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November 22, 2005

"Binding Memories" on Gutenberg-E


After receiving a Mellon grant in 1999, Columbia University Press began awarding $20,000 "Gutenberg-e" awards to scholars with outstanding history dissertations, in order to help these scholars revise their books into digital texts. So far, twelve of these digital books have been published on the Gutenberg-e site, and sixteen more are slated for publication: this makes Columbia University Press the most significantly player the e-publishing field to date. Currently, the texts can be read for free as part of a limited-time free trial offer; for $49.50, one can purchase unlimited online access to a single text and also download it as a PDF file.

Columbia and the Mellon Foundation must be commended for their efforts to move academic publishing into a perhaps more economically viable online environment: at the same time, the e-Gutenberg project still seems to express a fair amount of anxiety about the idea of digital textuality. Given the ambitious nature of the project, the site is suprisingly drab and monochrome - the only explanation I could think of for the lack of attention to design was that perhaps the guiding forces behind Gutenberg-e imagined that graphic interest would somehow detract from the serious nature of the scholarly work on the site.

A lack of concern for the medium extends to many of the texts as well, which for the most part limit their digital enhancements to hyperlinked explanations of concepts and the inclusion of still images and audio and video clips. Some of this material is wonderful: for example, Kenneth Este's A European Anabasis - Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940-1945 features a compelling audio interview with the Belgian soldier Franz Vierendeels. But Estes, like most of the other authors, does not rework his text during the process of digital conversion: he merely illustrates it.

One notable exception to this rule is Heidi Gengenbach's Binding Memories: Women as Makers and Tellers of History in Magude, Mozambique. Gengenbach, who now teaches history at Harvard, actively embraces the digital medium and uses it to try to restructure her monograph. As she explains in the introduction to her book, moving from a print medium to a digital medium allowed her organize her monograph spatially, so that the reader was confronted with a title page in which "chapters" were placed in on the page in a way that encouraged exploration rather than front-to-back navigation through a text. Gengenbach writes:

Unlike some other recent electronic publications in history, this book was not "born digital." Its origins lie in a doctoral dissertation researched and written (on paper) several years before historians began crafting scholarship with cyberspace in mind... [Still], even back then, the arguments I wanted to make about women and history in Magude fit awkwardly with the conventions of academic history and the print monograph. There really was no singular beginning or end to my story, nor could the middle be narrated in a straight line. The study's subject, the relational practices whereby rural Mozambican women remember and communicate the past, was too varied, both in form and in angle of interpretation, to be subordinated neatly to any one rendering of their lives.

Gengenbach's title page thus does not simply illustrate the content of her various chapters: it also serves as a visual metaphor for her research methods, allowing the reader to see the way in which Gengenbach envisions the field of information engaged by her scholarship. According to Gengenbach, this view into her process gives the text a kind of "epistemological candor" that might be lacking in a text which relies on the classical structure of academic narrative to conceal the somewhat messier process of academic research. As Gengenbach writes:

Certainly, as others have noted, e-publication enables historians to share their sources with readers and thus opens scholarly analysis to wider, more participatory debate. But the truly radical potential of cyber-history rests in its power to expose the social basis - the ineluctably dynamic and located subjectivity - of historical analysis and in the power of historians to translate this self-exposure into creative new paradigms for constructing the past.

Another good use of the digital page to structure information is Gengenbach's audio histories section (below), which catalogs some of the interviews Gengenbach did for her fieldwork.


The page works well as a quick access database: clicking on the photographs of the interview subjects themselves brings up a biography and the audio interviews (which are in Portuguese and Shangaan ), while clicking on the links brings up English-language transcripts of the interviews. But more importantly, it provides another visual metaphor for Gegenbach's research process, allowing her to put her scholarly observations about storytelling on the same page as the stories themselves, thus foregrounding the story-telling qualities of scholarship itself.

Given Gengenbach's willingness to really think through the implications of making her work digital, I find myself wondering what she might have done if she had more sophisticated tools and a designer at her disposal. I'm hoping that Columbia Press allows the site to gradually evolve, and that future Gutenberg-e scholars might take inspiration from Gengenbach's example, allowing the medium to breathe new life into their scholarly efforts.

Posted by lisalynch at November 22, 2005 2:50 PM