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Preserving Vintage Electronic Literature

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Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver
Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver

Dene (pronounced “Deenie”) Grigar’s mother was an artist who painted mainly with oils on canvas. But occasionally she painted on a different medium, such as wood or pottery. Once she experimented with painting on bamboo, a medium she was unfamiliar with.

“Bamboo is porous,” said Grigar. “It can absorb the paint. So my mother compensated by using very thick paint and very thick brushes to get the paint to stay on the surface.” Grigar’ mother fiddled with various materials and techniques until she figured out what worked and what did not. Within the constraints of the bamboo surface she created a lovely work of art.

Grigar tells that story to illustrate how artists can still create even when using material that is unfamiliar to them. And she should know. Like her mother, Grigar is an artist. She is also director and associate professor of the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver. The medium to which she devotes herself is electronic literature, or eLit, particularly works from the period between the mid-1980s to the late 1990s.

During that period, personal computers proliferated and experimental artists were drawn to the ones with graphic user interfaces (as opposed to text-based command line screens) and interactive multimedia. Artists were lured to computers despite of the unfamiliar material…or maybe because of it.

The new generation of personal computers in the 1980s, particularly Macintoshes, were a pleasure to use and play with, much like modern smart phones. Macs were not dry, business-only machines. There were no command lines to memorize, no “under the hood” technical details to fuss with. You simply turned Macs on and started playing. They invited play.

And artists did just that. They played. They explored. They tinkered. And from the palette of text, hyperlinks, audio and graphics arose – among other things electronic literature.

The term “electronic literature” applies to works that are created on a computer and meant to be read and experienced on a computer. Grigar, a scholar and devotee of eLit, helped build a lab in which to preserve and enjoy works of vintage electronic literature.

Deene Grigar
Dene Grigar

She helped create the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver, which houses a collection of over 300 works of eLit — one of the largest collections in the world — and twenty eight vintage Macintosh computers on which to run them. Each computer has its appropriate OS version and, for browser-based works, appropriate browser versions.

The ELL is never closed. Students with access rights can come and go at any time. Despite the age of the computers, they are all in good working condition. Grigar has someone who maintains the lab computers and keeps them tuned and running, and she uses a local computer-repair specialist for more serious technical issues.

In addition to preserving the software disks on which the works reside, the ELL backs up and preserves their software in a repository. In some cases, the ELL keeps a copy of the software on the computer on which the work is played rather than go through the whole re-installation process; on the older computers that could require loading several disks. For CD-based works, they make an ISO image backup copy.

The ELL has a searchable database to track all the works, the computers, operating systems and software requirements. If a user wants to view a work, he or she would search for it and, according to its requirements, locate which lab computer to use.

All of the electronic literature works at the ELL share one common element: they deviate from traditional literature. Unlike paper-bound literature with sequentially numbered pages and a beginning, middle and end, many works of eLit do not read linearly. There are underlying decision trees that enable users to decide where they want to go next; the experience is chunked into scene-like elements and it is up to the user which element to navigate to next. Navigation is often left to chance. In fact, the decision-making process that is standard for many games today have their roots in vintage eLit. (Think of first-person shooters and multi-player adventure games, the “where can I go and what are my options?” games.)

In vintage eLit, a work that was rich in content pushed the limits of the computers of the day: the richer the content, the slower the computer ran. One of the challenges the artist faced was to see how much she or he could pack into a piece.

“One of the coolest things about working with these early pieces from, say, StorySpace,” said Grigar, “is that when you put the 3 1/2 inch floppy in and as the work was loading, you got a little dialog box that said ‘This work has 2000 nodes and has 1600 links’ and you’re watching each link load, one at a time. Part of the excitement was seeing how many nodes and how many links there were and how big and intricate the work was.”

Grigar is dedicated to preserving the experience of each work as the author or artist originally intended it, under the same physical conditions as when you would have experienced it when it was first released. That includes experiencing the sluggishness and snags of the technology. Not only are the works historically and culturally significant, their limitations and affordances are too.

“All of the quirks, all of the glitches, all of the constraints are obvious to you,” said Grigar. “And it was kind of a badge of honor to artists that you did this much work. It’s like handing someone James Joyce’s Ullyses as opposed to handing them a forty page article. It’s like ‘This is my novel. See how big it is? See how many nodes there are? See how many hyperlinks I had to make?’

“When you put all this on an emulator, all of those differences collapse. The slowness and glitchiness was part of the beauty of the work…I’m not convinced that emulators can capture a lot of that experience and the wonder of how things actually moved.”

The computers in the ELL are arranged in chronological order to demonstrate the evolution of the art form. For example, beginning in 1983, you can see that artists created grayscale and ASCII characters. In time, computers acquired a palette of 256 colors, which spawned a different stage of creativity. Then came thousands of colors and another stage of creativity.

“The palette just kept getting bigger,” said Grigar. “And so they go crazy with that and have fun with that. CDs like the Voyager piece ‘Shining Flower‘ — it’s just exquisite. Its just amazing. You could tear up, it’s just that gorgeous.”

In the earliest works of eLit, artists coordinated words with audio and graphics. As the technology evolved and artists could include motion pictures, the storytelling blurred the lines between literature, animation and movies. Still, no matter how much artists stretched the genres, vintage eLit works were still limited by the computer keyboard and mouse.

Newer works of interactive media, or participatory media, reach for other methods of interactivity. For example, “The Breathing Wall,” by Kate Pullinger, responds to the user’s rate of breathing, not the clicking of a mouse. And new advances in augmented reality enable interactivity with software without directly touching — even if only with your breath — any hardware objects. In some game systems and art installations users can interact with software through gestures and eye movements. Artistic expressions of human/computer interaction will clearly continue to evolve along with technology.

For now, Grigar is focused on protecting vintage electronic literature. She does not assume that the machines and software of vintage eLit will always be available, so she and hypertext author Stuart Moulthrop created Pathfinders, which demonstrates the user experience through video recordings of the artist and users reading works of early eLit.

“We have the authors perform their work on the computers and we videotape it,” said Grigar. “And the video will be archived for posterity so that one day when there are no more Macintoshes from 1983, we will at least have the video. It is better than just an emulator, because you could see the work unfold and have the author talking.”

Electronic Literature Showcase
Electronic Literature Showcase

In April, 2013, Grigar, along with colleague Kathi Inman Berens and eight of Grigar’ students presented, presented the Electronic Literature Showcase at the Library of Congress. She brought several Macintoshes with her (she has extra vintage Macs as well as extra copies of software) to demonstrate some notable works of eLit, including including a Mac Classic on which to show Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl” and Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon, A Story.” She also brought along a G3 iMac on which to run her original copy of “Myst.”

The ELL is one of several labs dedicated to the preservation of vintage multimedia. Others include the Media Archaeology Lab, The Trope Tank and especially the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Preservation and access are equally important in the curation of electronic literature. Grigar and her colleagues are committed to not only preserving vintage works of digital humanities — the software — but in maintaining access to them, keeping the machines running and encouraging people to experience each work in its native technological context.

Grigar said, “What drives my research is how artists use the medium and the platforms and all the things to their advantage and work through the constraints so that the constraints do not look like weaknesses but actually are part of the beautiful aspect of the work.”

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