Checking out the Whitman Archive

I chose to peruse The Walt Whitman Archive for our discussion this week. Prior to this assignment, I didn’t know much about digital archives, so I’ve enjoyed unearthing this new-to-me concept.

The obvious contribution that The Walt Whitman Archive makes to scholarship is that it makes Whitman’s work much more accessible. For those who are not likely to purchase a Whitman anthology or to come across his work in an academic setting, the online archive makes it easier to jump right into a poem to sort of whet the palate. It’s non-committal, in both money and time, so online users are free to make a determination about Whitman’s poetry and decide whether or not to keep reading. For academics, the instant accessibility of Whitman’s work may allow for a higher presence of scholarly works, which can lead to more thoughtful analysis. Quick connections can be made between Whitman and other poets, and their work can be viewed side-by-side in different windows, rather than having to search for, find, and open a book of poetry (or two). This can lead to more scholarship being written about Whitman.

One of the things that can be done with this project that could not be done in print-based scholarship is the ability to compare editions and versions of specific poems. For instance, you don’t just have access to Leaves of Grass, but to each and every edition of it: 1855, 1856, 1860-61, 1867, and so on. And more than that, the archive also has images from Whitman’s own 1860 copy of Leaves of Grass, complete with his annotations.

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Outside of the online archive, something like this could previously only be attained in a library-museum setting, likely under glass and unable to be touched or read cover-to-cover. Scholars can now see every page and every annotation instantly, which can only enrich and enhance Whitman scholarship being written today.

When you click on “About the Archive” in the bottom right-hand corner of the page, you are directed to a page that clearly articulates the purpose of The Walt Whitman Archive. It “endeavors to make Whitman’s vast work freely and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.” This aligns with my original claim that the primary strength of this and any online archive is accessibility across countries, careers, ages, and more.

Another strength of the online archive is the plethora of “Pictures & Sound” available for researchers and casual viewers. There is a gallery of 128 images of Whitman and audio recordings of his most famous poems. The site even includes a 36-second recording of “America” in “what is thought to be Whitman’s voice.” And that fact that all of this is available at the click of a button in your own home is amazing.

The “About the Archive” page goes on to introduce the directors, Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom, “with ongoing contributions from many other editor-scholars, students, information professionals, and technologists.” This page is much more official and well-constructed than other online archives that I’ve landed on over the years, and it’s clear that they carefully moderate any article for the site.

When Ken Price was asked about the purpose of this site, he said, “We’re doing this in part because his work defines the constraints of a book.” Given the revisionary nature of Whitman’s work, no single text could contain all of his edits. The site allows viewers to more or less get inside Whitman’s mind as they watch him revise poems from one edition to the next.

Not only is this site extremely easy to navigate, but there is actually a site tour available through the “About the Archive” page which clearly lays out the primary and secondary texts available on the site. It says, “The sheer amount of Whitman-related material that the Archive makes accessible can be overwhelming, especially to new users.” To combat this, the site lists the popular sections of the sites with examples and links. In this section, users can scroll down the page and quickly see what the site has to offer. This tour seems to be organized in order of importance, beginning with Whitman’s published work and leading to his letters, reviews, criticisms, and disciples before ending with an extremely comprehensive and searchable Bibliography. The Bibliography alone is a fantastic resource for researchers, as it contains over 14,000 entries, many of which are annotated.

There are also teaching resources available on the site, including sample syllabi and access to an MOOC on Whitman’s Civil War through The University of Iowa. The possibilities for teachers, students, and scholars are endless.

In short, The Walt Whitman Archive is a wonderfully useful site for Whitman scholars. It allows access to many different types of Whitman material that were previously scattered across libraries and museums worldwide. The site’s ease of use makes it simple to find and view all types of Whitman scholarship.

Work Cited

Price, Kenneth M, and Ed Folsom, editors. The Walt Whitman Archive, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, whitmanarchive.org.

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2 thoughts on “Checking out the Whitman Archive

  1. The archives accessibility can be defined in just your words, “It’s non-committal, in both money and time, so online users are free to make a determination about Whitman’s poetry and decide whether or not to keep reading.” This is problematic for the writer looking to get paid. I can’t speak to Whitman’s interpretation of open-access archives but as a writer I know that it’s annoying that I write for free! Blogging gives me viewership, yes, but does it degrade my changes of being paid for writing, or degrade the quality of it? “Casual viewers” may be a threat to some writers, but for a moment I want to divorce the modern writer from this topic. Whitman is a writer of the past and his information allows the modern reader great abilities and it strengthens education. It is true, as you said the possibilities for those involved in academics are endless because of the detailed information that is landed- more than just one version of a printed text.

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  2. Kris, I love your thoroughness! And I am happy this archive worked in your favor. I am too hypercritical of this digital archive. And I understanding that funding has been a large detriment to lack of aesthetics of its appearance. However, for such a renowned author/poet – I felt like more should have been offered.

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