Authoritative Online Editions

July 06, 2007

One of the great pleasures of my time in graduate school was acquiring, piece by piece, the entire 24 volumes of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, along with the nine volumes of conversations, With Walt Whitman in Camden, recorded by his disciple, Horace Traubel. Sometimes I found several volumes at once; other volumes I had to hunt down one at a time.

The search for those books -- in the years just before the creation of the World Wide Web -- gave me a reason to leave my desk and wander around Cambridge, which still had many secondhand bookstores, and sometimes travel to other cities in the hope of completing my collection. I still remember finding volume four of Traubel's conversations -- the last one I needed -- in a book barn in rural New Hampshire. It seemed almost providential, as if we were destined to come together.

But academic grail quests like that are coming to an end. It's relatively easy now -- though often much more expensive -- to get exactly what you want from online booksellers.

And for major writers like Whitman, the era of the printed authoritative edition may be coming to an end quite soon. The era of the online authoritative edition has arrived, and while I still cherish the material culture of books, I can see that some of the new online sources are superior -- in most respects -- to anything in printed form.

One of the most prominent efforts to produce online editions of major writers -- along with many other documentary projects -- is sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, founded at the University of Virginia in 1992.

The institute started with an impressive documentary Web site called "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War." Now its online portfolio lists more than 50 sponsored projects, including "The World of Dante," "The Vivarium Digital Library of Latin Literature," "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: Multimedia Archive," "The William Blake Archive," and, of course, "The Walt Whitman Archive," about which I'll say more in a moment.

"The William Blake Archive" is a gorgeous, meticulously edited compilation of his many illuminated works. Blake's oeuvre is among the most difficult and expensive for the beginning scholar to assemble, and it is simply impossible to duplicate in print the quality and scope of what is now available on this Web site, short of owning the original works themselves.

Sites like the Blake archive mark an important point of departure from expensive clothbound volumes available in university libraries -- and unique items in private collections -- to high-resolution facsimiles freely available to anyone with Internet access. Even the nonspecialist (like me) can easily spend hours appreciating Blake's aesthetic achievement beyond reading the unadorned transcriptions of his poems one might find in an anthology.

The editors have performed a great service for the general public, but what about the exacting standards of literary scholarship? Does the Blake archive meet the expectations of professionals?

One of the first lessons of graduate school in English is to look for the imprimatur of the Modern Language Association's Committee on Scholarly Editions in the front of any author's collected writings: Significantly, the MLA granted its seal of approval to the Blake Archive in 2005, which seems to mean there is no special barrier to online editions becoming authoritative as far as the MLA is concerned.

Yes, young scholars, you may cite the Blake archive. It is just as legitimate as the most expensive and scarce scholarly edition. You don't even need to leave your desk for the university library or the back roads of New England. And it's free! You do not have to spend thousands of dollars building a library of rare and expensive volumes.

Although it does not yet possess the official approval of the MLA, "The Walt Whitman Archive," edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, is surely the most important editorial undertaking on Whitman since the publication of the "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass in 1892.

Already, the Whitman archive includes a searchable facsimile and transcription of the 1855 edition of Leaves, as well as all the other major American editions, including images of the binding, endpapers, and frontispieces. It is like having $1-million worth of rare books at your disposal. And it is an accomplishment that eluded the editors of The Collected Writings for more than 40 years.

Even more astonishing is the instant availability of Whitman's manuscripts in one location instead of scattered among dozens of far-flung institutions. So far the Whitman archive contains 100 of the most important poetry manuscripts, fully transcribed and annotated. The site will eventually include all of Whitman's notes -- scraps of paper, lists, prose writings, and seemingly random jottings -- pertaining to every poem in Leaves and Whitman's other uncollected poems. The manuscript images can be enlarged to show fine pencil strokes, light stains, pinholes, and even the grain of the paper. The site will eventually include all of the 70,000 known manuscripts, along with the new ones that appear almost every year.

One of the great advantages of an online edition is that it can be updated regularly, keeping pace with the discovery of new materials, without requiring the continuing production of printed volumes at intervals over many years. Few publishers are now willing to underwrite such a project without end or hope of profitability. With an online archive, new materials can be made available almost immediately, fostering dialogue beyond the circle of a few scholars with privileged access, long before conventional publication can take place. If a mistake is made in an online edition, it can be easily corrected, while errors in authoritative editions proliferate for generations.

Moreover, the online archive has the potential to break down the barriers presented by nontextual materials. Like Blake, Whitman is an author with a large visual legacy. He was the most photographed American author of the 19th century, but no publisher is likely to support an expensive, full-scale iconography. It wouldn't be profitable, and it would be obsolete within a few years, as new images come to light.

The Whitman archive offers a better alternative. Drawing on Folsom's long work on Whitman imagery, the archive includes a searchable database of every known photograph of the poet. Each image can be clicked on to reveal information about the date, place, and circumstances under which the image was originally made, along with Whitman's remarks about it.

Visitors to the site can also browse all of the images at once, seeing the development of Whitman's persona over more than 40 years, showing how the poet crafted his appearance to support the persona portrayed in his verse. It is easy to imagine the site may one day include the many engravings, paintings, sculptures, and advertising materials that have represented or responded to Whitman as well. Literary and cultural historians want to know about Walt Whitman Cigars and Walt Whitman whiskey, but those materials can only be found on eBay from time to time.

The audio section of the Whitman archive gives us another sample of what is likely to come in the near future, as the barriers imposed by printed sources are lifted. You can hear a 36-second recording of what might be Whitman reading from his poem "America." He has a high-pitched but kindly voice, assuming it really is Whitman. At some point, I imagine the audio section might include famous readings of Whitman's poetry and a selection from the vast quantity of music inspired by Whitman. Perhaps the lectures of prominent scholars might eventually be preserved as video files, and, someday, future generations will have a ghostly archive of their intellectual forebears whom they may hope to join in the online afterlife.

How will all of those new materials, easily accessed, change literary scholarship, not just on Blake or Whitman, but on any subject given a comparably serious online treatment?

We are in the midst of a technological revolution that will redraw the boundaries of scholarship in ways that are more profound than anything posited by the revolutionary arguments of the last generation.

Nevertheless, even with the occasional endorsement of the MLA, online projects are not generally esteemed by universities as evidence of scholarly productivity. Is an online archive scholarship, teaching, or service? How will such work be evaluated? According to what standard? The technology is changing annually, creating new opportunities with amazing frequency, but the criteria by which faculty members are evaluated change very slowly, over decades.

Of course I think it would be a good thing to encourage the armies of graduate students and professors to contribute to the building of Web archives instead of throwing yet more chips on the cairn of unread monographs. But the building of Web sites like the ones I have described can be safely undertaken only by public-spirited faculty members with enough reputation capital to deflect the censure of monograph fetishists, some of whom, I suspect, still think the Internet is a disreputable fad, like Smell-O-Vision.

No doubt it will take some time for perceptions to change. Eventually, as the printed editions gather dust on the shelves, becoming more obsolete with each passing year, I am certain the best online editions will become the professional standard, and the editors and contributors will receive the recognition and emulation they deserve.

Recently, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where the Whitman archive is now housed at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, received a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities with a 3-to-1 matching requirement, which calls upon the recipients to raise $1.5-million in order to receive the grant that will establish an endowment for the site.

One can only hope the directors of the Whitman archive are successful, since the need for a permanent endowment underscores the one fundamental weakness of online versus print sources: What if someone pulls the plug?

What if the original editors cease to maintain the project, and no one replaces them? What if there is some large-scale institutional or social disruption? A book, once printed, is likely to survive, but a Web site, once erased from a server, is probably gone forever.

For all of its increasing importance in the present, the future of any online edition is never a sure thing, even with a substantial endowment. I think traditionalists need to make way for new forms of scholarly productivity, but I also believe we should preserve some regard for the durability of books.

I may use the Whitman archive every day, but I am not going to throw away The Collected Writings just yet. Perhaps it is only nostalgia (and maybe the apocalyptic spirit of the moment), but someday -- maybe 20 or 200 years from now -- those books may be the only reliable and comprehensive sources left, and someone -- some student traveling the back roads of Michigan -- will be glad that I kept them.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at