limits" (71). He applied these theories of "radiant textuality" to his ground-breaking project The Rossetti Archive: "the data in the archive is not organized hierarchically. It resembles more that fabulous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere" (70). We are once again reminded by this of Whitman’s poetic voice, which so often transcended temporal and spatial restrictions: “What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? / Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.” Whitman’s voice seems to find fitting representation in the radiant, decentered construction of hypertext. Like his noiseless patient spider, which “launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” or his ferry traveler admiring the “fine centrifugal spokes of light” radiating out from behind his reflection in the water, Whitman consistently presents images that arouse a sense of connectivity and immersion in a larger, often invisible structure.
The Internet’s possibilities for scholarly presentation and interaction with audience was a major benefit of this decentralized structure. Stuart Moulthorp, a pioneer in hypertext fiction, argued that the true innovation of hypertext was not in its effect on authorship, but in its "transformation of reading" (124). His hypertext version of Borges The Garden of Forking Paths gave readers a direct impact on the movement through and outcome of the work much like a choose-your-own-adventure novel: "The Garden of Forking Paths is capable of containing multitudes, and to impose any single tendency on it would be to bind the proliferation of meaning within absurdly narrow constraints” (121). In this, of course, we hear echoes of “Song of Myself”: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself; / I am large, I contain multitudes" (Poetry and Prose 87). This embodiment of multiple meanings and possibilities, just as in Whitman’s child going forth every day, offers the endless prospect of renewal and divergent paths. Within Whitman's poetic self, as well as Borges's narrative work, emerges what Moulthrop sees as "an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times," a network that embraces "all possibilities of time” (120).
Indeed, the Internet targeted a new audience, and the presentational possibilities to speak to that audience were dramatically increased with the integration of multi-media. By re-inserting the "visual and auditory faculties into textual experience," Landow and Delany felt that the Internet could present a more engaging experience that more closely reflected the "complex interrelatedness of everyday consciousness" (7). Furthermore, it would encourage relational thinking--or, present "a powerful means of teaching sophisticated critical thinking, particularly that which builds upon multi-causal analyses and relating different kinds of data" (83). Whitman celebrated the body and was extremely conscious of image even in the early days of photography. He was also a singer of the people, and although it is often debated, he is thought to be one of the first poets to record his work on wax cylinder. This ability to expand outside of textual scholarship, would allow Whitman to be approached in innovative ways, making use of emerging technologies to sound his barbaric yawp.
Perhaps the greatest benefit touted by the emergence of the Internet, which made it so appropriate for Whitman studies, was not the connection of documents, but of people. These heightened levels of collaborative scholarship would unite the work of multiple creators in various locations, and foster virtual communities of like-minded persons--in a sense a creative superalliance working toward a common goal. With the open-ended nature of its networked structure, which could be perpetually expanded and altered, hypertext creations presented the possibility of a scholarship that could be continued by the scholars to come. Landow and Delany projected that this collaborative work would initiate the redefinition of authorship and authorial property imposed by the technology of the book, ending the "vastly distorted view of the connection of a particular text to those that have preceded it" (16-17). Whitman often marked this connection to past and future as an integral part of his poetic vision, an inclusiveness that aligns perfectly with the spirit of the collaborative potential of hypertext systems:
Not to exclude or demarcate, or pick out evils from
In a sense, the work of academics would once again rejoin the tradition of scholarship, stretching endlessly into the past and future. As Geoffrey Sill so astutely observed, "To have read Whitman, even once, is to join a vast network whose members, from the least to the most famous, have much to say to each other" (“Introduction”). To limit the myriad of voices sounding and responding to Whitman would seem counter-intuitive. Hypertext made new allowances for this diversity. For Whitman, this connection to others was an integral part of his unifying poetic vision: “‘We need satisfiers, joiners, lovers,’ he wrote. ‘These heated, torn, distracted ages are to be compacted and made whole’” (Reynolds 309).
Reading Whitman has always been very personal; he often makes the reader feel as if he is communicating directly with: “Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me, / Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade; / Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)” (Poetry and Prose 287). With this in mind, a scholarship that allows a reader to maintain personal perspective, while having input and influence on the final determination of the meaning, would remain a more approachable Whitman investigation. An investigation that would signal a departure from the print voice of authority, making the reader’s own interests “the de facto organizing principle (or center) for the investigation at the moment" (Landow and Delany 18). Here again we hear Whitman:
You shall no longer take things at second or third
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself (Poetry and Prose 28)
With all the promise seemingly on the horizon for scholarly studies on the Internet, and how well matched it appeared to be for Whitman studies, it is remarkable how little Whitman scholarship has actually been produced online in the nearly 20 years since the Internet’s emergence. When Charles Green, technical editor of the Whitman Hypertext Archive, took stock of the field in the mid-nineties, he provided a report of his findings; it was a short list, filled with disparate entities, but at the time it was promising. At the top of that list, and rightfully so, was the Whitman Hypertext Archive. A most remarkable contribution to Whitman scholarship and scholarship as a whole, the Whitman Archive, created by Ed Folsom and Ken Price in the mid-nineties, endeavored to make all known Whitman materials available in electronic form; an archive that would be flexible enough to integrate materials as they became available, and still be stable, dependable, and consistent. Utilizing the talents of multiple individuals to create and develop the archive, it has amassed an impressive stock of materials including: all known images of Whitman; many original manuscripts; hypertext versions of each edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; a searchable bibliography of all articles, books, chapters of books, and poems pertaining to Whitman written since 1975; an audio recording of "America"; and many other Whitman-related documents. By establishing a rigorous encoding system to ensure that the future materials could be added, the breadth and depth of this archive has continued to grow, and clearly there is not, nor should there be, any ceiling for its future expansion. It is, in a sense, a perfect model for the use of the open-ended, collaborative hypertext and multimedia systems to tackle Whitman’s body of work. What is remarkable about the archive is its presentation of its materials in a manner that offers users the opportunity to make decisions, to participate in the site with personal interests as the guiding organizational factor.
Jerome McGann concluded that all scholars engage in two distinct disciplinary tasks: textual editing and textual interpretation (12). With the majority of the sites that Charles Green examined being finite and specialized archives, including a Library of Congress site constructed around the recovery of several lost Whitman notebooks and an online hypertext version of portions of Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden, it became clear that the second disciplinary task outlined by McGann has been neglected in online Whitman studies. The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, also edited by Ed Folsom, revealed itself to be the only entry, aside from MSR, in this area, but it offered only sample works indicating its clear focus remains on print publication. Reflecting on this dearth of Whitman scholarship online, especially critical interpretations, seems to indicate that this area remains an untapped wealth of possibilities. The linking and assembling of complex document systems and the integration of media and text have been progressive and fruitful developments, but why has the progress only been in this one area? As Michael Lesk understands, "digitized documents represent only a transitional stage, one in which the attempt is made to use new technologies to increase the productivity of traditional modes of production and to reinforce traditional authority patterns” (371-2). As print scholarship becomes increasingly more costly and specialized, and with libraries purchasing journals solely in electronic formats, we need to reassess the state of modern scholarship. If, indeed, one of the dominant barriers hindering the progress of scholarship is the lingering conceptual attachment to print culture, then this is a critical juncture. We can have an impact on the future vitality of the medium if we are courageous enough to ask questions and look towards inventive and creative methods for the answers; critical works need not just survive online, they can flourish and break new ground. Jerome McGann asserts that "interpretation of works of imagination call for responsive works of imagination, not reflexive works of analysis" feeling that "the next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making as with writing text" (109, 19). But, what will these works look like? How will they incorporate all that is at our disposal? Perhaps we should look for inspiration, as Whitman did, in the world that surrounds us.
DVDs are a fitting example and perhaps a model that can be readily adapted for scholarly works online. When inserting a DVD into a player, the user no longer expects merely to watch a movie; in fact, the DVD's major selling point has now become its extra-features. Through hypertext menus which link to commentaries, bloopers and deleted scenes, bios, storyboards, production materials, trailers, scene selections, and documentaries (all available in multiple languages and 5.1 channel surround-sound) the movie "viewer" now becomes an active "user"; in short, the submersive environment created encourages an experience--an interaction--which utilizes all the principles of hypermedia and hypertext, as well as many traditional audio-visual elements, to engage the user. The network of related materials available on a disc is currently limited to some degree, restricted by storage size, but with DVD drives becoming the standard drives issued in nearly all personal computers, the infinite space of the internet is just a hyperlink away. DVD’s close relationship to web designs is not missed either; there is often an interplay between developing technologies. However, DVD productions seem to take some of the best elements of hypertext systems and refine them. For one, there is typically a great deal of control over content on a DVD. Space is more manageable and defined, like traditional print texts, while still offering space to “explore” the many features that make the modern home movie experience so rich. Even though part of the beauty of hypertext systems is their ability to relate materials, at times they can provide too many links and the dispersed network structure threatens to lead users away from the site or overwhelm them; both are obviously not ideal results. DVD’s model illustrates that a controllable amount of materials centered on one core component—the movie, the poem, the topical theme— can be a much more attractive and user-friendly experience.
The DVD often makes exceptional use of multimedia as well, an aspect of development in the humanities that has been hindered by cost and shortage of technological expertise. It may be some time before multimedia integration becomes a feasibility at this level in scholarship, but with home editing suites become more user-friendly and available, perhaps it will be a realistic prospect in the near future. Certainly, the integration of this media could present unexplored opportunities when integrated into scholarship, including interactive documentaries, which would allow users to access supplementary content through links that appear as they view video. Where television documentaries can only provide links to information onscreen, web sites could present the ability to connect directly to suggested links and supplementary information. One of the major factors inhibiting content delivery of this type was once the unbearable delivery speed offered by the Internet in its infancy. Now, on the cusp of widespread broadband availability, this no longer is the case.
Today’s students are multi-literate, multi-taskers. As the next generation of scholars, nearly all will have been raised with computers in their household or at least have had access to them. The medium will soon have achieved a transparency, increasingly so as all media transitions to wireless technology and connections eventually become seamless. With this in mind, another possibility for inspiration can be found in the immersive environments of video games. With the rapid development of rendering technology and processor speeds, videogames have created the standard for environments which are in many ways similar to the poetic experience previously described in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." No longer an observer, but a participant, the players of these games give users a feeling of “thereness,” an experience of proprioception, or, more poetically, “a dream of depth, expressed in the depth of an elastic and windowing world" (Joyce 171). Games such as "Grand Theft Auto," "Unreal Tournament," and "WarCraft" now insert gamers into real-time, often collaborative, gaming environments. Part of the appeal of these games, often cited as the problem as well, is the expectation of experiential reproduction: don’t show me an image of a mid-nineteenth century Bowery ghetto; take me there. In offering this potential model, I do not mean to imply the need for 3-D scholarly environments. This is, obviously, largely unobtainable; the multi-million dollar gaming companies are unlikely to find a large audience or initiative to create "Walt Whitman's Poetry Quest." (However, I do hold out hope for translations of Beowulf, Le Morte D'Arthur and The Red Badge of Courage.) What it does suggest, though, is that modern audiences crave interactivity and influence over materials. Online journals and scholarship can work towards a presentation that uses some of the flash and pizzazz of popular media to generate environments that are captivating as well as informative. Scholarship could be integrated in a way that balances technological immersiveness with the most potent elements of traditional print scholarship.
There are still many hurdles before us; certainly there will be a need to develop quality control, as well as a language and critical mechanism to analyze these new works. Developing any technology also takes capital and manpower; the resourcefulness that Mickle Street Review tapped into as a print journal could prove to be a most valuable commodity in this enterprise. Essentially, asking questions and addressing these emerging issues is what will keep scholarship fresh and vital in our quest to understand our world through literature. "Meaning," Jerome McGann explains, "is important not as explanation but as residue. It is what is left behind after the experiment has been run. We develop it not to explain the poem but to judge the effectiveness of the experiment that we undertook" (129). This is a unique opportunity to bring Whitman to a modern audience and learn more about the tools available to conduct these experiments, but it must be a concerted effort. The mission of Mickle Street Review has always been to bring together Whitman admirers; here is a common goal, an experiment whose meaning can be realized through that connection. Ultimately, we need to continue looking for ways to speak back to Whitman, finding connections through his words to the world around us, use these links to inspire our work, and most importantly, continue speaking with one another. Online works exist, just as their print predecessors, as tools to a larger means. Scholarship may be outgrowing the bindings that it has known for so long, transitioning in form, but its beauty remains in its ability to connect: we need to continue swimming in the brooks, touching the earth, walking on its paths, and interacting with those that we meet along the way. I invite you to image with me, how we can accomplish this, and while we are at it, why not bring Whitman along for the ride?
"Altogether, Jeff, I am very, very much satisfied and relieved that the thing, in the permanent form it now is, looks as well and reads well (to my notions) as I anticipated--because a good deal, after all, was an experiment--and now I am satisfied." (Correspondence 53)
In approaching the reconceptualization of MSR, the first major decision that needed to be made was whether or not to retain its original site design, v.1, which was used for issues 14 and 15. This decision had to be carefully weighed; a new design would require a substantial amount of work reconceiving, redesigning and reprogramming. In addition, any changes made to the site would undo any branding that had occurred. On the other hand, the benefits of this effort, the opportunity to re-imagine MSR’s potential, could dramatically improve the journal. To move towards a resolution on this matter, it was necessary to first assess v.1 to see which aspects of the site design worked well and which didn’t. This examination took place on several levels including visual layout, user interface, and underlying site structure.
After analyzing MSR v.1 from a design standpoint, the lingering impression was its traditional, print-inspired, linear layout. Much like the rigid format of a newspaper, the site contained a header and was divided into several columns: the rightmost housed the navigation bar and the remaining two presented abstracts of the articles contained in the issue. By arranging the issue's contents in this manner, a democratic presentation was put in place, effectively using hypertext to create a decentralization that did not privilege any of the works. Unfortunately, this also presented users with a large body of information to process immediately upon entering the site, creating potential difficulties in navigation. As a result, although the site's layout gave users direct access to the entire gamut of materials it offered, the resulting shallow site structure did not draw them in or encourage exploration. Creating an organization of materials that promoted involvement and interaction could start to make better use of the infinite depth allowed by hypertext--a design that radiated outward, as suggested by McGann, to include multiple dimensions and levels, dissolving the page boundaries imposed by print.
Visually, v.1’s rigid construction was also apparent through the demarcation of the individual components of the site. Although integrated on the web page, each element maintained a separate space within the design; the header, the issue image, the sub-headers, and the menu were all literally "boxed-in" the strict layout, isolating them. In many ways, this spoke to the limitations of the authoring programs available to web designers during the site's construction, especially in their ability to positioning elements, but it also illustrated the lingering attachment to print forms of scholarship. The improvements in modern web authoring suites greatly improve a designer's ability to imagine a space free from this strict linear construction in order to realize a more visually appealing space, one that had a more organic feel and an integrated visual interface.
Finally, it was obvious by the presence of several broken links, outdated information, underdeveloped areas, and the disorganization of v.1's filing system, that the site had structural deficiencies that sorely need to be addressed. Problems with the first three items are usually indicative of the neglect to the latter, and, for MSR, this was largely caused by several turnovers in technical personnel and the lack of a dedicated staff to assure regular site maintenance and updates. These issues also greatly effect a user's perception of a site; if a site's content is not updated or areas remains undeveloped, such as the "Archives" section of v.1, there will be little incentive to return and a loss of credibility will likely occur. An expectation needed to be built that MSR was a vibrant and evolving force, a journal whose encouraged repeat visits. Websites require constant attention, and if, over time, a flexible system with a reasonable learning curve has not been put in place, they can easily fall into disrepair. It was clear that MSR needed such a system.
In the final estimation, it became obvious that the potential for MSR through a redesign far outweighed any drawbacks. Although the site was serviceable, there was a unique opportunity to push the boundaries of the journal with a fresh visual, more immersive design and at the same time make it structurally sound and sustainable.
"I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born." (Poetry and Prose 311)
The primary objective at the beginning of any web design project is determining the structure of the site, both for presentation of content and the underlying organization of that content in the file system. The first concern applies to, and dictates, the user's experience on the site, while the second has a tremendous impact on the site's usability and sustainability.
To honor the journal's print heritage, the site was divided into two dominant sections, like an open book, with the image issue on the left-hand side and the issue content on the right. However, instead of the static layout and organization of a print text, several devices were employed to create a unique immersive user experience, one that joined a sense of change with a certain stability. First, the site was built so that it would fit entirely on one screen. At 800 x 600 pixels, even someone using a very low monitor resolution would be able to experience the site in its entirety. Finding no need to "scroll down" would imply that everything a user needed was before them and created an immediate grounding on the page. Secondly, an important factor in establishing an immersive environment is limiting the breaks in a user's experience as they move through the site. Typically, when a user clicks on a link, it calls up a new web page in place of the one that was being viewed. During this process, there is a momentary break as the one page replaces the other, which disrupts the illusion of continuity. On a site that needs to communicate large amounts of information through multiple submenus and screens, these continuous "breaks" can create a jarring experience, one that can easily overwhelm and repel a user.
In order to eliminate these constant "breaks" in the user experience, a decision was made to employ frames in the site structure. Put simply, frames allow a site to display multiple HTML documents at once. A typical frameset clearly divides a screen into several segments, which either can interact with one another or can maintain separate functions and content. By dictating the size and position of a frame and placing it within a window on a web page, a site can be designed so that the frame is integrated seamlessly; if successful, a user will be unaware of these separate pages and will appreciate the site as one unified entity. In v.2, a frame was inserted to house the site's content, which would be dictated by the users interaction with the various menu buttons. The user would easily come to identify this area after clicking on any of the buttons and thereafter instinctively look for all information to be presented in that space. Aside from this mutable area, the rest of the site would remain predominately fixed, allowing users to search through each issue knowing that they could access any portion of the site at any time they wanted; there was no threat of becoming lost in hyperspace. Essentially, even though there was a "home" button to return a user to the site's initial state at any time, the need for one was virtually eliminated; a user was always at a conceptual home with all options available always. The user decided what was present on the "home" page at any given moment. This created an undercurrent of connectivity between all information on the site largely fostered by the interchange that occurred within this frame.
Once this design was completed, it became the template for future issues and, eventually, all of the archived issue. The issues would essentially become structurally identical sites housed within the larger site system. There were many benefits to this arrangement. For the user, a continuity was reinforced between every issue that developed a navigational structure and branding for the site. Using the identical layout for each issue also meant that once the site had loaded for the current issue, the images (rollovers, header, etc.) would already be stored in the user's temporary folder, making download time negligible for each additional issue viewed. Despite the similarities between the issues, though, each one still maintained its own "home page" so that a user could bookmark it individually. A criticism often made of frames is that a user cannot enter a specific URL to access pages that appear within a nested frame; designating specific URLs for each issue’s home page, where all materials for that issue are easily accessed, presents a reasonable method to circumvent this problem. To further alleviate any issues caused by frames, all the scholarship in the journal is delivered to the user in pop-up windows with a specific URL so that a user can easily return to a specific work through bookmarks.
On the backend, this site structure also allowed for new site personnel to quickly learn how to update and add onto MSR in the future. As is often the case with website projects that pass through many hands, despite a working online functionality for users, the disarray of the underlying file system prevents others from easily stepping in to make modifications and additions to the site. Replacing this sorely neglected, disorganized file system with a much more logical and ordered system was long overdue. Even though there would be an initial intimidating depth to the system, it would become obvious that there was a repeating structure in place; in effect, by learning the system of one issue, you had learned the structure for the entire site. Furthermore, by clearly breaking up the components of each issue, launching new issues became a matter of filling in the contents on each of the individual pages. Although no system is without its drawbacks, and the continuing upkeep of a site and its files lies in the hands of the scholars to come, by establishing a logical and ordered backend, the potential site longevity is greatly improved.
“It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided” (Poetry and Prose 104)
In order to make the site as easily navigable as possible, two distinct menus were created: the issue-menu and the publication-menu. Visually, the two respective menu bars were placed apart from each other to clearly delineate their functions, a division that was further emphasized by several visual cues including differing font sizes and roll-over states. In addition, the issue-menu bar extended from the top of the issue's "cover" image to suggest their connection. These efforts attempted to eliminate any confusion that might arise as a result of both menus controlling content in the same nested frame. Following is a breakdown of each of the menus:
The issue menu retained the content breakdown that was used for MSR v.1 (essays, features, poetry, documents, and reviews) largely because the majority of submissions received by the journal had remained fairly consistent, making any changes or additions seemingly unnecessary. However, to increase user interaction and give the site a less cluttered look, the respective sections from v.1 were taken and separated into individual pages. In addition, although the content linked by the majority of the issue-buttons would be obvious to the user, the inclusion of the documents and features sections provided a space to showcase scholarship or creative work that was not easily categorized. The non-specific nature of these sections would hopefully generate user interest and inspire discovery as well. In the end, with a balance of multiple types of content, multiple types of users were targeted: the person looking for specific types of works and the one looking to engage in a more experiential interaction with the site and its content.
The publication menu dealt with overarching concerns that applied to the overarching journal concerns. The "Contact," "Submit," and "Subscribe" sections opened a necessary communication with site users and addressed typical inquiries. "About" featured general information pertaining to the history of MSR. "Contributors," although containing issue specific information, remained separate from the issue-menu to acknowledge, in one space, the many people, technical and creative, involved with the creation of the journal. "Archives" linked to all back issues and the "Home" button acted functionally as a reset button for the entire site, despite its diminishing necessity in the new site construction. Three menu options were removed from the original menu of MSR v.1: “Letters,” “Editor's Corner,” and “Links.” “Letters” and “Links” remained undeveloped areas in v.1, and became, like a vestigial organ, functionally obsolete and expendable. In v.2, the “Editor’s Corner” became the introduction to each issue in order to better assist the user in understanding the objective and contents of each specific issue.
"Its exterior announced elegance, but its interior announced utter democracy and rough simplicity." (Reynolds 310)
The initial inspiration for the new site design was taken from Whitman's investment in the physical specimen of Leaves of Grass, an emphasis on the details and craft of bookmaking, which make it more of a work of art than a mere container for text. As Reynolds understands it, “this was hands-on, old-style artisan publishing, a throwback to the early days when authors had been directly involved in the publishing process" (310-11). Whitman made painstaking efforts to assure that the presentation of Leaves of Grass was according to his specifications. His knowledge of bookmaking, including chemical processes, and his control the process was evident in his letters where he would often detail his involvement: "the typographical appearance of the book has been just as I directed it, in every respect" (Correspondence 52). There was also a sense that Whitman was pushing the boundaries of the printing process and that his ideas in this area were as progressive as his poetry. When printing the third edition of Leaves of Grass he commented, "the printers and foremen thought I was crazy, and there were all sorts of supercilious squints (about the typography I order, I mean)--but since it has run through the press they have simmered down." (52). This spirit of artistic innovation, continued by Horace Traubel through his involvement with the Artsman during the American Arts and Crafts Movement, inspired MSR to realize a modern revival of the ideals which made these publications unique and interesting.
In order to continue recognizing the artisan bookmaking heritage, a great deal of attention was invested in the visual elements of the site. A Whitman iconography was developed that would not only give the journal an identity that spoke to Whitman’s legacy, but also serve to brand the site. Typographically, several areas in the site were targeted to bolster the journal's visual focus and connection to Whitman. To begin with, fore the header on MSR v.1 a flamboyant cursive script was used which had little relation to Whitman, so, for v.2 a new header was created to replace this one, which was a composite of individual letters taken from Whitman's own hand-writing used to form the Mickle Street Review title. As if Whitman had written these words himself specifically for the journal, the constructed amalgamation created a unique visual element that fostered ties directly to the poet. The second instance of typographic development was inspired by the text on the cover of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The gold title embossed on the green background, provided ornamentation to an otherwise simple cover. Observing this gilded font, Reynolds commented that it "emphasized both rootedness and fecundity " (312). It also spoke symbolically to the organic development of Whitman's life work. In a manner, it represented a visual deconstruction of fixed text; the letters, although firmly rooted downward, also were becoming overgrown, deteriorating their readability and intended meaning. This organic dichotomy and approach to text, a simultaneous need to root and grow, seemed like a perfect visual representation of the new MSR as well. Developing this font for MSR, featured in v.2 on each of the sub pages of the site, was an intricate endeavor that required construction of a typeface from scratch, a hands-on manipulation of text that spoke directly to the personal approach Whitman took with his books. Each letter needed to be visually unique in order to represent the organic nature that was being conveyed. Ultimately, when completed, the font added a unique value to MSR.
Another element that was developed to create a more visually interesting experience was the reintroduction of a "cover" for each issue. Although the physical necessity of the cover for protection had been lost in the journal's transfer online, there was still a need to establish each individual issue's identity. The use of an "issue image" would act functionally to help users identify their location on the site, and also to provide added visual content to make a visitor's experience more enjoyable through the incorporation of multimedia. Issue 16 featured an image of Whitman in his Camden home atop an exaggerated mountain of papers to symbolize their importance in elevating Whitman as a poetic figure and also, historically, capturing Whitman’s increasing messiness during his time in Camden. In MSR, the user, like Whitman and his sea of papers, was able to call upon specific materials when they were desired. This visual echoing of the thematic direction of the issue utilizes media to promote the sophisticated critical thinking that George Landow called for to engage new scholars. For the archived print issues, the cover became the online issue image, but since the two online issues were visually identical, each of them required creation of this image. For Issue 14, Museums and Memoirs, an image of the Whitman statue created by John Giannotti located on the Rutgers Camden campus was used, and for Issue 15, Whitman and Repetition, the famous engraving of Whitman that appeared in the 1855 Leaves of Grass was duplicated numerous times, in various colors much like an Andy Warhol print. Giving each issue a visual identity helped to build a more image-oriented online journal and continue the artisan cover tradition that had been established in the print issues. In the future, this space also could be utilized to feature other artists and continue fostering collaboration between interdisciplinary scholars and their diverse works.
As a final effort to improve the visual interface of the site, Whitman related images were added to the menu buttons to produce an additional level of visual presence on the site. These images would stand apart from the other visual elements because they would be tied directly to the user's interaction with them. For both the issue and publication menus in v.2, when users moves their cursor over the menu options, an image of the Whitman paper butterfly, which was featured in an early 1880s photo and recently recovered by the Library of Congress, would appear aside it. Besides its obvious Whitman connotation, the butterfly also served a functional purpose by providing a visual delineation between the different menu bars: the issue-menu rollovers feature the underside of the prop butterfly and the publication menu features the more colorful top side. Since the two butterfly images are very similar, they also served to draw a larger connection between all contents on the site. The "Home" button on the publication-menu was the only one that deviated from this format; the famous engraving of Whitman from the first edition of Leaves of Grass provided a visual cue that would stand apart from the other text-based buttons. Combined, these rollovers, even though they are fairly basic two frame animations, suggest the user's influence and impact on the site's meaning. The changes also reinforce the idea that the signs that we deal with are often unstable entities; there is a constant change and evolving nature to life and MSR as well.
“I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence…" (Poetry and Prose 308)
One of the most important aspects of moving the journal forward was beginning the archiving process of its 14 print issues. Published between 1979 and 1990, this run lent a vital grounding to the electronic version of the journal, a heritage and built-in credibility that could not be manufactured. It seemed essential to reconnect this history and pay tribute to those who created and sustained the journal throughout the years: just as Whitman had understood in "L. of G.'s Purport," his work was "Evolution--the cumulative--growths and generations" (line 7). MSR's evolution needed to speak to that cumulative growth, while also rejoining the fragmented periods of the journal's past under one umbrella entity. Additionally, archiving would act as a conservation effort for the original, and extremely rare, staple-bound issues whose condition had severely deteriorated as a result of the staple's oxidation over time. By digitizing the journal's content, we could assure its preservation for future audiences and reintroduce many of the materials to MSR's current users, effectively revitalizing their connection to the continuum of Whitman texts. Although a space had been created in MSR v.1 for this purpose, in many ways we were fortunate that it had remained undeveloped; instead of having to match the work of a previous archivist, we were afforded the opportunity to start with a clean palette.
Several crucial factors needed to be addressed before the archive process could begin, most importantly a system and standard needed to be established in order to create a quality control mechanism, a continuity which would also streamline the task. Unlike other open-ended archives such as the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive, with only 14 issues this undertaking was finite and manageable and could be accomplished by the same personnel over a reasonable period of time. The first decision made was to scan each of the issues, as opposed to keying them in, in order to best represent the physical attributes of the original journal including font type and page dimensions. Knowing that in the future it would be possible to create HTML text documents of all contents in the digitized archive, this seemed a logical first step. As with all scanning endeavors, a compromise must be made between file size and the image quality. Evan Roskos, a fellow graduate student who had extensive experience with layout design and image digitization in the publishing industry, was indispensable in determining the final specifications. Text pages were scanned as black & white documents at 300 dpi and saved as bitmaps (a setting that only encodes the pure black and white in the image), which preserved readability and drastically reduced file size. Illustrations and photographs were scanned with a black and white photograph setting, which registered grayscale variations, preserving the natural gradations of the images. After the issues were scanned in their entirety, the bitmaps were imported into Photoshop where images levels could be adjusted, smudges and dust removed, and any necessary cropping or straightening completed before the image was saved as a PDF with JPEG compression (10 out of 12 quality rating). This step further reduced the final file size. Although every effort was taken to retain the visual presence of the print journal, at times modifications to the documents were necessary to increase readability, including removal of the center crease and other noticeable marks or smudges. Each work was then exported as a PDF file so that it could be handled independently and accessed through a dedicated link. The PDF files were then incorporated into a larger document, which allowed the user to download the issue in its entirety. The PDF format was ultimately chosen because of its quick download times with no considerable loss of quality and for the unique control it offers users over content, including zooming capabilities.
After completing the digitization of the first issue, it was necessary to consider how the contents would be presented to the user online. In order to dissolve the linear format of the print journal, it was decided that each of the issues would be integrated into the design of MSR v.2, effectively becoming its own site within the site. A complete archived issue could then be accessed through thumbnails on the site's archive page. This organization speaks to Jerome McGann's idea of hypertext structures, which have an "an indefinite number of 'centers'" (71). At the same time, it would assimilate the materials of each of the archived issues within the larger system, establishing continuity and connectivity. Adapting this method would ensure that a format was in place that would allow the addition of print issues as they were completed, while developing a branding for the journal. Bringing the issues together under this format would achieve, in part, the objective of removing the fragmentation of the journal that had occurred over time.
Despite the immense benefits of reclaiming these materials, there were some problems working backwards to accommodate the print issues. First, many of the works in these issues simply did not fit the category breakdowns (poems, essay, documents, etc.) that had been established for the online journal; works were often forced into approximate categories that they were only loosely connected to. This difficulty speaks to a reoccurring paradox in menu creation: although menus need to be specific to guide users through a site's content, they often impose a rigid categorization. When the standard is applied where it was not originally intended it further complicates matters. New menu options can always be added, but then there is a risk of creating too many choices, confusing the users and overwhelming them. Another complication that emerged was the evident shift in MSR's content and focus, which left several categories, such as "reviews," without materials in the online translation. Missing content can be frustrating for users, breaking their expectations just as an "Under Construction" page does. To address this absence, a hypertext table of contents listing all materials in their original ordering will be available for each issue as an alternative method of approaching the site--a more traditional and linear method suitable for users targeting specific works or authors. The second method, established by v.2, promotes discovery and a more exploratory approach to the materials; users will be inclined to browse the topics, sampling articles that interest them as they move through the site. When v.2 went live in fall 2004, the integration of both online journals had been completed, as well as the archiving of MSR issue 1. By the summer of 2005, the five print issues will be available online.
"Unscrew the locks from the doors!
One aspect of MSR v.1 that seemed to work particularly well, and that was retained in v.2, was the presentation of scholarship in pop-up windows that emerged outside of the main site. Pop-up windows, although often frowned upon due to their use in invasive advertising, are in this situation controlled by the user and provide a dedicated URL with which to reference the article again in the future. These windows, sprouting up like Whitman’s grass, also became another realization of the decentralized democratization that was possible with hypertext systems. Like satellites in Whitman’s unifying kosmos, each work became its own center, a kosmos unto itself, existing within the larger system. This idea of unlimited expandability created a great deal of flexibility: it complemented the traditional, more linear, scholarship that MSR received in the past and was likely to continue receiving, but also was a space that could be explored both spatially and visually in the future. Most of the scholarship received for Issue 16 was of the first type and contained very few linear digressions, although, nearly all contained hyperlinked endnotes, now a commonplace function of modern word processing programs. There were, however, several articles that, although not submitted as such, became perfect candidates for formal and conceptual experimentation. Working with these authors initiated the process of unbinding individual works of scholarship and laid the groundwork for the developments in MSR v.3.
Tyler Hoffman’s essay, “Art and Heart: Horace Traubel and Homer Davenport,” presented an opportunity to explore supplementing a traditional piece of text scholarship with a visual component. Because Hoffman’s piece revolves around a book of political cartoons produced by Davenport, it seemed suitable to incorporate a selection of these images. Obviously, pairing images with text to emphasize and illustrate is not a unique capability of the Internet, but presenting users with multiple approaches to those images seemed a profitable expansion of this relationship. In a print publication, there is a suggested ordering of materials imposed by their rigid placement within the final bound publication, and although the reader can skip pages and move through the images as they desire, there remains a fixedness implicit in their presentation. There are benefits to this system, most importantly that the author or editor can determine specific connections that he/she wishes to enforce. The first level of image integration spoke to this designation through the hyperlinks appropriately placed in the text as images were discussed; clicking on these text links opened a new window with the related image to help reinforce the observations being made in the scholarship. Users could still decide not to open any image if they so desired, partially alleviating the traditional print authority that this direct relationship reflected. Since textual discussion of political cartoons cannot deliver the visual impact that the actual cartoon can, at the completion of the essay a link was added to allow users to view the complete selection of sixteen cartoons digitized from the Davenport book. When a user clicked on the link a new window opened which presented thumbnails of all the images in the number order they were placed in the original book. The user could then click on any of the thumbnails to view a full-sized version of the cartoon and its caption. With the option then to proceed through a slideshow of the entire image collection or return to the thumbnail page, the user had a variety of choices: viewing the thumbnails in their original order would let a user see the thematic progression of the cartoons discussed in the essay, or the user could also focus on only one particular image that struck them as especially poignant. Whichever method was decided on, along with the user’s level of investment and interaction, would ultimately construct the meaning of the scholarly work in way that could never be achieved through a print publication.
"The Conservator: More from Whitman's Great Background Man" was submitted to MSR by Gary Schmidgall as a collection of several folders, each containing excerpts from Horace Traubel's magazine The Conservator, on a 3.5" disc. Since the essay that these excepts were eventually going to be tied to was still being finalized, their presentation had to evolve separately with the end-goal that both components would eventually be joined together in one final product. The central question became, how to display the excerpts in a manner that could utilize hypertext's highly associative properties to draw relationships between the temporally and topically fragmented texts. To achieve this, without having to open multiple windows, a frame was placed within the HTML page that was also to house the final essay. A menu was created which listed The Conservator issue numbers, dates, and a brief topical description of the excerpt. When a user clicked on any of the links, the corresponding excerpt would appear within the frame. This approach took a fairly straightforward textual reading and made it interactive, creating a more enjoyable and engaging user experience. Visually, this arrangement also made it much easier to scan through the materials and in multiple orderings. Once again, the common space created by the use of frames automatically connected the documents to one another, building a relationship between them that was ultimately determined by the user.
Finally, Thomas Lisk’s piece, “Walt Whitman's Wardrobe,” presented the most unique challenge and the greatest potential for exploration in Issue 16. Delivered as a linear text document, this piece presented a list of items, each followed by a related quotation. Despite the linear form of the document, these pairings were often anything but straightforward. Using the idea of the wardrobe, the connected “items” were both literal and metaphoric, seen and unseen; some items would have logical connections, while others would draw unexpected relationships. After reading through the document, primarily due to its highly nodal composition, it seemed that this was not a piece that required a linear reading. In fact, breaking up the nodes and reordering them could free the work to encompass the many meanings that it suggested.
To realize the untapped potential of Lisk’s work, an image of a wardrobe was placed in the center of a web page surrounded by hyperlinks for each of the myriad of items that had been listed in the original document. When a user clicked on any of the items, the related quotation would appear in the closet along with its citation. This placement of the items allowed each of them equal weight in the overall production of the work’s meaning. The highly participative environment allowed users to click on as many or as few of the items as they desired in order to create that meaning. Furthermore, when a user encountered pairings that created unexpected relationships, the notion of a concrete meaning created by the interaction was undermined. By challenging users’ assumptions through the unsettling of textual semiotics, a desire to continue exploring would hopefully be produced. In addition, the meaning constructed by the user could vary drastically depending on which items were clicked on. Even if two users clicked through every item, the order that they completed the task would most certainly differ and influence the outcome of the work's final meaning; as McGann has stated, in a hypertext environment, "meaning is more a dynamic exchange than a discoverable content" (111). The design used for Lisk’s piece emphasized the dynamic exchange possible in a hypertext work and the fruitful investigations that can result from such an interaction. By having these multiple levels of investigation, the scholarship gained additional critical depth that would not be obtainable through the original print work.
“The difference is in the new character given to the mass, by the additions." (Whitman 44)
After completing v.2, it became evident that this was a transitional phase in the advancement of MSR; even as the site was being finished, new ideas for its further development surfaced. For one, if there was going to be an ongoing push for the creation of scholarly works that used the potential of the online space, then the journal would have to continue striving to meet those efforts. MSR would have to be conceptually reconceived so that it was no longer just an entity designated to house scholarly works, but also a work of scholarship itself, a model of its mission. The journal had begun this process in v.2, but to some degree it was a limited growth, partially restricted by the adaptation of print work not specifically designed for the online user. Although there was greater interactivity and depth provided by the use of frames, in order to realize a more immersive and visually interesting design, there were still many improvements to be made. The site also had residual attachments to the design of v.1, including a rigid linearity present in the “open book” design employed in v.2., maintained a spatial composition that did not attempt to break up the page in an interesting manner.
With issue 17 came the opportunity to expand and build off of the concepts and design established in MSR v.2. A new site version, v.3, would be specifically created to house scholarship from the Whitman and Place conference held at Rutgers-Camden to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This implementation of a new design could be used to offer new, and diverse experiences for site users: repeat visitors would have an incentive to return and new users could explore the rich variety of designs in the archives. Since v.2 was already in place to archive the MSR’s print issues, and to use as a template at any time in the future, this new version could act as a unique stand-alone site with an agenda to continue exploring the role and potential of the scholarly journal online.
Using the idea of place, the site took a much different approach to its organization, one that was more in line with the integration and diversification goals of the journal. Each location had a separate page wherein the contents presented at the conference would be featured. The division of the site by place subordinated the scholarship to the larger theme of the issue, placing it on equal ground with the other elements of MSR. This organization would assist in connecting these works to the other content in the journal, making it part of the issue’s focus, not the focus of the issue.
To continue building towards the concept of an immersive scholarly environment that would hopefully bring new users to the site and create a more enjoyable, unique experience, v.3 attempted to increase MSR’s visual focus. The idea of Whitman and Place was ripe with visual connotations and provided an opportunity to add content that addressed this desire. With an academic audience predominately using high-speed Internet access, and the growing broadband access in homes, this could be done without creating a drain on the user’s system resources. Taking advantage of this flexibility, a graphic background was created for the site. When this was coupled with the use of frames, not only was there the structural depth present in v.2, but also a newly developed visual one. The layering of grass fields, although only simple shapes overlaid with a basic gradient fill, would pull the user’s vision toward the distant virtual horizon, producing an illusion of depth. A layer was also added within the site’s frame so that scrolling through the contents within the frame window would not disrupt the background of the site, thus maintaining the illusion of depth created by the background. Additionally, the content-frame was also greatly expanded in size to allow more information to be presented at once. One of the issues that arose in v.2 was that the size of the content-frame needlessly restricted the information that was viewable at one time, distracting the user by forcing them to scroll too often. With this disturbance removed, users could remain immersed in the site and better enjoy their experience.
With the new topical breakdown of the content and the visual nature of the site, an effort was made to improve the menu buttons on the site as well. Presented on the left-hand side of the page in a semi-circle to break up the linear composition of the site, the “place-buttons” that connect to each “place-page” added another visual advancement over v.2. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman proclaims, “The similitudes of the past and those of the future, / The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings” (Poetry and Prose 308); using Whitman’s words for inspiration, the buttons visually reflect this transference of sensory details into poetry. When the user rolls over the name of each place, leaves of grass emerge indicating this conversion. This rollover uses visual imagery to convey the influence of place on Whitman, the change that inevitably occurs with that exposure, and the organic growth of his master work. The growth of the grass is not only visually interesting, but also a symbolic gesture. The rollover sets an expectation for the content that will be found once the button is clicked, reinforcing the subtle connections explored in the issue. When a user clicks on any of the place-buttons, the corresponding page is retrieved within the frame’s window. A submenu was created for each of these “place” pages, which adds an additional level of depth and specialization to the informational structure of the site. Through this menu, users can access any of the materials that are available pertaining to that specific place including scholarship, letters, and daguerreotypes.
For the publication-menu, positioned along the bottom of the site, the Leaves of Grass font created for the subheaders in v.2 replaced the text links previously used for this menu. The roots extending from each of the menu buttons gave a visual grounding to the page, while symbolically speaking to the publication’s history represented by many of the menu items. Although the menu choices remained the same, the use of this handcrafted font provided an added visual element to the site that also had a connection to the issue’s theme.
Another initiative that was addressed in v.3 was the further diversification of the body of scholarship represented in the journal. MSR, in its first online issues, had begun extending the scope of the journal by publishing work that did not exclusively focus on Whitman; including work from scholars in various stages of their academic careers continued broadening the scholarly representation. Since the conference included several student panelists from the Graduate English program at Rutgers, it was natural that their works would be considered for publication. The incorporation of their work extended students an opportunity to obtain vital publishing experience, and, for MSR, pursued a more representative scholarship, one that did not privilege certain voices, but instead built connections between them. Now, by looking back through the archives and forward through emerging scholars’ works, the larger continuum of scholarship was honored, a tradition remembered and carried into the future.
The expansion of scholarship also meant creating works that would appeal to students and Whitman fans of any age or intellectual level. Two projects were implemented under this broadening focus. The first was the daguerreotype project available in several of the place-pages. When a user clicks on the daguerreotype button, a small window pops up featuring a photo within an actual daguerreotype frame from Whitman’s time period. Accompanying each image is an excerpt from Whitman’s poetry that directly relates to it. Below the frame is a series of small buttons, which when rolled over, change the image contained in the frame, along with the excerpt. The collection of images, obtained from the Library of Congress’s online archive, provide a visual context for Whitman’s work through the places that he lived in and visited. By pairing these images with Whitman’s poetry, the user begins to actually see these connections, creating a meaning that neither could produce on their own. To foster a relationship between each of the images, none of the buttons are labeled, giving each an equal value. No one aspect of place is favored; instead, all of the influences work together to provide an overarching meaning, a technique that visually honors Whitman’s democratic cataloguing of details. This feature would appeal to many different users through its multiple levels of critical examination, but also through its highly visual, interactive nature.
The other project that sought to bring approachable and original content to MSR was the digitization of several Whitman letter manuscripts held by the Whitman House in Camden, which would be accessible through the “Letters” button on the place-pages. As previously discussed, MSR originated largely from a concern for the House. In order to reestablish this relationship, a project was devised to use the resources of the House with the resources of MSR to create a unique online examination of Whitman. Working closely with the Whitman House curator, Leo Blake, the letter manuscripts were each photographed with a digital camera. Several images were taken of each, including close-up details. Since the House desired to maintain some control over these images, only excerpts were allowed for use in v.3. To accommodate this stipulation, each of the letters was presented in its entirety only as a HTML text document. Throughout the letter, sections of text were made into hyperlinks, which when rolled over revealed a close-up of that portion of Whitman’s actual letter beside it. Viewing this relationship would give users a chance to appreciate the epistolary tradition that Whitman participated extensively in, while also viewing rare artifacts that could not be seen elsewhere. The direct connection supplied between the modern text form and Whitman’s handwriting would also symbolically speak to the historic development of writing forms in an interactive, subtly complex manner. In the end, by participating with the letter, it would almost feel as if Whitman had written directly to the user across the temporal divide. With no actual text scholarship attached to this feature, users would once again be able to determine the meaning of the piece without guidance from an authorial voice; they would be forced to draw conclusions regarding Whitman’s life through these letters and the connections they established to the places he lived.
"I like it [third edition of Leaves of Grass], I think, first rate--though I think I could improve much upon it."(Correspondence 52)
Despite the many changes and improvements to MSR, there is still much work to be done. The journal will need to continue evolving and re-imagining itself in order to realize it goals and meet the emerging needs of scholars online.
One area that will eventually need to be addressed in the future is the implementation of a search function on the site. Despite providing several options to easily access and navigate content, web-users have grown accustomed to being provided with the option to conduct site searches to target specific information. The absence of this feature makes apparent perhaps the greatest drawback of using frames. When conducting a search through an integrated search engine on a site, a list of matches is returned to the user after completing a comprehensive text search of the entire site. Because the search engine does not recognize frame specifications, pages are often listed which are not meant to be delivered outside of the nested frame they are designed to appear in. As a result, a user could potentially bring up a subordinated page without links or other method to navigate the site. Although each page could be built to stand alone, designed with a method to provided search results that did not disrupt the site’s design, the depth of the site still makes searching all the contents a reasonable prospect. As the archive section grows, though, this challenge will need to be met.
In addition to this functional requirement, there are also many other items that can be added to enhance MSR. One of the many benefits of the Internet that has remained unexplored is the potential for communication spaces. Although an email link is provided to submit works or send inquiries, it is an interchange that only occurs between the journal and the user. Adding a chat room or discussion board could open up avenues for Whitman scholars to communicate directly with one another: a teacher’s forum could allow posting of syllabi or classroom activities pertaining to Whitman; students could submit queries to Whitman scholars; poets and artists could share their work with one another. There are logistical matters that need to be contemplated before such features can be realized; most notably, someone must monitor discussion groups or postboards to assure their contents are suitable for the site and its audience. Despite this requirement, creating a space for a real-time dialogue to occur seems in line with both the spirit of Whitman and the intentions of MSR.
Finally, there is still a noticeable lack of audio and video elements on the site. The increased incorporation of varying forms of multimedia would continue expanding the horizons of the journal and the critical angles through which Whitman can be examined. These elements would also present content that would engage the modern scholar in new ways, examinations to further transcend the boundaries of print scholarship. To address this potential, Issue 18, Whitman: Sights and Sounds, will present a theme that hopefully will encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and innovative multimedia works. It would certainly be an ideal issue to reintroduce the wonderful collection of artwork created for MSR’s print run, or even recruit new work through collaborations with art or animation departments. A database could also be created to begin cataloging Whitman-inspired artwork, including statues, carvings, paintings, and drawings. Audio content could feature recordings of various people sounding their barbaric yawp and, as previously discussed, an online interactive documentary could be created to incorporate multimedia into one unified scholarship. In the end, MSR’s potential will be limited only by the imagination of the journal and its future contributors. MSR must continue working towards creating an environment to foster this growth and innovation in scholarship; in a sense MSR must become like Whitman’s kosmos, a “‘unifying force, making the most diverse things seem… “inseparable together’” (Reynolds 245).
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