- Everyone A Reviewer? Problems and Possibilities in Hypertext Scholarship
Forum on Hypertext Scholarship
AQ as Web-Zine: Responses to AQ’s Experimental Online Issue
The four articles presented as part of American Quarterly’s experimental project, “Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies” raise possibilities and problems with the hypertext form for the presentation of scholarly work. Before I explored these four articles I knew, of course, that hypertext would allow authors more room to present their ideas and give them the ability to link text internally and to outside web sites. But, I did not grasp exactly how those two factors would have both positive and negative consequences for the scholarship included in this experiment.
First, I want to acknowledge the enormous amount of time and thought that went into these projects. Without taking away from the hard work of the American Quarterly team (especially Roy Rosenzweig) who made the project possible, in many ways these authors “self-published” their works. They entered the text, did the coding that made the links possible, and found all the additional materials (audio, video, photographs, other Web sites) to allow their articles to take advantage of web based hypertext. For the author, I’d estimate a hypertext article would take five times the work needed for publishing a conventional print article, not an insubstantial commitment, some would say drawback, for this kind of presentation. And I doubt that future electronic journals would take back these tasks since many seem integral to the projects and need to be done by the author. Web designers, collaborating [End Page 263] with scholars, could cut the time needed for each presentation, but would such designers be on journal staffs, on university payrolls, or would authors need to hire them?
While the time required to prepare such articles is long, I can see the appeal of hypertext, web based projects for scholar-authors. These articles illustrate the authors’ freedom from the constraints imposed by a print journal—constraints of page length, of possible illustrations, of short and non-descriptive footnotes. In a variety of ways, the authors here presented more writing, more pictures (both still and moving), some audio, and included pieces of their research materials as well.
Beginning with the most conventional difference between the two forms, hypertext allowed the authors to write more. Many times this made the articles stronger, giving the author, for example, the chance to include material that would interest some readers but not others. James Castonguay in “The Spanish-American War in US Media Culture” presents wonderful evidence about regional variations in media coverage of the Spanish-American War. Not every reader would follow all the links (to sections on Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Worcester), but one could choose a familiar region, see how Castonguay’s argument played out there, and return to the larger argument with a deeper understanding. In David Westbrook’s, “From Hogan’s Alley to Coconino County: Three Narratives of the Early Comic Strip,” readers got three essays, each about the length of a print journal article. The author believed that “each of the three sections (or ‘threads’) approaches the subject matter from a different direction and defends a distinct analysis” and noted that “none of threads can stand alone. Each depends on concepts and observations built up in the other threads.” Westbrook makes the good point that such a structure “takes advantage of some of the exciting possibilities opened for writing by the new medium of hypertext,” but I wonder if, in this case and several others, the discipline of a page limit would help sharpen the argument and save readers time. In these projects, the trade-offs seem to be ones of time versus space and the benefits to the author versus benefits to the reader.
Another possibility opened up by hypertext, of including research materials, seemed also to benefit the author more than the reader. But one article, in particular, included research materials in useful ways. Thomas Thurston in “Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the Law of Evidence in Nineteenth Century American Courts” does a thoughtful and innovative job of dividing the computer screen into [End Page...