Towards a Learning Commons: The Influence of Hypertext Theorists of the 1980s-90s

In part two of a three-part series exploring precedents to and prospects for the development of Research Commons to incubate DH, Donald Beagle considers the influence of hypertext theorists and the distinct paths created by those seeking to redefine or realign libraries in an age of rapidly-changing technologies.

Precedent 2: Towards a Learning Commons: The Influence of Hypertext Theorists of the 1980s-90s

Michael Joyce, novelist and hypertext theorist, is credited with authoring one of the first true hypertext novels, Afternoon: a Story (1987).[1. Coover, Robert. “HYPERFICTION; And Now, Boot up the Reviews.” New York Times Book Review. August 29, 1993. Note: Joyce was one hyperfiction author reviewed by Robert Coover in New York Times Book Review. I recommend Coover’s article not only for its review of Joyce’s work, but also for the context of Coover’s discussion of academic views about hypertext writing circa the early 1990’s.] I had known Michael Joyce since 1975-76, when he had taught at Jackson Community College (JCC) in Michigan around the time I was guest teaching a writing workshop there for a year (1975-76). By the 1980s, after I had left Michigan to work in public libraries in the Carolinas, the introduction of Apple’s early PCs, especially the revolutionary Macintosh, launched each of us independently into explorations of this new technology and its potential impacts on writing, learning, and libraries. Joyce established the Center for Narrative and Technology at JCC, served as a Visiting Fellow at the Yale University Artificial Intelligence Project (1984-85), and teamed with Jay David Bolter to develop the early hypertext writing software package, Storyspace. Meanwhile, I was authoring early articles exploring potential impacts on libraries from both a theoretical perspective (“Libraries and the Implicate Order,” 1988) and a practical perspective (“Online with a Macintosh,” 1989).[2. Beagle, Donald. “Libraries and the Implicate Order: A Contextual Approach to Theory.” Libri: International Library Review.  Vol. 38, No. 1 (1988): 26-44. Beagle, Donald. “Online with a Macintosh.” OCLC Microcomputing. Vol. 6, No. 2 (1989): 13-26.] I also taught an experimental writers workshop through Duke University’s Office of Continuing Education, drawing upon a monologue / dialogue / discourse model proposed in the 1970s by psycholinguist Josephine Harris—a workshop I held not in a classroom, but in Duke’s East Campus Library (the Lily Library), where we experimented with an early Macintosh interface for student creation, revision, and annotation of texts that I had developed in HyperCard.

After sharing my articles with Joyce, he introduced me to Bolter, and invited me to consult on a proposal for an Apple Library of Tomorrow Grant (A LOT) to create a new type of library-based writing/learning space for JCC. This initial ALOT proposal became a very early articulation of what would later come to be generally described throughout the library community as a “Learning Commons.”

“Actual, Virtual, and Conceptual Space”: Theorizing the Learning Commons

[pullquote]”…the library of tomorrow will be an actual, virtual, and conceptual space…”[/pullquote]

The original JCC ALOT proposal (1991) preceded the World Wide Web, and so would have depended upon extending an enhanced version of HyperCard among collaborating libraries by way of a local area / metropolitan area network. In the end, this proposal was not funded by Apple, but it included interesting elements pertinent to my later successful ALOT proposal for CMP, and then to my organizational work on UNCC’s Information Commons. In the JCC Proposal, note that the “Introduction” includes a vision statement: “…the library of tomorrow will be an actual, virtual, and conceptual space…” (p. 1). This “actual, virtual, and conceptual space” description later evolved into a three-domain framework (physical/virtual/cultural), and will be explored in more detail later in this post.[3. Note: Additionally, sections in the JCC proposal on “Virtual Information Space” and “Information Utilities for Patrons” were influenced by the experimental Macintosh-based writing my students at Duke’s Lily Library had undertaken with poetry composition, revision, and annotation.]

The JCC proposal does not mention humanities computing, but those listed as JCC “project collaborators” (p. 4) were well aware of a number of pre-WWW humanities computing projects already under development via HyperCard. The absence of a humanities computing reference in this 1991 proposal was, at least on my part, simply due to the exigency of crafting the most credible possible grant proposal for community college funding, not due to any lack of interest in the potential of humanities computing. Perhaps the most notable pre-WWW humanities computing effort in HyperCard became known as The Blake Multimedia Project, developed by Steve Marx and Doug Smith at the Interactive Learning Institute at CalPoly. (As noted earlier, it was formally begun in 1994, and its title directly influenced my 1995 choice of a title for The Charleston Multimedia Project).[4. Note: In their new book, William Blake and the Digital Humanities, (2013), Whitson and Whittaker now describe this early Blake DH project as “an illustrative example of the failure of a particular ecosystem…. is for the majority of users a dead end that exists now merely as a relic of the new media technologies available in the mid-1990’s.” (p. 44). CalPoly still maintains a sort of memorial tribute page to the Blake Multimedia Project, but regrettably, no attempt has been made to forward-convert its full multimedia content and hypertextual capabilities for modern interactive web access (other than some partial features found in independent ebook editions of several Blake texts). Thus, clear lessons for Research Commons librarians to draw from the BMP example are to a) establish an institutional culture of long-term digital curation, and then, b) strategically align physical and virtual components of their DH initiatives with that culture of digital curation.]

Lastly, before leaving the topic of 1st generation DH on HyperCard altogether, it is worth noting, as Whitson and Whittaker also observe, that Joyce’s fellow-hypertext theorist George Landow still considered HyperCard “…a much better illustration of the potential of hypertext than HTML….” (p. 44). A full discussion of this question goes beyond the scope of my post, but remains pertinent to future semantic web innovations that may yet offer academics a more flexible toolkit and a richer palette of hypermedia apps for future DH projects than are currently available in 2014.[5. Note: Glimpses of that future are already visible in a current leading-edge DH-friendly semantic web authoring tool SCALAR. But one also sees in SCALAR ongoing conceptual and developmental threads that can be traced back to early hypertext software like Joyce and Bolter’s Storyspace. For a brief comparison, compare some screenshots and descriptive overview notes about Storyspace here (from Larsen and Higginson, “An Anatomy of Anchors”), with the rough equivalent overview of SCALAR, here (courtesy of the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC)).]

The failure of the 1991 JCC proposal was followed by events that sent project collaborators and colleagues off in a number of independent but interestingly associated directions. Jay David Bolter completed his move from UNC-Chapel Hill to Georgia Tech, where he still holds the Wesley Chair of New Media. Michael Joyce moved to Vassar, where he collaborated with college librarians to establish what was then called the Media Cloisters. The Media Cloisters project opened in October 2000, and thus followed closely on the heels of my work establishing UNCC’s Information Commons, which had opened in September 1999. Following is the period description of the project that appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Vassar: The Alumnae Quarterly:

The Media Cloisters is a sophisticated technology center at the heart of the Vassar College Library designed for collaborative academic work using high-tech tools. …It is where students, faculty, librarians, and information technology specialists meet to explore emerging pedagogies made possible by the latest technologies….. ‘In monastic tradition the cloisters were a place where one would come out of one’s cell and converse,’ says Michael Joyce, assistant professor of English and faculty director of the Media Cloisters. The name, coined by Joyce, is intended to imply a high-tech version of such a meeting place. The Cloisters will, he explains, ‘serve as the ‘public sphere’ for networked interaction.’ … its purpose is not to provide yet another place for students and faculty to sit for hours as they word-process papers or design elegant presentations. It is instead where they might go with a project in-progress, demonstrate it on Cloisters hardware in the company of librarians, faculty, or other colleagues who can offer advice–technological, pedagogical, or research–then take their projects back to their home computers for additional work.

[pullquote]”‘I’m not interested in these kids learning a particular technology like making a Web page,’ he said. ‘I’m interested in them learning how we create a culture together.'”[/pullquote]

And the New York Times, in a December 2000 article titled “Liberal Arts Colleges Add Technology to the Curriculum,” added this quote: “Professor Joyce, a pioneer of the hypertext novel, said he envisioned the Media Cloisters as a gathering place for faculty members and students that would foster the kind of intellectual exchanges that took place in stone monasteries in earlier centuries. ‘I’m not interested in these kids learning a particular technology like making a Web page,’ he said. ‘I’m interested in them learning how we create a culture together.'”[6. Note: For further insight into Joyce’s views on the collaborative creation of a new culture of learning in libraries, I recommend his book Othermindedness: The Emergence of Networked Culture (University of Michigan Press, 2000), and especially chapter 4, “The Lingering Errantness of Place, or Library as Library.”]

Define v. Align: Positioning for Institutional Change

Joyce’s quote, “learning how we create a culture together,” accurately and elegantly began to articulate, I believe, what faculty, librarians, and students should ultimately be doing with our new library learning and knowledge-creation spaces (whatever we choose to call them). It also meaningfully connects those early discussions about hypertext theory to our contemporary musings on digital humanities. This returns me to an important point about this larger notion of aligning spaces, services, resources across physical, virtual, and cultural domains.

Joyce’s quote hints at a critical distinction between what I believe he and fellow hypertext theorists were attempting with their early efforts (in building Storyspace software, in authoring innovative novels like Afternoon, in writing analytical books like Bolter’s Writing Space, and in establishing the Media Cloisters), and what I was working to help instigate in libraries with the Information Commons, Learning Commons, and Research Commons. Perhaps this distinction might be best described as the difference between their ambitious endeavors to define or redefine a changing cultural domain, and my somewhat-more-prosaic efforts to align or realign an institution to a changing cultural domain.

[pullquote]our digital / virtual future will always feature numerous interacting elements of genuine novelty, and thus will always defy a priori attempts at pre-definition[/pullquote]

My more-modest framework for institutional change was based not only on practicality, but also on a theoretical view dating back to my very first article, “Libraries and the Implicate Order.” In that article, I attempt to make the case that the emerging universe of digital knowledge and virtual expression can never contain enough information to accurately predict its own future potential state(s). In other words, our digital / virtual future will always feature numerous interacting elements of genuine novelty, and thus will always defy a priori attempts at pre-definition. If correct, that theoretical view means we must re-envision libraries as organizations that are sufficiently agile and malleable to be actively seeking out and continually incorporating and leveraging this ongoing flow of novelty.

Lisa Shen captured this in her revised version of the Three-Domain Diagram, included in her assessment study of the IC at McGill University (2009). As seen in Figure 3, Shen shows the changing cultural domain actively stretching virtual and physical domains of the library commons away from the matrix base of adjustment and isolated change, and toward the more highly-leveraged benchmarks of far-reaching and transformational change.[7. Shen, Lisa. Cyberthèque—love it or hate it? Students’ perceptions of McGill Libraries’ information commons. (2009).]

shen three domain diagram

Figure 3. Lisa Shen’s “Service Evaluation of an Information Commons”
Source: Shen, Lisa. “Cyberthèque—love it or hate it? Students’ perceptions of McGill Libraries’ information commons.” 2009.
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is not included in the CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms that apply to the text of the post.

Even though I believe the Media Cloisters was ahead of the curve in that Joyce’s rhetorical framework potentially embraced both the pedagogical innovation of a Learning Commons and the knowledge creation potential of a Research Commons, it was later replaced by a less ambitiously framed “Digital Media Zone,” while, by contrast, the IC / LC model flourished and has since been successfully replicated (while also being customized and enhanced) on hundreds of campuses across Canada and the U.S., and hundreds more across Europe (Degkwitz 2006, Gläser 2008) and around the Pacific Rim (Nagata 2009, Wong 2009).[8. Degkwitz, Andreas. “Convergence in Germany: the Information, Communication and Media Center (ICMC/IKMZ) of Cottbus University.” Library Hi Tech. Vol. 24, No. 3 (2006): 430-439. Gläser, Christine. “Die Bibliothek als Lernort—Neue Servicekonzepte.” Bibliothek:Forschung und Praxis. Vol. 32, No.2 (2008): 171–182. Nagata, Haruki. “New ‘ba’ (locale) in Academic Libraries: Information Commons and Learning Commons. Annals of Nagoya University: Library Studies. Vol. 7, No. 1 (2009): 3–14. Available at: 0702.pdf. Wong, Gabrielle K. W., “Piloting an Information Commons at HKUST University.” Reference Services Review. Vol. 37, No.2 (2009): 178-189.]

On a practical level, the shift from a relatively narrow focus on hypertext to the broader perspective of DH relates at least in part to a cultural shift (in itself, an example of that relentless flow of novelty discussed just above). Joyce authored Afternoon and Bolter authored Writing Space during a period when the B.A. in English was often still the default or de facto undergraduate major. In the 1960s-1980s, students who had not yet made a firm career choice assumed (or were being assured) that study of writing and literature would serve them well in whatever career or profession they might eventually pursue in graduate or professional school (a viewpoint specifically voiced by my writing students at Duke’s Lily Library in 1987). Personally, as a writer myself, I remain deeply sympathetic to that view. Accurate or not, this supported at the time a steady stream of tuition-paying young recruits to fill literature classrooms and writing labs. But on many campuses today, English is no longer the default major.

But while early hypertext theory did indeed form an important precedent to current work in the digital humanities, the future prospects for DH in the Research Commons simply cannot be constrained by the disciplinary silo of literary theory any more than it can be constrained by reductive definitions of the academic library as only (or even primarily) a legacy institution from the Age of Print. The expanded realignment of the library away from those legacy constraints does not imply utter abandonment of the still-valid elements of print scholarship. But it does form an excellent pivot point to my next section on the future prospects for digital humanities in the Research Commons.


Editor’s noteThis post is part two in a three-part series. Recommended citation: Donald Beagle, “Towards a Learning Commons: The Influence of Hypertext Theorists of the 1980s-90s,” Part II in “Digital Humanities in the Research Commons: Precedents & Prospects,” dh+lib (January 30, 2014).

Donald Beagle

Graduated Oakland University [English & Linguistics] 1975; University of Michigan [Library & Information Science] 1977. Formerly Head of Main Library, Charleston County Public Library, (SC) 1989-1996; Associate Library Director & Head of the Information Commons, University of North Carolina--Charlotte, (NC) 1997-1999; Director of Library Services, Belmont Abbey College (NC), 2000-current.