More thoughts on the Melville Electronic Library

1 Apr

As of right now, the Melville Electronic Library remains a great idea in theory rather than practice, as it still consists of little more than a set of ‘coming soon!’ notices.  Still, once it gets up an running the MEL promises to be one of the most intriguing and helpful scholarly sources on the net.  The key to its utility, and the source of its uniqueness, as I have indicated before, is its use of the TextLab software and its application to the works of an established, canonical author.  TextLab enables readers, scholars, and students to access a writer’s revisions, in the order s/he made them, thus enabling a kind of ‘fluid text’ analysis that allows a reader to gain a sense of a text’s development through time.  In many respects, Melville is the perfect author for this approach, since many of his most celebrated works appeared in different editions, or were left incomplete at his death. 

The reader’s engagement with a text is a notoriously complex and mysterious process, and a number of theoretical models are available to critics for understanding it.  When considering revisions, the reader is forced to confront the instability of texts, and possibly linguistic acts generally, right at their source.  The process of revision is the struggle of an imagination attempting to find the right words for an abstract set of ideas and an imprecise series of events.  The effort to find the desired language for a literary project constitutes a fascinating sub-textual narrative in itself on many occasions, and Melville’s studious engagement with his projects was probably marked by more struggle than most.

Another feature of MEL I find quite engaging (again, more in the potential than in the current reality) is the Gallery section.  It is a corner of the website that will consist of an image gallery of Melville-related images, with the principle focus being on works of art mentioned in Melville’s texts.  Moby-Dick especially drew heavily on the traditional visual arts for inspiration and imagery, and Melville’s rich symbolism was notably enhanced through his engagement with painting.  This gallery allows viewers to consider a picture alongside a sampling of a Melville text that explicitly references it with some accompanying scholarly commentary that sheds light on its significance in either Melville’s work or his life.  This multimedia approach to scholarship is exactly the sort of benefit brought about by information technology that I value.  While there is nothing in the image gallery that is, strictly speaking, dependent on modern technology for its existence (all of the information featured could probably be printed in a book with nothing lost) but the combination of instantaneous access with the ability to rapidly update and augment the information in the gallery streamlines a scholarly process in an immensely useful way, and enables an approach at once fluid and democratic.

As of right now, I can’t say I have a theoretical program to elucidate what precisely digital projects like the MEL “do” to canonical writings.  Software may reveal their fluidity and instability, but conventional research methods can do much the same.  For now, my appreciation for online digital archives lies almost exclusively with their utility.  They are nearly perfect tools. 





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