Walt Whitman Archive/ The Walt Whitman “Arsenal”

Kenneth M. Price in his article, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” , uses an archive he collaboratively created as an example of how “archives” are much more than what that title or other titles (edition, project, database, archive, thematic research collection, etc.) suggest. His “archive,” the Walt Whitman Archive, encompasses a vast array of Whitman’s material–that which Whitman published in a multitude of mediums as well as Whitman’s manuscripts. As Price states, such a collection is ongoing, it’s not a project with an end, but one that is an ongoing. The process takes many, not just one, contributors which makes the “archive” collaborative. In light of these characteristics of the Walt Whitman Archive–and all “archives” like it–Price suggests uses a different term to describe the collection: an “arsenal.” An arsenal’s emphasis is on the product and the process to get that product. In other words, an arsenal, like the Walt Whitman Archive, is a workshop.

In light of the information in Price’s article I couldn’t help but want to discover and search through the Walt Whitman Archive for this week’s assignment. Here are my thoughts and findings on the archive:

  • Is the purpose of the site/project/archive clearly articulated?

I have never worked with an archive before so upon entering the Walt Whitman Archive I was unsure how to navigate. Luckily, the site is easy to navigate. The title of the site is clearly visible, along with the names of the editors–Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. (The two editors make this site a collaborative project.) There are various tabs along the left-hand side of the page which indicate the various categories of the site. One has the choice of visiting Whitman’s published works, works written in Whitman’s hand, his life and letters, commentary about Whitman, pictures and sounds of Whitman, other resources, and an “about page.” My only criticism is that this “about” category is placed at the bottom of the list. Ideally, it should be placed at the top so that the scholar, the student, or even a reader of Whitman could learn more about the site and how to navigate it. The reason I suggest this is because that “about” tab has a link to a tour of the site. The tour of the site explains what the user will find in each category and gives examples of the kinds of material that they will find there. This is extremely helpful for a new user to the site as well as a new user to digital archives. This about page also clearly articulates the purpose of the site: to digitize Whitman’s work and writings so the scholar, the student, and the reader may have access to them.

  • Is the site easy to navigate?

Your next question might be, is the site easy to navigate? Is the “tour” necessary to the site or can I figure out the site on my own? My answer would be yes, even without the tour the site is easy to navigate. Each category/tab/section contains information that is relevant to each tab and information that is easily reached. For example, if one clicks on the “Published Works” tab, one will be given options on where to search next. From there, if one chooses to go to “Books, by Whitman” then one will be given more choices. Does the user want to see the Leaves of Grass editions or his other works? Essentially, the site narrows down your search for you, giving you options that are clearly defined for the best search result possible.

  • Who is the primary audience?

The Walt Whitman Archive claims that its use is for the scholar, student and reader. It’s accessibility to students/ teachers and readers is one of its strengths. Because it is accessible to the general reader, the Archive shares the humanities (and the digital humanities) with a much wider audience. The Archive assumes that not only are humanities scholars and students interested in literature, but that the general public is as well.

  • What is being done in this project that cannot be done in print based scholarships?

To answer this question I would like to take a moment to discuss the Leaves of Grass editions that the archive makes available. If I were studying Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and wanted to track the changes in its various editions without using the digital archive, I would have to buy or rent from the library all of the previous editions of the book. If I did that, I would be surrounded by books, flipping through page after page (sounds like tedious work to me!). Instead of doing that, however, I can go to the archive where the editions are all in one place. The archive does the tedious work for me, it gathers the texts together, so all is left for me to do is search through the material and draw my conclusions. The Walt Whitman Archive is also searchable. If you type in a word, the search engine produces a list of links to where that word is used in Whitman’s works. This cannot be done in print based material because print based material is not searchable way that digital material is. If I were to look up a specific word I would have to carefully comb through every page of the material in question. If I were to use the Walt Whitman Archive, the combing is done for me.

  •  How can one use it for one’s research?

An important question remains, how can I use the Walt Whitman Archive? A general reader can use this archive for curiosities sake, or to increase their understanding of Walt Whitman. A scholar or a student can use the archive for the same purposes. Most importantly, they can use it to answer their questions, they can use it for their research. The usefulness of the Walt Whitman Archive is vast. The benefits of the information on the site is vaster. The site allows the user to clearly and easily comb through a vast amount of information that print works do not. The site allows the user to narrow down their research or to answer her questions with more questions. Most importantly, the Walt Whitman Archive allows one access. It allows access to information that might not have been available otherwise. In allowing access, it allows questions (and answers), and contribution to knowledge.

It’s amazing what technology can do for the humanities and digital archiving is one great example among many.

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