Project Review: Electronic Literature Organization

Project name: Electronic Literature Organization

Web address:

Status: functional, non-profit

Affiliation: MIT

Focus: “Born-digital” literature directory.

I first heard about the Electronic Literature Organization through my twitter feed. Having opted to follow a fair number of the digital humanities twitter feeds from Daniel Cohen’s compiled list, I’ve recently been introduced to a plethora of DH projects. I chose ELO because I think it is a fair representation of both the best and worst aspects of current digital humanities, which makes it a fairly interesting project to study.

The most interesting thing that ELO does is to catalog obscure “born-digital literature,” that absolutely would have been lost (and perhaps should have been) without their persistence in finding, salvaging, and storing the projects. For example, Anipoems, a set of black and white animated gifs that are loosely translated as “peoms,” is described and linked from their directory. The page itself is typical of something homemade you might have encountered on the web in 1997, the year it was created. The site offers little in the way of entertainment or enjoyment, but from a historical perspective it is fascinating. This is the crux of the beauty and beastliness of ELO. Predominantly they have simply created a list of literary “other” projects. Members can find and list the web locations of these projects, along with a synopsis of their function or history. Ultimately, that is a pretty boring idea, the realization of which is no less boring. However, there is some gold beneath the dross that is worth mining.

Though the catalog style presentation of the project is somewhat unappealing, it functions in two rather successful ways. First, it functions as a free-to-the-public database of information that is searchable in much the same way that our library databases are. While it is debatable how useful this particular database would be for standard scholarly research, it does have the same bells and whistles as scout or Ebscohost, but without the associated cost. Users can browse the collection by author name, for example, and be presented with a list of all works by the author. They can also search and sort by title, year of publication, subject, and even by meta tag. Beyond the useful features, the site offers a second function that is perhaps its most viable justification for existence. It has compiled a record of known digital born works, which historically is unprecedented. The very existence of such a record is a sort of archive of where digital humanities has come from, and in that way the project represents one of the better aspects of what DH might be. The curator role is not the only way in which this project is a functional contributor to digital humanities.

ELO has compiled two electronic literature ‘best of’ collections, and hosts those digital collections on their servers. They have also produced CD-ROMs of the same collection for offline consumption, a concept which seems near to their objectives, but rather tenuous and unsustainable. They also host fairly large conferences to promote academic awareness and acceptance of born-digital works. This production comes at a cost, however, which is why ELO not only requires paid membership for contribution to the directory, but also to attend their conferences. This cost is in addition to the steep cost of the ticket to attend the conference in the first place, which is $150 (or $100 for lowly grad students). In my opinion this type of pay to play membership is exclusive of a large component of people who might otherwise contribute, but may not be able to afford the associated fees. I recognize the logistical necessity of the costs, but I have to wonder how that affects the open-source vibe of typical digital humanists.

The final note about the ELO I’ll mention pertains to their interesting history. The project was initiated in 1999 as an NPO, and found its first home at UCLA in 2001 as an inter-departmental collaboration between faculty and students there. In 2006 the project moved across the country to the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, before moving to MIT’s main campus in 2011. This is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it shows the projects affiliation with big name academic institutions, and speaks to those organizations’ interest in digital humanities projects. Secondly, it demonstrates the necessarily transient nature of such projects. Must DH projects follow grants and funding? If not, how dependent are these projects upon “high-end” schools that can afford to fund them? I would be interested in discovering the exact reasoning behind the gypsy like migration of the project, and I wonder how much of the decision was based on requirements outside of economic.

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About Dallas Merritt

2nd year MA Strode. Interested in the Protestant Reformation and the English revolution, and the texts contemporary to them. I am also particularly interested in the similarities between the relationship of social media and modern revolutionary movements, and the relationship of "cheap texts" and the aforementioned revolutions.

2 thoughts on “Project Review: Electronic Literature Organization

  1. Cassandra Nelson

    A very nice review overall. I especially like that you introduced us to a different sort of project than what we have mostly been discussing in class. This was a project that I had personally never heard of before, and were it not for your presentation, I probably still wouldn’t know about it. Your style was clear and focused and your organization progressed in a logical fashion. At first, I questioned your decision to end with the history of the EL0 (and I’m still not 100% certain that I really like its placement there), but I could understand why you organized it this why and really like that you ended with a question about what a project like this might mean for the future of DH. I also really like how you comment on the ELO’s ability to go beyond simply archiving, or curating. I think this important to the discussion of what constitutes a DH project and what does or does not make them useful or innovative. In the next to last sentence of your third paragraph, you make a very interesting comment about the museum-like nature of ELO: “The very existence of such a record is a sort of archive of where digital humanities has come from, and in that way the project represents one of the better aspects of what DH might be.” I particularly like this statement because it suggests that ELO is unique because it is not only archiving but is preserving the DH past as a sort of learning tool for digital humanist. However, I wish you had given some more detail on this concept. I know you only have so much room for everything, but I think it might be worth it to explore this idea further. A similar problem that I have is in your second paragraph when you mention that “the site offers little in the way of entertainment or enjoyment.” I feel like you either need to somehow defend or support this assessment or else revise it. As your review stands, there is nothing to suggests that some people might not find the site entertaining or enjoyable; you yourself even seem to have found it at least somewhat entertaining. Finally, I like that you address the cost issue of ELO because I think funding is an important issue of DH projects that doesn’t need to be overlooked, but I wish you would have provided more information on the open-submission format that exists for members. Aside from these minor issues, though, I think both your presentation and your review were both very interesting, informative, and just plain good.

  2. Joseph Santoli

    It seems as if you’ve written your review with our class in mind as the audience. In that regard, I’ve think you’ve done a really good job and have written to our concerns specifically. Although not directly ELO related, the Twitter list is extremely useful and I’m glad you have brought it to our attention. Explanations on how you found the project, the search functionality of the website and its history are all useful for our class and our class discussions. I will offer you a few suggestions to consider if you’re thinking about bringing this review to a wider audience.

    I would have liked to hear more about what the website looks like and how it feels to navigate that website. In databases, the search function and being able to find objects is most important. Did it look like the items were organized well? Was it easy to browse and find new things? You do explain how one can search on the website, but not if the search function is painful or not. Also, there are a few things I wouldn’t mind hearing more from you about. For example, you mention their offline CD-ROM collection, but don’t explain how that collection is made, what it costs, and what it means to be part of their offline collection.

    Your opening left me a little confused. I would have liked to hear exactly what ELO was before knowing why you chose it or even what it does. I’m thinking a few words like database, library, blog or some combination. Your presentation had me confused too for the first minute or two. What ELO is is certainly part of your review, but opening with an explanation would help a reader like me (thinking in terms of Journalism/reporting: put the most important information in the front).

    Finally, when you say the Anipoems are historically fascinating, how do you think they are?

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