I created this site for a research project called The Veil of Code: Bibliographical Methods for Born-Digital Texts, which is supported by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and runs from 2018 to 2022. This project deals with the challenge of born-digital texts and media artifacts as future cultural heritage. It explores this idea through case studies in three types of digital media: e-books, video games, and digital music recordings (defined in more detail below). These are all very different kinds of digital media, and could each be the subject of a separate study. But the point is to study them together—in the spirit of what Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman have called comparative textual media—and to understand how online fan communities have been dealing with these different media types as historical artifacts.
Born-digital texts have histories. Whether they take the forms of e-books, websites, digital editions, iPad apps, video games, or experiments in electronic literature, they are all authored, produced, distributed, consumed, and preserved within the kinds of networks that print and manuscript book historians have been studying for decades. A born-digital text may teach us as much about recent history as a nineteenth-century novel or early modern playbook can teach us about their production and intervening reception. Born-digital texts should also have futures, though the preservation, curation, and future study of born-digital artifacts depends on human choices being made now.
In the past, those choices have traditionally been guided by textual scholars, who may be academics based in departments or professionals based in rare book libraries and archives. The problem is that bibliography—the field that studies the production, transmission, and reception of material texts—has been slow to reckon with born-digital textuality, and there is now a shortfall in methods, models, and training to help the discipline meet the challenges of born-digital materials.
My project adapts the theories, vocabulary, and techniques of bibliographical inquiry to develop new methods for born-digital textual scholarship. My objective is to equip digital bibliographers with new empirical methods for investigating digital textuality through a series of case studies in digital bibliography. However, this project’s objective is not simply to extend traditional bibliography to new materials, but also to situate bibliographical work within the broader landscape of new media studies, whose mission is not just preservation or curation, but also interpretation. This premise is reflected in the project’s three research questions:
- What can bibliographical forms of inquiry tell us about born-digital texts, especially the relationships between form, materiality, and meaning that could be lost without informed inquiry and curation?
- How have online communities of non-specialists and non-academics such as fans and collectors developed methods and techniques for the recovery and curation of digital artifacts?
- Given the centrality of case studies and specific examples to the advancement of textual scholarship, what are the best exemplars of born-digital textual problems for testing and sharing new methods?
To answer these questions, I have structured the project to focus on three forms of born-digital textuality, each of which makes different demands on bibliographical inquiry:
1) e-books, including books for e-reading devices like the Kindle, but also literary iPad apps;
2) digitally shared musical performances, commonly known as bootlegs but more accurately known as ROIOs (Recordings of Indeterminate Origin) by the amateur blogger-archivists who curate them, a category that ranges from audience-taped concerts posted to the Internet Archive, to concerts recorded from FM radio broadcasts in the 1970s and recovered years later;
3) video games, especially games existing in variant versions, or with complex production histories that leave traces in the source code, or with other challenges that online communities have documented.
These three textual forms present a diverse range of materials for a single study to encompass—indeed, each form on its own could warrant a separate study. But the value of connecting them is exactly the point of my project. E-books, ROIOs, and video games are all texts in D.F. McKenzie’s sense of the term; like printed and manuscript books, these are artifacts that embody the conditions of their construction, that circulate in the social world, and whose empirical analysis can illuminate their histories and meaning as cultural objects.
Planned project outputs include a monograph book, co-authored articles, conference presentations, pre-conference workshops to train born-digital bibliographers, a public exhibition on digital music archives, and this blog (with student involvement especially in the articles, workshops, exhibition, and the blog). Wherever possible, I’ll post open-access versions of published research from this project in the publications section of this site. As a faculty member in the University of Toronto’s iSchool and the Book History & Print Culture collaborative program, I also teach courses that are closely linked to this research, linked from the teaching section above.