Project name: Electronic Literature Organization
Web address: eliterature.org
Status: functional, non-profit
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.