The Professor's Mouse

Cather Scholarship in the Digital Age

by Andrew Jewell Presented at the International Willa Cather Seminar, June 22, 2005

Near the end of this decade, the University of Nebraska Press will publish the last volume of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, completing the most ambitious and far-reaching Cather scholarly project of the last twenty-five years.  The major scholarly and editorial undertakings of the next twenty-five years will build upon these editions and continue the effort to make Cather's work available in forms that are reliable, well-researched, and enriched by an editorial apparatus that explains and analyzes the text and its contexts.  These projects will, like the Scholarly Edition, be collaborative enterprises that tap into the interests, abilities, and expertise of a wide range of scholars.  But, I believe that many—even most—of these future projects will differ from the Scholarly Edition in one major way:  they will be created and published in a digital medium, right from the beginning.

Jerome McGann argues that "[i]n the coming decades . . . the entirety of our cultural inheritance will be transformed and re-edited in digital forms"1 This prediction, though seemingly outlandish, is strangely rational when one considers the mass-digitization efforts already underway.  Google, for example, is digitizing millions of books from major research libraries, including Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and The New York Public Library.  Already, digitization has radically transformed the way most scholars and students conduct research, as academic libraries heavily invest in electronic resources and digital preservation.  That said, I do not want to imply that Cather scholarship will go digital just because digitization is an inevitability, nor am I suggesting that digitization will, or ought to, eclipse print publications.  Digital scholarship will play an enormous role in Cather studies because it will prove to be the best medium for the material.

Digitization—if done right—means unparalleled access for scholars, teachers, and readers all over the world, it means powerful, new ways of analyzing and contextualizing material, and it can lead to increased collaboration among scholars both within and across disciplines.  It is a medium that is adaptable and responsive; unlike print, digital scholarship can be infinitely and dynamically revised to meet the needs of readers and to reflect the current scholarly knowledge and practice.  As Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price, co-editors of the Walt Whitman Archive , regularly point out, an online edition makes all readers potential collaborators, for if one locates mistakes or challenges a reading, the editors can respond accordingly.

Today I want to tell you about—and, in some cases, show you—some new projects of the Willa Cather Archive in order to illustrate the role digitization could play in Cather scholarship.  These projects reflect a basic philosophy that drives the development of the Cather Archive at this moment:  research on Cather can best be enriched through editing and publishing foundational materials.   This means creating reliable, useful editions of Cather's texts which currently are unavailable in satisfactory forms, updating resources to reflect present knowledge, and providing access to archival material that is otherwise only seen by researchers with sufficient time and money to travel.

Luckily, thanks to the Scholarly Edition, we have—or will soon have—wonderful print editions of Cather's novels, and, as copyright allows, we are putting those editions online.  However, as most of you probably know, copyright law prohibits the digital publication of Cather texts published in 1923 or later.  Given that Cather published many major works post-1922, one might think that copyright restrictions would be the death-knell of any free, educational, publicly-accessible resource.  In fact, the vast majority of ambitious digital projects dealing with literary figures—for example, the Rossetti Archive , the Blake Archive , the Whitman Archive , the Dickinson Electronic Archives —are centered on pre-twentieth century authors whose work is securely in the public domain.  However, two facts make the copyright issue less burdensome for the Cather Archive.  First, Cather had a prolific writing career before she became a professional novelist and produced hundreds of reviews, columns, features, short stories, and essays published in periodicals before 1923.  Second, these pieces have, for the most part, never been completely collected and edited.  In other words, there are many, many texts that are not readily accessible, and we hope that the Cather Archive can edit these texts in a way that makes them searchable, useful, and available for a wide variety of scholars and research questions.

Currently on the site, we have published electronic editions of Cather's work that suggest some of the capabilities inherent in the electronic medium.  We do not want to simply put up electronic transcriptions of print publications (though that is not without value), but are interested in creating opportunities for the reader to interact with text in ways that are impractical or impossible in print.  For example, our digitizations of the first editions of Alexander's Bridge and One of Ours provide not only the text, but images of every surface of the books, including the spine, the cover, and even the blank leaves at the beginning and end.  Though nothing will compare to holding the actual artifact, we want Cather's readers who don't have access to first editions to see the books as they were originally published.  Currently, Aaron Hillyer, a graduate research assistant at UNL, is working on a digitization of the first edition of April Twilights , which will be up by the end of the summer [This edition was put online in August of 2005].  We have also taken steps to get the other pre-1923 first editions digitized, and I hope electronic editions of those books will be online within the next year.

Another project, led by Vicki Martin, also a graduate student at UNL, is the digitization of Cather's periodical nonfiction published between 1913 and 1922.  The essays of this period, many of them longer, developed pieces on trends and performers in opera, ballet, and theater, have never been collected and, as far as I know, have never been republished after their initial appearance in the periodical.  We currently have online two essays originally published in McClure's in 1913:  "Three American Singers" and "Plays of Real Life."  In addition to making little-read Cather texts accessible, the digital medium can preserve the highly-visual nature of the publications.  To that end, we have kept all the illustrative photographs inline with the textual transcription and offer full images of every page.

In the same vein, we are working on digitizing the original periodical publications of Cather's short fiction.  Vicki Martin has prepared two texts that are currently online:  "The Enchanted Bluff" and "The Profile."  As with the nonfiction, we include all illustrations and page images. Though the texts of these stories have long been available, seeing them in their original published form—in some cases, the only published form in Cather's lifetime—is revealing.  For example, the illustrations of "The Enchanted Bluff" situate the story in the nineteenth-century tradition of the loafing, precocious American boy, complete with a Tom Sawyer-esque straw hat and a crude, homemade fishing pole.  By having these images readily available, we hope that scholars will re-approach the text fully informed by the entire reading field that confronted Cather's first readers, something previously quite difficult due to the relative inaccessibility of the stories in their original published form.

The Archive's most ambitious textual editing project, however, is to create a digital scholarly edition of Cather's early journalism, complete with multimedia editorial notes; full, searchable texts; and many other interactive features.  This project, led by Kari Ronning, is already underway.  Dr. Ronning and her graduate assistant, Jennifer Moore, are at work transcribing, encoding, and writing notes for more than fifty articles from the Nebraska State Journal in 1893 and 1894.  By this fall, thanks to a Faculty Fellowship for Digital Research in the Humanities from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we will complete the work on these first articles and create a prototype for a complete edition of all Cather's pre-1904 journalism, which will contain several hundred individual articles.  Like the other volumes of the Scholarly Edition, this edition of the journalism will provide carefully edited texts, full explanatory notes, and contextualizing essays.  Unlike the previous volumes, this scholarly edition will be all digital.  Though I believe print is the best medium for reading long, sustained works, the digital environment is ideal for an edition of Cather's journalism, for, like print, it allows people to read all of Cather's journalism chronologically, but it also enables many other options.  For example, readers can use searching and browsing features to efficiently locate individual articles that in some way respond to their more specialized research questions.  As part of our editing process, we are marking up every person, title, character, and group name in a way that will allow highly sophisticated searches.  If a scholar is writing a piece on Cather and Shakespeare, that person will be able to do a search that locates every mention of Shakespeare in Cather's journalistic writings, even if the actual words she used were something like "the great bard" or "the author of Macbeth."  In other words, our encoding will, in a way that is virtually invisible to readers of the text, regularize references to different names in order to create more powerful searching and browsing options.  Additionally, we are partnering with catalogers at UNL's library to provide Library of Congress subject terms, enabling the automatic creation of annotated lists of the articles as well as subject browsing and searching.

The digital medium has another advantage over print in projects that attempt to collect a diverse and scattered group of texts:  it is endlessly revisable.  In other words, as new Cather-authored texts are discovered—and they will be discovered—the digital edition can immediately grow to include them.  This quality is a driving force behind another project currently under way on the Cather Archive:  an expanded, electronic edition of Janis Stout's indispensable 2002 volume, A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather.  Since publication of that volume, roughly one-hundred and seventy-three new Cather-authored letters have come to light, many of them filling in significant gaps in Cather's correspondence.  For example, only six letters from Cather to her parents were known of in 2002.  Now, only three years later, we have forty-one additional letters from Cather to her parents.  Our new digital edition, which is being created through a partnership with Janis Stout, myself, and the University of Nebraska Press, will be able to immediately include new letters as they emerge in archives or in private collections.  Additionally, readers will be able to search through the descriptions of the letters to find specific people, titles, places, or keywords, or sort the letters chronologically, by addressee, or by repository.  In other words, we hope to provide a complete and updated listing of all Cather correspondence in a form that is incredibly useful to a researcher.

Yet another project currently under way is the digitization, organization, and presentation of more than a thousand Cather and Cather-related photographs from collections at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries' Archives and Special Collections and the Nebraska State Historical Society.  With a few notable exceptions, all of the well-known photographs of Cather and her cohorts will be available, plus hundreds more that most of you probably haven't seen yet, including private snapshots of Cather on Grand Manan, on her trips to the southwest and Europe, and of Cather family gatherings.  Unlike the Archive's current display of photographs, the new photo project will contain additional information about each photo, including the physical size and location of the photograph, Library of Congress subject headings, and the date the photo was taken.  And, importantly, all of this information will be searchable, and the images themselves will be sufficiently large for visitors to zoom in on whatever detail interests them.  This project, which is a product of a partnership between University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archivist Mary Ellen Ducey and myself, is already under way, and we hope to have a large number of images up by the end of the year.

As I hope my talk has made clear, the Cather Archive has ambitions to become an indispensable resource for Cather scholars.  Moreover, we aim to become this by providing useful, needed, and intellectually-rich materials that are unavailable elsewhere and that are well-suited to the digital environment.  Of course, the completion of these projects will take a significant amount of time, labor, and sustained partnerships among scholars, librarians, presses, and technical specialists.  Fortunately, the outlook is good.  The Cather Archive is housed at a university that is enthusiastically supporting digital research in the humanities, is home to large and significant Cather collections, and employs a hearty lot of Cather scholars.  That said, the Cather Archive needs the support of the people in this room if it is going to live up to its potential.  Though I'll stop short of asking you to write me a check, I would like to make a few requests of the audience.

First, help us build a library of teaching resources on Cather by sending me your syllabus or other class materials used in a course where Cather is featured.  Many of you here have taught Cather's work, and by building a diverse collection of course syllabi that use Cather's texts in different contexts, we can both begin to better understand Cather's place in classrooms and have a resource to consult as we design new courses.  To do this, simply send me an email with your syllabus attached, in whatever electronic form you have it.  Or, if you have it only in paper form, you can make a photocopy and send it to me.  All of my contact information is on the Cather Archive.

Second, if you are interested in digital work and would like to contribute to the Cather Archive in some way, let me know about it.  I know that many of you are creating or have created resources that would be well-suited to the digital environment, and we are always interested in creating new and productive partnerships.  Additionally, we are working on the development of a vetting process so that we one day will be able to publish unique, peer-reviewed scholarship on the Archive.

Third, if you are planning a Cather-related academic event, putting out a call for papers, or have news related to Cather scholarship, please let us know.  We hope to make the Cather Archive a place for this community to publicize and learn about Cather scholarship and events.   Typically, if you send me an email with detailed information and/or attached material, I can get something on the site within a week.

Fourth, and finally, I invite you to freely offer constructive feedback on the site.  Such feedback can significantly influence design revisions and, potentially, development priorities.  I know that an increasing number of people are looking at the site—the Cather Archive received nearly 45,000 hits in April—but the more I can understand what the users' experiences are like, the better the site can be designed to respond to their needs.

With the support of the Cather scholarly community, the Cather Archive can be a tool that offers unprecedented access to important Cather material, and such access will inspire fresh, vigorous research and criticism.

1. McGann, Jerome. "Culture and Technology: The Way We Live Now, What is to be Done?"