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Scholarly work now hypermedia

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Jerome McGann
Stephanie Gross
Jerome McGann

Scholarly work now hypermedia

By Dan Heuchert

Jerome McGann's Bryan Hall office doesn't look like it belongs to a revolutionary.

It's much like any other office along the hall. Comfortable, intimate, not very big. Lots of books on the shelves. A standard-looking computer on the desk.

McGann, the John Stewart Bryan University Professor in the English department, has spent the better part of the last decade studying the collected works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the 19th-century English poet and painter who lead the pre-Raphaelite movment. Nothing revolutionary there, either.

But the fruit of all that labor isn't a book. It's a web site.

Now that's a little different.

McGann is the editor of "The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Research Archive," which is being published by the University of Michigan Press. It is available to browsers by subscription only. (A sample is available at http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/rossetti/tour/toura.html.)

His goal: "To put online every poem, painting, drawing, manuscript and printed book that Rossetti ever made."

McGann has long been at the forefront of the application of computer technology in the study of the humanities at U.Va. He was on the committee that led to the Institute for Advanced Technology in Humanities, and counts himself as one of the first "three or four" faculty members to make use of the faculty "toolkit" for creating web sites.

Computers offer a revolution in scholarly study. "For the past 500 years we used books to study books," McGann said. The computer offers a new tool to study texts, he said.

"One of my chief interests is in textuality and the theory of texts. This allows me to edit things that are impossible to edit in book form. One can understand books a lot better through using these tools, and find new insights into interpretation and editing," he said.

As of last semester, the site contained some 14,000 files that he and a changing group of graduate students have compiled for more than six years. It's an evolving work; one of the advantages of electronic publishing is that it allows for more frequent updates than offered by traditional book publishing, in which the author or editor must wait for a new edition to make changes.

Finding a publisher for the web site was problematic, McGann said. "No presses know how to do it. It completely changes the relationship of author to publisher. A standard contract simply doesn't get at what our relationship is."

What he settled upon is a formula that calls for the Michigan Press to provide advertisement and order-processing support, and ultimately a home on its server, plus production personnel to maintain the archive, accepting and modifying the material he sends in. The press will attempt to recoup its costs by selling access to the site on a subscription basis.

Nancy Essig, director of the University Press of Virginia, sees the electronic revolution coming and knows it will change her profession, but admits she isn't sure how. "There are so many unanswered questions," she said.

The press took a tentative step into that field in 1995, when it published its first on-line book. "Afro-American Sources in Virginia: A Guide to Manuscripts," written by Michael Plunkett, director of the U.Va. Library's Special Collections, was made available free of charge in collaboration with the Electronic Text Center and the department of Information Technology and Communication.

"Libraries have really been at the forefront of pushing this," Essig said. "They see it as the solution to both space problems and cost problems."

For publishers, though, there are those unanswered questions. How can they be sure the texts will be available 20 years from now? How do you recover the costs of shaping, editing and marketing those texts? How do you know what's worthwhile and what isn't, without the traditional publishing process? How do you add electronic publishing to the 60-plus ink-and-paper books the press puts out each year?

Some university presses have been more actively involved in seeking answers to those questions, applying for grants to study the issues. Private companies like netLibrary are springing up; they buy electronic rights to published books and then lease them to libraries, sending the presses royalties and sales reports. (The University Library and Electronic Text Center recently announced an affiliation with netLibrary.)

"We need more resources, and sort of need a vision for it that we don't have now," Essig said.

Electronic publishing won't go away, McGann said. "Now, it's very obvious to wide groups of people that these tools are going to affect everything at the heart of what we do."


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