The Society for Critical Exchange
  MLA 2000
SCE Program
  Economies of Writing I

New Economies and New Collaborations in the Digital Age: The Example of the Walt Whitman Archive

Kenneth M. Price
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

One of the great advantages of the web is that there's a bunch of free stuff-that's the truism, anyway. But free stuff comes from somewhere, and it is rarely, if ever, free to produce. I'm interested in exploring some of the costs of digital work, using a project I co-direct, the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive, as an example. Since 1995, our site at jefferson.village.virginia. edu has been described by many people, myself included, as free, yet a considerable amount of resources went into its making. I want to explore today that conundrum.
We haven't escaped a world of expenses and payments; when users visit a deep scholarly archive on the web they are experiencing instead the (mostly real) benefit of displaced costs. Instead of money being spent by the user at the point of contact, money is spent elsewhere along the line: by universities in the form of faculty time and equipment and graduate student assistance and internal grants, by external funding agencies, and, in our case, curiously, by more than one publisher.
The involvement of publishers is paradoxical, counter-intuitive, and worth exploration. When Ed Folsom and I had only just started on our project of attempting to make Whitman's vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers, Primary Source Media, a commercial publisher, unexpectedly asked us to produce with them a CD-ROM that would overlap with our own plan of work.
With great speed--though without editorial introductions and sophisticated tagging--they enabled us to make available an extraordinary amount of Whitman material that had never before been electronically searchable: all twenty-two volumes of the New York University Press edition of the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, all six versions of Leaves of Grass published in Whitman's lifetime, all 130 extant photographs of Whitman, hundreds of digital images of poetry manuscripts and more.
There were some downsides, however. The material came to consumers with a hefty price tag. I'm sure the pricing was partly influenced by the large permission fees they had to pay NYU Press. Interestingly it only costs about a dollar, as a process, to burn a CD, so they could have aimed to recoup their investment plus make a profit by selling thousands of copies at, say, twenty bucks or even less, or a couple of hundred CDs to research libraries at a high price. They chose the latter strategy. Ed Folsom and I undertook this editing as work for hire, receiving a one-time payment. We do not get royalties, and had no influence on their marketing and pricing policies. We've been told that the Whitman CD was a business success, that Primary Source Media did better than merely recoup its investment.
The data produced by PSM was tagged in Borland database format, a proprietary coding system. In my view, PSM would have been much better off to use SGML, a recognized international standard that would ensure cross-platform usability, that would address the need for long-term preservation, and that would facilitate the exchange of data. Initially, it appeared as if Ed Folsom and I would have a long-term working relationship with Primary Source Media because, after issuing the CD, the publisher proceeded to move Whitman material online, and we were well on our way to coaxing PSM toward the sgml world.
In addition, Ed Folsom and I, attracted by the idea of providing easy access to the works of the self-styled poet of democracy, persuaded Primary Source Media to donate the out of copyright etext of Whitman's writings to the Etext Center at University of Virginia. This was a significant amount of material-all six editions of Leaves of Grass and Whitman's prose works. Yet the request wasn't totally outlandish because we realized that the sales potential of the PSM CD stemmed from their success in making the modern copyrighted NYU edition of the Collected Writings available in electronically searchable form (for those able to afford it). We argued that donating some texts to a "free" site would be a good public service and that this would support an educational endeavor (we had recently received a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education to develop material in conjunction with the Dickinson Electronic Archives, edited by Martha Nell Smith).
Gradually, as processing allows, some of the Primary Source Media etext is in fact being made publically accessible. Perhaps what mattered is that Primary Source Media saw an opportunity to exchange data for know-how. That is, the publisher saw a chance to benefit from this arrangement because they were interested in launching sgml publishing initiatives and felt they could learn some of the techniques David Seaman and his team developed for automating the conversion of the text from Borland database form to TEI. (PSM had used Borland on a number of big projects.) I don't know if the good deed argument or the hard-headed argument worked best.
Incidentally, I might say that many of our plans with Primary Source Media went for naught since the firm was bought out by the Gale Group, which seems to have scuttled all plans to develop sgml publishing in conjunction with deep archives of single authors. But the ongoing cooperation of Frank Menchaca, Senior Editor at Primary Source Media, in continuing to provide etext at no charge, represents a commitment to public access (this despite the lack of any compelling benefits to the publisher, given their change of priorities).
More to come at MLA...
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