The Walt Whitman Archive

Alyson Neuberger



The Walt Whitman Archive began in 1995 under the present directors Kenneth M. Price, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Ed Folsom, University of Iowa. The project’s aim is to serve as a research collection, providing online access to Whitman’s work, as well as manuscripts, letters, biographies and photographs. Such an in-depth resource could not function without several tools of technology that work together to make Whitman’s work available online in a way that is informative and useful to scholars. In this paper, I will highlight a few of these tools and how they have been adapted to support The Walt Whitman Archive.

The Walt Whitman Archive is an electronic scholarly edition that strives to make Whitman’s vast body of work available online. There are several advantages to an electronic scholarly edition; one being that the edition is not limited to publishing only what can be presented on paper. The edition can be made richer by the addition of photographs, audio and video, along side the text of the edition. With a final print edition, the reader sees a “final” version of what the author may have envisioned. However, authors (particularly Walt Whitman) made numerous versions of one text. Each of these versions can differ greatly from each other, making a “final” version of writing more difficult to conceive. One of the main focuses of The Walt Whitman Archive is to make multiple versions of manuscripts available for scholars to compare in order for them to gain a better understanding of the process the author went through in writing the work.

Kenneth Price points out that a scholarly edition is not merely a digitalization of manuscripts. Whereas archiving typically involves the act of preservation, digitally archiving involves a fair amount of editing to evaluate the information and how it is presented. Price explains:
By scholarly edition, I mean the establishment of a text on explicitly stated principles and by someone with specialized knowledge about textual scholarship and the writer or writers involved. An edition is scholarly both because of the rigor with which the text is reproduced or altered and because of the expertise brought to bear on the task and in the offering of suitable introductions, notes, and textual apparatus. Mere digitizing produces information; in contrast, scholarly editing produces knowledge.[1]

Providing photographs for The Walt Whitman Archive is an especially important piece to Walt Whitman scholarship because of the importance that Whitman placed on photographs of himself. Each photo is dated (if available) and lists the place the photo was taken and the photographer (if known). Especially useful are extensive notes available for almost every image that recounts Whitman’s comments on the photo and cites sources from which these comments came from.

The Walt Whitman Archive makes extensive use of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) to encode finding aids to Whitman’s manuscripts and photographs. Daniel Pitti, a librarian at the University of California, Berkley, developed EAD in 1993 as an XML standard for encoding archival finding aids, similar to how MARC standards are used to describe book records.[2] Alex Thurman, cataloguer at Columbia University, describes EAD as:
[enabling] the encoding of archival finding aids into records that are platform-independent, machine-readable, and fully searchable,
helping to standardize archival descriptive practices while increasing our progress toward union access to archival materials.[3]

EAD is unique to the digital environment and is the result of the need for researchers to access archival materials digitally when the actual object may not be availableto them. In 2006, the Society for American Archivists awarded The Walt Whitman Archive’s “Integrated Finding Guide to Whitman’s Poetry Manuscripts” with the C. F. W. Coker Award, recognizing the implementation of EAD and its use in a scholarly project. The development of an EAD finding aid was crucial to The Walt Whitman Archive because of the nature of Whitman’s writing habits. He constantly revised poems and left behind many manuscripts of a single poem.

The Walt Whitman Archive’s goal was to create a single access point to all editions of the manuscripts to better aid scholars who might want to study the development of Whitman’s writing. EAD was also particularly important to the poetry manuscripts because Whitman commonly left his poems untitled, making searching and describing the objects by a unifying title difficult, if not impossible. Producers of the project summarize their vision using EAD as:
Our ultimate goal for the manuscript section of the Archive is to provide end users with crisp color images of manuscripts, reliable transcriptions encoded so as to facilitate scholarly analysis, and online union access through EAD to repository holdings, complete with links among these images, transcriptions, and descriptions.[4]

The Walt Whitman Archive also makes extensive use of text-encoding initiative (TEI). TEI was developed in 1987 when a group of humanities scholars, computer specialists and librarians met at Vasser College and established nine Poughkeepsie Principles that eventually became standards (TEI) for encoding texts for a digital environment. The purpose of establishing these standards was to create greater universal access to electronic texts.[5] Brett Barney, one of the encoders of The Walt Whitman Archive recounts that using TEI to encode Whitman’s texts was a challenge because the “text” is sometimes hard to locate. The Walt Whitman Archive focuses not only on final texts, but shorthand manuscripts, making a definite text hard to locate.[6] The difficulty Barney faced here is an example of how TEI is still evolving to meet the needs of the digital community.

Another useful way that The Walt Whitman Archive uses TEI is in preparing Spanish translations of the editions that it collects. Matt Cohen, English professor at the University of Texas-Austin, assisted with a Spanish translation of Walt Whitman’s poetry for The Walt Whitman Archive. He explains that TEI is pivotal to revealing the structure of a poem, which makes the poem more effective in translation. Also, even though Whitman often went through several manuscripts of poetry, the structures of each poem remains the same. This consistency makes the spatial lay out of the poems significant. The Electronic Text Center and the University of Nebraska has developed a software program called TokenX. TokenX breaks down word files into statistics such as word frequency, word context, and punctuation marks.[7] When translating a poem into Spanish, these things are especially important to know in order to convey the full poetic structure and effect of the poem.

The Walt Whitman Archive has attempted to provide a comprehensive collection that includes Whitman’s work and information about the writer. Bringing this information into a digital environment has expanded its accessibility and use. Tools like TokenX have allowed for different ways to view the works. Developments in EAD have opened up accessibility to archival objects. The Walt Whitman Archive shows the complexities of presenting scholarly work in a digital environment, but also exhibits the potential to view texts in a different form and gain different insights from them.

Works Cited


Barney, Brett; Mary Ducey, Andrew Jewell, Kenneth Price, Brian Zillig and Katherine Walter. “Ordering Chaos: An Integrated Guide and Online Archive of Walt Whitman’s Poetry Manuscripts.Literary and Linguistic Computing 20 (2005): 205-217.
Cantara, Linda. “The Text-Encoding Initiative: Part I.OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library 21 (2005): 36-39.
Cohen, Matt. “Transgenic Deformation: Literary Translation and the Digital Archive,http://whitmanarchive.org/about/articles/anc.00165.html.
Pitti, Daniel. “Creator Description: Encoded Archival Context.Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 38 (2004): 201-226.
Price, Kenneth M. “Electronic Scholarly Editions.” in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies,edited by Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens, Chapter 24. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Thurman, Alexander. “Metadata Standards for Archival Control: An Introduction to EAD and EAC.Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 40 (2005): 183-212.


[1] Kenneth M. Price, “Electronic Scholarly Editions,” in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies,ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), Chapter 24.
[2] Daniel Pitti, “Creator Description: Encoded Archival Context,Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 38 (2004): 203.
[3] Alexander Thurman, “Metadata Standards for Archival Control: An Introduction to EAD and EAC,Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 40 (2005): 184.
[4] Brett Barney et al., “Ordering Chaos: An Integrated Guide and Online Archive of Walt Whitman’s Poetry Manuscripts,Literary and Linguistic Computing 20 (2005): 212.
[5] Linda Cantara, “The Text-Encoding Initiative: Part I,OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library 21 (2005): 38
[6] Brett Barney, “ ‘Each Part and Tag of Me is a Miracle’: Reflections after Tagging the 1867 Leaves of Grass” (paper presented at the Joint International Conference of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, 2001.)
[7] Matt Cohen, “Transgenic Deformation: Literary Translation and the Digital Archive,http://whitmanarchive.org/about/articles/anc.00165.html.