August 14, 2014
The Digital Mailer Project
Promoting the Legacy of Norman Mailer: A Prospectus
Imagine a centralized digital repository of full-text editions of all of Norman Mailer’s works — accessible on any device. Imagine a fully searchable database of primary works by Mailer and secondary works by scholars, journalists, and historians. Imagine this collection is fully responsive to users’ needs: timelines show how Mailer’s works fit chronologically into his biography; intertextual references, keywords, and phrases provide visual connections between novels, essays, letters, criticism, film, television, and inter- views; pages display scholarly annotations about key characters and themes in Mailer’s work, emphasizing the community’s ability to add additional multimodal posts, comments, links, and insights about the material. Imagine a digital storehouse containing artifacts of Mailer’s life — a freely accessible digital collection curated by the very people Mailer has influenced with his works. A Digital Mailer Project could carry the name of Mailer into a new digital space: not necessarily a better space than print, but arguably a necessary move to further Mailer’s legacy.
A Digital Mailer Project could provide a solid foundation for augmenting Mailer Studies in the digital age. All of the above is possible with the interest and support of the Mailer community of scholars and aficionados. Having a strong digital presence could mean the difference between obscurity and continued interest in one of the creative geniuses of the twentieth century.
One of the chief characteristics of digital projects is that they are forward-looking. The Digital Humanities aim to maintain the rigors of traditional textual analysis by bringing artifacts into digital environments, thus creating something new, participatory, and multimodal. With the DMP, Norman Mailer could be one of the first 20th-century literary figures to have such a presence in digital form. This should keep Mailer and his work relevant as more of us define our lives by digital pursuits. With the support of stakeholders, the legacy of Norman Mailer could achieve a new longevity and relevance in the digital age, building on the renewed interest in Mailer Studies in the wake of the recent publications of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, The Mind of an Outlaw, and The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. Now is the time to begin the Digital Mailer Project.
What follows is a proposal for the foundation of the Digital Mailer Project (DMP). Hopefully, it will convince you — members of the Norman Mailer Society’s Executive Board and general membership — to support this project in two ways: (1) by giving the Society’s imprimatur, and (2) by agreeing to contribute to the project’s future growth and support. The DMP could lay the foundation for a vast, accessible, and ever-expanding digital collection centered on Norman Mailer’s life and work. With your support, this could be a real possibility. While this proposal is more modest in scope than the examples above, it would provide a solid foundation for realizing a central, digital repository that would support Mailer Studies into the future.
Since I began attending the conference of the Norman Mailer Society in 2006, I have been interested in two seemingly separate areas of teaching and scholarship. Mailer Studies, and digital culture’s influence on the Humanities have been my primary research interests. While I have addressed both in conference presentations, journal articles, and course offerings, Phillip Sipiora’s 2012 paper on the “legacy power” of Norman Mailer inspired me to combine my two interests.
This document proposes the DMP to the Norman Mailer Society for consideration. It seeks to secure the Society’s approval and cooperation for contributions; e.g. perhaps as an extension of The Mailer Review, for the re-publication of monographs, or original research projects. It covers:
- A brief introduction to DH;
- A detailed overview of the DMP, including a review of similar projects already completed, detailing goals, standards, methodology, and approach;
- A proposed timeline for project milestones;
- A call eliciting participation from the community;
- An estimate of long-term, practical logistics such as personnel, equipment needs, costs, hosting, and coding;
- A consideration of potential challenges the project could face.
The Digital Humanities
Both an emerging discipline and a practice, the Digital Humanities (DH) brings the artifacts of pre-digital culture into the digital age and builds new interfaces for understanding these artifacts. It combines textual criticism with data analysis to produce new insights and understanding. For example, DH projects might be as simple as curated collections of searchable primary documents and multimedia; employ meta content to highlight a particular qualitative interpretation of the data; utilize algorithms to analyze the recurrence of words and phrases and display these data visually; ask for user participation and collaboration; or employ several methods of archiving and retrieving data that corresponds to the needs and interests of the user community.
A major focus of DH is curation. It collects and re-presents primary materials, allowing for open access, collaboration, multimodal convergence, and participation. Digital curation constructs new knowledge for the benefit of the specific communities of users.
Humanists are academics, researchers, writers, teachers, and critics. Their main tool is language, inscribed on the pages of journals and books. They are professors with Ph.D.s building knowledge through years of research, nuancing and debating their analyses and interpretations in the pages of peer-reviewed manuscripts. These experts create a more profound and subtle understanding of human expressions. The humanities became a cathedral of sorts ensconced in the halls of the world’s universities. Their sacred duty was to decide what to pass on: which texts were deserving of consideration and which were not. They are the creators of the intellectual tradition, and their chief technology has been the symbol of Western knowledge for 500 years: the book.
Digital Humanities are a logical extension of print culture. Digital Humanists are academics, expert amateurs, researchers, writers, facilitators, curators, and hackers. Their main tool is still language — including its metatext: the code. These humanists are also experts, but they invite collaboration from all, regardless of expertise, background, and formal education. All voices are potentially valuable in DH. Digital Humanists recognize how media shape our understanding of the world and our place in it. Work in DH considers not only the content, but the technology that shapes it. They work in an incunabular space between print and digital, where the rules are not fixed nor agreed on. Digital Humanists bring their print past with them, remediating artifacts with new digital techniques, like text mining, visualization, juxtaposition, and collaborative interpretation. DH’s primary tool is the computer, which allows texts to be (re)presented, remixed, and (re)read in new ways.
Practitioners of the Digital Humanities are both scholars and hackers. They have an interest in the academic analysis of cultural discourse, but supported by digital approaches. As much as he might disagree, I have always seen Norman Mailer as a hacker at heart. A hacker is someone who enjoys a playful cleverness and modifies systems to make them usable in ways not originally intended. Hackers are creative, unconventional, and occasionally disruptive. They are unafraid to push boundaries and take risks, even if sometimes their approaches fail. They strive to make life better by hacking the systems that organize and structure their reality. While Mailer’s distrust of technology is well known, he embodied the spirit of the hacker in most of his work. He pushed the boundaries of genre, borrowing from others, poking holes in the novel to let journalism and history flow in, letting the literary influence public discourse and political contests. He was not afraid to hack a genre to make it what he needed — not what was expected or what was conventional. Mailer occasionally failed with his hacks, but his hacks have become essential to his artistic identity and to our understanding of him and his work.
Design is a chief concern in Digital Humanities. The Digital Humanist strives to create the best containers for content. Whereas the book has chapters, indices, tables, sections, etc., digital media are much more flexible in their capabilities. Digital objects are oriented toward action; i.e., they are not just static texts to be read. Their design should encourage the use of content in multiple ways, perhaps adding an annotation, correcting an inconsistency, or contributing additional artifacts or original content.
Perhaps the most important question for DH is technological configuration. Just what does the object of our study look like in a digital paradigm? The paper paradigm made the content fit the container (the book), but the digital allows users to create the best container for the content. Therefore: the DMP must use the best design for delivering the vast array of Mailer’s primary documents to fit the needs and expectations of the community of users who will both contribute to and access the archive. The approach must be scalable to fit evolving digital technologies and support participation from all Mailer scholars and amateur experts. In other words, the project should be built in such a way — in the coding, design, and organization — to support additional content as needed.
The Digital Mailer Project
Any project in the Digital Humanities is potentially ambitious, and the DMP is no exception. To succeed, the project will require careful planning and need to be accomplished in stages.
For the initial DMP, J. Michael Lennon has agreed to collaborate with me by providing his complete Works and Days in digital form as the foundation of an archive of primary resources for Norman Mailer. Works and Days is a bio-bibliography that contains primary and secondary resources, a life chronicle, reviews of Mailer’s work, and a selection of photographs. The fact that Works and Days is a rare, out-of-print text makes it ideal for this project. The “works” section is a bibliography of primary and secondary texts; the “days” is a chronicle of the major events of Mailer’s life. The first stage of the DMP will catalog Norman Mailer’s primary works in a publicly accessible database. The next stage would do the same for Mailer’s days.
Carefully defining the goals of the DMP is a crucial first step. These goals will support the broader purpose of the Norman Mailer Society: to promote the legacy of Norman Mailer. The project should:
- Present an archive of primary and secondary data relating to Norman Mailer and his work;
- Build a solid foundation to demonstrate the validity and usefulness of such a project, with the intention of securing potential funding and permissions for additional content;
- Invite the Mailer community to contribute original content to the project, like out-of-print monographs, essays, photograph collections, and so on; and
- Engage new generations of students and enthusiasts in the study of Norman Mailer.
Short-term goals will be to receive the Society’s support for the DMP, to develop standards and a platform for use, and to build the initial stages of the project. Long-term goals will be to maintain the project, add additional resources to completed sections, and encourage new scholarly activities to augment the DMP.
Stages & Timeline
This initial timeline is based on minimal participants (see “Logistics” below). With help, these stages could be developed more quickly.
- Presentation and approval of the DMP prospectus (this document) by the Norman Mailer Society: October 2014;
- Building the DMP “Works,” including establishing encoding standards; encoding the primary material; designing the interface; and making the “Works” accessible: December 2015;
- Building the DMP “Days,” including adding to the encoding standards, encoding the primary material, adding to the platform design, and making the “Days” accessible: December 2016;
- Further Expansion with additional content from Society members. Each addition to the DMP could take up to a year for completion, depending on the availability of sources, permissions, and coding assistance.
Like established archival practices for physical artifacts, DH projects must also work on the acid-free paper of the digital age. The methods and standards of established DH projects, like the Walt Whitman Archive, use strategies and approaches that stand the best chance of meeting long-term digital usage and preservation. Digital standards for scholarly archives center around XML, or extensible markup language, a platform-independent, non-proprietary format for the organization of large and complex data. Subsets of XML that are germane to the DMP are:
- TEI: The Text Encoding Initiative that focuses on the encoding of texts in the humanities and social sciences.
- DTD: Document Type Definition works with TEI and provides the rulebook for validation.
- EAD: Encoded Archival Description provides the map of archival materials.
- METS: the Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard works with EAD and DTD to describe and to control digital objects.
- XSLT: the Extensible Stylesheet Language for Transformation, translates TEI-encoded documents to other forms, like HTML for use on Web pages.
The goal is to make the DMP as future-proof and scalable as possible by using platform- neutral technologies and encoding via the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) to develop a standard for coding the archive. For example, The Walt Whitman Archive developed a “document type definition” (DTD), the rulebook which extends the TEI standard to reflect the particular challenges of Whitman’s textual artifacts. A similar DTD would need to be developed that addresses the unique aspects of Mailer’s work so that project workers have a reference for encoding archive elements, like standard texts, genre, places, public figures, characters, dates, abbreviations, and other discrete parts that might interest users. Once these standards are written, they should be published for the community to use when encoding entries for the DMP (see below).
Since the World Wide Web is a platform-neutral medium, it is an obvious choice for content delivery. Additionally, since mobile devices increasingly account for the Web’s traffic, the DMP must be designed using a responsive, Web-based platform that allows for various screen sizes and network connections. Additionally, the platform should consider future expansion of the DMP to include Mailer’s varied interests outside of text, like film, audio, images, and others. The framework must be capable of supporting multimodal content for a complete representation of Mailer’s life and works. For example, the William Blake archive’s shows Blake as a multimedia artist, not solely a poet; a similar approach would be appropriate for Mailer.
A major consideration for the DMP will be whether to adopt a pre-made and open- source platform which can be modified for its use or to procure programmers to build components or a wholly new platform for dissemination. Should the form of the project be web-based, app-based, or a combination of the two? It must be scalable and responsive for platform neutrality built on a solid framework for representing all of Mailer’s interests throughout his career: i.e., multimodal, capable of handling all the artifacts that might need to be represented.
Therefore, the project must:
- be platform-neutral;
- be accessible on multiple devices and by multiple accounts;
- be designed to be readable and easy to use;
- be minimal and elegant;
- encourage participation;
- be scalable;
- support the archival standards the project selects, like TEI, EAD, and METS; and
- support multimodal primary sources.
In the end, we may find that a single platform will not suffice for incorporating the range of projects that might be included in the DMP; therefore, all of the platforms must be able to communicate with interface standards, like search. Built-in tools, like automatic cross-referencing, keyword search, word clouds, word trees, and other forms of digital analysis should be available, but not dominate the design.
The design of any platform should emphasize readability. Since the primary focus of the project will be on texts, making them clearly legible on any device will be paramount. Other digital considerations, while important, should not overwhelm the reading experience of the DMP, especially when viewing primary materials or their transcripts. Reading/viewing should be optimized for the platform and device. Fonts, background colors, and even margins should be configurable by the user to fit her platform.
The DMP’s platform should emphasize community participation. Once standards are decided and published, members of the Society, their students, and other interested parties should be able to log in to the DMP and assist with coding, error correction, and commentary on primary documents. Commentary by Mailer experts in the Society on Stages 2 and 3 will be integral to the DMP’s success and continued relevance. Similarly, scholars interested in adding to the DMP should also be able to do so via the existing infrastructure using the archival standards outlined above. In Stage 4, for example, an additional database of secondary Mailer research could be added.
One of the hallmarks of the Digital Humanities is open accessibility. While this does not negate a statement of copyright for original content, a Creative Commons license would be more appropriate for such a project.
Users who contribute content will retain ownership of their content. They will decide on the final license for the DMP’s publication of that content, whether copyright or Creative Commons.
The DMP’s platform will be published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.
Methodology and Approach
Each stage of the DMP must develop its own method and approach based on the content being added. A DTD (document type definition) must be developed for the DMP. A TEI schema must be developed for each stage of the DMP. Then, each stage’s material must be encoded using TEI and checked via the DTD. Stage-specific methods and approaches are outlined below.
Building DMP “Works” (Stage 2)
This stage of the DMP will focus on cataloging Norman Mailer’s primary works in an online, searchable bibliography with cross-references. Entries will be categorized and tagged by date, decade, genre, people involved, and whether they are “major” or “minor” works. Images and multimedia elements will be included when available and if permissions are granted. Sections for major works and figures could also be included — e.g., Armies of the Night, Lawrence Schiller, or “The White Negro” — that link to their entries in the DMP.
An integral part of the DMP “Works” will be community participation in the ongoing commentary addressing these primary sources. User comments will become a permanent part of the DMP.
Building DMP “Days” (Stage 3)
This stage of the DMP will focus on a multimodal presentation of the major events in Mailer’s life, again based on work done by J. Michael Lennon in his Works and Days, enumerating the major biographical events of Mailer’s life. Work on Stage 2 will begin after the completion of Stage 1, and should be complete by the end of 2016.
This portion of the DMP will catalog the major events and periods of Mailer’s life, including photographs and other multimedia. DMP “Days” would provide the relevant biographical contexts for Mailer’s texts, like major events in his private and public life, where he lived, who he interacted with, and so on. Here, too, commentary would be elicited from the Mailer community. Users would be able to add their own observations about the events as annotations to the archive. It will include links to cross-references for the entire DMP and a search engine keyed to major and minor events, figures, decade, year, text, and location.
Community Use and Participation
Following the Stage 2 completion of the DMP, the project will become available to the community for use. At this point, the DMP will contain a nearly complete bibliography of Mailer’s primary works, cross-referenced, and partially annotated. It will be searchable and will invite users’ comments on entries. Contributions will be open to anyone, but will also need to be moderated to filter spam and inappropriate content.
Comments and annotations from registered users could be like those on Genius, or like the following example from Medium. When a user highlights a section of text for comment, a comment input area would pop up. Once submitted, the comment would appear in the margin. Further comments could be made by other users. Thus, mini discussions about the primary material might appear here.
Beyond Stage 3, we will look to the Mailer Society for further contributions of original work: scholarly books, essays, articles, notes, films, etc. could be included in the project and hosted by the DMP. Content providers would work with project builders to add their contributions.
As the DMP grows in Stage 3 and beyond, it might contain a series of linked entries that give further insight into, for example, the compositional process of a particular work. A user might jump from a list of Mailer residences, to a letter he wrote, to an original manuscript (courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center), to a first edition, to the preface to the 25th anniversary edition, to pertinent reviews, interviews, etc., resulting in an enhanced perception of the work and its influence over time. Various multimedia might be incorporated, emphasizing Mailer’s own artifacts; e.g., YouTube videos, original manuscripts, annotated manuscripts, audio commentary, lectures, and the like.
Long-term project support is potentially problematic in any DH project. Once completed, where will the project receive hosting? How will equipment be supported and up- graded? Who will provide regular software upgrades and maintenance? Where will additional financial support come from? These and similar questions should be addressed at the outset of project planning — at least they should be answered throughout the project’s construction timeline. For the DMP, I would like to provide answers to these logistical questions several years beyond the completion of Stage 3.
Initial logistical needs are minimal. As the proposer of this project, I will take the role as lead developer and editor for at least the duration of this proposal’s timeframe. For the first two stages, I will receive the support of Mike Lennon, who will edit and submit raw digital versions of his Works and Days.
We will develop the DMP on a Linux server provided by Middle Georgia State College and maintained by me. This machine could also serve as the production site for the DMP as we develop Stage 3 of the project.
In the fall of 2014, I will be teaching a course on Digital Humanities. Some assignments in the class will help construct the DMP. For example, I will have student assistance in developing the document definition type (DTD) and with initial TEI encoding of the raw digital data.
The integration of full-text primary sources would make the DMP the most comprehensive digital resource on Norman Mailer. Eliciting permissions and digitizing artifacts would be a secondary goal of the DMP. However, while copyrighted, full-text documents will not be included during this phase of the DMP, they could be added later. Original manuscript images could be presented along with TEI transcriptions of those sources.
Incorporating full-text would necessarily be a secondary and on-going aspect of the DMP as more texts are uncovered, more permissions obtained, and more funding to vis- it archives becomes available. Getting digitalized primary documents and permissions to use them is the major difficulty here — reproduction of artifact images requires permission from the repositories, and all of the major rights holders, like the Mailer estate, the Harry Ransom Center, and Random House.
Additionally, lack of community support and participation could impede the goals of this project. Traditional means of tenure and promotion reward print scholarship, but often treat digital projects as undeserving of official consideration. While these attitudes are changing on the institutional level, convincing members of the Mailer community to contribute their time, effort, and content could be challenging. If participation in the DMP does not bring the same rewards as traditional scholarship, securing assistance might be a formidable barrier to progress.
As the DMP grows, so will its technological needs. During the initial stages outlined in this proposal, these equipment and network needs have been met. Beyond 2016, additional resources, like a server, archives, and hosting, might need to be secured. These needs will likely remain modest and therefore should not present the Society with any undue financial or logistical difficulties.
As the world becomes more digital, projects such as the DMP become increasingly necessary. The DMP as proposed will help bridge the gap between the print and the digital worlds, propelling Mailer’s legacy into the future. This result reflects the Norman Mailer Society’s raison d’être: “to stimulate and encourage interest in the works of Norman Mailer.” The Digital Mailer Project will further this goal.
In the absence of a project such as this, Mailer’s works might be eclipsed by others who embrace the digital paradigm for maintaining an artist’s legacy. For Norman Mailer to retain his prominent place in American Letters, it’s imperative that he be accessible to a digital audience. Artists remain important through the discourse of the community of enthusiasts. The Digital Mailer Project, like Mailer’s legacy itself, will only flourish with the Society’s ongoing support and participation.
- Written during my 2014 fellowship with the Norman Mailer Center in Salt Lake City, UT.
- This proposal does not request monetary support, as no additional funds should be necessary at this stage (see “Logistics” below). However, on-going builds, maintenance, and project archives may require that funds be secured.
- For example, see the McGreevy Archive, the Walt Whitman Archive, the Rossetti Archive, DigitalDonne: the Online Variorum, and the World of Dante.
- For example, see the Digital Thoreau’s “fluid text edition” of Walden.
- For example, see the BibViz project “Bible Contradictions,” and Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters.
- For example, see Transcribe Bentham.
- For example, see Looking for Whitman.
- See TEI Guidelines for more details and resources for using TEI.
- See “Digital Preservation for Beginners.”
- For a more detailed description of encoding, see “Whitman Encoding Guidelines.” This document insists on the importance of developing a strong and deliberate encoding standard for any text-based DH project.
- Potentially, an interface similar to a Web 2.0 site — a platform that supplies the interface allowing users to submit the content — could be developed or adopted to allow direct input of content. This will not necessarily fall within the initial stages of the DMP.
- See the By-Laws.