MIT & MEL – Looking at Literature & Culture

I don’t know how many of you have heard of MEL, the Melville Electronic Library, or of MIT’s Image-Drive Scholarship initiative, Visualizing Cultures, but these are two innovative resources that are bound to rock your digital humanist pants off.

Let’s start with MEL: it’s a critical archive that contains (or will contain) a variety of versions of Melville’s work along with adaptations, images, and so forth (including published and unpublished writings).

However, what’s most interesting about MEL so far, really doesn’t have much to do with Melville specifically. It has to do with their swanky new tool called TextLab. According to the MEL website, TextLab is…

“An innovative image and text mark-up tool,…based on the protocols of fluid text editing of revision. Here, ‘revision sites’ are any areas of interest on a manuscript leaf or print page that indicates evidence of revision.” (What is TextLab)

In other words, TextLab is a tool that enables a team of editors/collaborators to digitally revise texts while supplying critical explanations for why and how they so revised the text. In this way, the tool enables editors and scholars to not only revise/edit a work but to also create a separate “revision narrative” (What is TextLab). Moreover, because everyone edits and interprets texts differently, the TextLab tool enables editors to save their revision narratives and sequences as their own text (yet connected to the original transcribed/edited text) so that any number of other editors can also come along, provide their revision narrative and unique sequencing, and thus enter into a discourse with those who came before them. Essentially, this is the world of the academic literary journal with a digital fire lit under its ass. The types of scholarly conversations that once took years to cultivate over book publishing and article writing on single texts can now take place just as quickly as the scholars can write.

As the MEL site elaborates,

“Editors who differ may therefore use their differing sequences and narratives for a given set of sites to post their differing hypotheses. Thus, the database of revision sequences and narratives becomes the basis for discourse on revision.” (What is TextLab)

And while this can have upsides and downsides for the traditional scholarly world, I do not see this tool as somehow diminishing the importance or value of traditionally published articles and books but, rather, as something that will undoubtedly improve the quality of those conversations in the long-run.

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As for MIT’s Visualizing Cultures — it was launched in 2002 in an effort to help promote conversation related to how people once envisioned and imagined the world around them. It has a much broader focus than MEL and the technology isn’t as cool as TextLab in my humble opinion, but their basic concept is truly terrific:

First, users click on an image, then, along with an enlarged version of the image, there appears for the user a brief description of said image. From there, the user is able to look at other images tagged under the same category (categories such as “Photography & Power in the Philippines II”) or they are able to choose from any number of essays or comments that have been written on or related to the image. In this way, MIT managed to create a truly versatile and wide-ranging digital art museum.


Check them both out! You never know when or what will trigger that spark you might need to move forward on a project, scholarly or otherwise.


P.S. Thanks National Endowment for the Humanities for funding such terrific resources and projects!


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