How are literary texts preserved, disseminated and displayed on the internet?

By Christine Bradley and Lorien Kaack

Increasingly over time, the internet has caused more and more anxiety over the preservation of important information, how it is displayed and disseminated. Over the past few weeks we have been looking at authors such as Roy Rosenzweig, Robert Sloan and Alan Liu, who have written on these anxieties, Rosenzweig notably having a more negative tone than Liu, who sees the internet and its progression as positive.

Rosenzweig speaks of his anxiety of data on the internet and how it can be preserved. He states, ‘Ignacio’s sudden deletion of Bert should capture our interest as historians since it dramatically illustrates the fragility of evidence in the digital era’ [1]. He is scared of important information that is stored on the internet being lost, where most data is subject to bitrot, and has a life expectancy of 10 years. We can’t keep saving all this information, so how do we choose what to preserve and what not to preserve? ‘The most calibrated mix of technical solutions will not save the past for the future because the problems are much more than technical and involve difficult social, political and organisational questions of authenticity, ownership and responsibility’ [2].

The character, Kat in Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore is very optimistic. She has complete faith in the idea of the whole of the internet being stored within containers, and seemingly is rather zealous and proud of this, however people such as Rosenzweig are very resistant about this idea of keeping everything on the internet in one place. Can it all be preserved, and if not, how do we make the decision of what to preserve?

The idea of displaying information on the internet can be shown through a digital literary project.  A digital literary project is a collection of information which has been manipulated and made machine readable in some way, and then made human viewable in some form:

It requires 3 stages :




Each of these three processes contain important information and decisions about the scholarly project you are undertaking and what you want to do with it. These include intellectual decisions that shape the information and what you want it to be used for.

By cataloguing a source you are grouping it into one category and not another, similarly by transcribing it you’re separating the text from its context. All of these things are necessary if you are going to make a digital project but all of them create a certain authority and limitations, which can help you understand the project by breaking it down this way.   

An example of this is the END (Early Novels Database):


  • University of Pennsylvania Library. 1200 Novels 1660- 1830

         We don’t see the actual text it is just the metadata of the text so publication             date, title etc…they use lots of info.


  • Organized metadata into specific fields


  • Available for people to interact with  

For this project the editors have decided only to give metadata on the texts, rather than giving you the text itself. This is important as it shows what they want the webpage to be specifically used for. Rather than putting all the information of the books on the database, they have chosen a certain category that they wish to display and this will determine why and who it is used by. On the END website ‘About’ page they describe their reasoning for displaying the information this way as: ‘The END (Early Novels Database) Project creates super-rich metadata about fiction in English in order to help researchers imagine new histories for the novel’ [3].  This also being a way to show how these early novels organise themselves and ‘about how early novels instruct readers about themselves, carefully describing prefaces, introductions, and dedications; tables of contents, indexes; title-page genre terms and footnotes buried deep within the text’ [4].

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[1] Rosenzweig, Roy. ‘Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.’ The American Historical Review, 108, (3), 2003, p. 736.


[2] Ibid, p. 747.


[3] Early Novels Database [Online] Available from:


[4] Early Novels Database [Online] Available from:



One thought on “How are literary texts preserved, disseminated and displayed on the internet?

  1. Interesting comments here on preserving and – in the case of the specific example of the Early Novels Database (END) – of curating data. I think you might want to research the difference between the Internet (simply put, the network that connects computers across the world) with the Web (a specific – and not the only – way information is delivered across the internet). Finally, can you think how END engages with some of the concerns of Rosenzweig and the optmism of Liu?


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