History in Hypertext

Edward L. Ayers

University of Virginia

© Edward L. Ayers All Rights Reserved, 1999

Vannevar Bush, a skilled engineer and administrator, had served as the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development throughout the second world war. At its end he sought an uplifting purpose for the nationís scientists. New tools had recently appeared, the Atlantic Monthly explained in its introduction to an article Bush published in 1945, which promised to "give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. The perfection of these pacific instruments should be the first objective of our scientists as they emerge from their war work. Like Emerson's famous address of 1837 on ĎThe American Scholar,í this paper by Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowled ge." The essay, "As We May Think," was indeed Emersonian in its sense of optimism, ambition, and near mysticism. Remarkably, it used the writing of history to suggest the possibilities of the future.

Bush saw great promise in photography and microfilm as "pacific instruments" and he foresaw the role of the copying machine and the fax as well as the revolution in numerical computing. But he reserved his excitement for something broader than any specific machinery. The human mind, Bush observed, "operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain." Bush marveled that "the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature." He wondered whether we could make a machine that worked that way, that could remember the evanescent trails and weave them into lasting patterns.

He described a machine he called the "memex," a wonderful imaginary device of glass, steel, and microfilm, levers, screens, and reels. Bush turned to history to suggest why we needed such a thing:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozensof possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds and interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected, Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outranged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Today, of course, we have something much like the memex, albeit digital rather than photographic and far more powerful and interconnected than the personal device Bush imagined.

The writing of history, however, now seems far removed from the center of the action. There at the founding, we have since been forgotten; none of the proliferating books by theorists of the new media even mention our discipline. One commentator does note, however, that "Every expressive medium has its own unique patterns of desire; its own way of giving pleasure, of creating beauty, of capturing what we feel to be true about life; its own aesthetic." Might, as Bush suggested, historyís "patterns of desire" be especially enhanced by the capabilities of new machines? Might history, which exists in symbiosis with large amounts of diverse evidence, be especially well-suited for the technology evolving around us? To find out, we need two things: materials to explore and adequate ways to convey what we find.

To help meet the first demand, for the last several years a team at the University of Virginia has been building the Valley of the Shadow Project, a large digital archive about two communities before, during, and after the American Civil War. The Valley Project has been designed to explore some the fundamental tensions of history: difference and similarity, before and after, event and structure, change and continuity, ambiguity and clarity, contingency and certainty. The archive offers things machines offer: mass, multiplicity, speed, reiteration, reflexivity, and precision. It gives us a great deal of material to think about and powerful tools to think with. It lets us take sources apart and put them together in new patterns. It suggests that even isolated and inert pieces of evidence--a list, a letter, a map, a picture--can assume new and unimagined meanings when placed in juxtaposition with other fragments.

Such digital archives have already proven themselves good for teaching history. The computer provides a powerful environment for thinking more rigorously, revealing patterns we simply could not see before. The machine is equally felicitous with numbers and words and images, across time or space, in political, cultural, or social history. Students working with large but finite bodies of evidence experiment with various perspectives and questions. The computer amplifies studentsí critical abilities, allowing them to refine their questions and quickly follow up with new ones. It permits them to build archives and interpretations of their own and share them with others far beyond their own classroom. It embodies, in short, part of what Vannevar Bush imagined.

We are also doing our best to translate the possibilities of the archive into accessible forms. A CD-ROM published in conjunction with W. W. Norton provides more shape and direction to the archive than the rather austere website offers. The CD is built around an interactive "album" that organizes the story in thematic and chronological spaces, providing launching points into the archive and using multimedia as effectively as we can. The illustrated book that accompanies the CD tells the story of the coming of the Civil War on the national level, weaving the two counties into that larger drama. It will be followed by another CD on the years of the war itself. Meanwhile, a larger book will relate as fully as possible the experiences of the two counties throughout the war, using the digital archive as the fundamental resource but not calling attention to that fact. Digital history, we hope to show, need not undermine our traditional purposes and can serve as the basis for compelling narrative history of the kind that has long served our needs.

That said, I cannot help but think about what might come next. Might there be a way, using the electronic environment, to create forms of narrative and analysis that take fuller advantage of the digital archive? Everyone knows the past was wonderfully complex, but seeing the complexity of even a small slice of the past displayed before us can be discomfiting. Historians tend to forget the choices and compromises we make as we winnow evidence through finer and finer grids of notetaking, narrative, and analysis; we suppress detail as the abstracted patterns take on a fixity of their own. A digital archive, by contrast, reminds us every time we look at it of the connections we are not making, of the simultaneity and reflexivity as well as the linearity of the past. May we now be able to, need to, write a new kind of history, a history that can be arrayed and understood in multiple sequences and layers, a history that involves and rewards more engagement on the part of the reader than a book requires or permits? We might call that history, for convenience, "hypertextual," since it would involve linked text in a manipulable electronic environment. Better, less awkward, names may evolve along with the genre.

Many challenges confront anyone who would try to write such a history. Historians, for one thing, are the most epistemologically and methodologically conservative of academics, adhering to styles of research and writing that have changed relatively little since professional history was born. We have little jargon (or precise disciplinary language, if you prefer) and few models that extend very far beyond a particular place, time, or subfield. All we insist upon is a plausible fit between evidence and argument or narrative. Fortunately, the digital archive emphasizes the centrality of evidence and thus presents no challenge to the central demand of the profession. Digital history excels in presenting evidence, enormous amounts of it. Moreover, it enables the visitor not only to see the evidence but to manipulate it, to ask questions of it, to turn it in different angles.

Our profession also believes, however, that evidence must be filtered, suppressed, and massaged to become "history." As a recent essay in History and Theory argued with great spirit, "it cannot be too strongly emphasized that whatever form historiography may take, whether predominantly narrative or something else, it is not and cannot be purely a mimesis, description, or picture in words. History is above all and in its essential character a work of thought and of analysis and of synthesis. . . . Its purpose has never been to produce a verbal copy, simulacrum, or literal recapitulation of the past, a task which would be otiose and stupid if it were not an impossibility."

Such bracing pronouncements can lead us to pull up too short, to ask less of our discipline than it may be capable of. One may not have to be otiose to wonder if the inclusivity, complexity, and precision afforded by a digital archive make problems for the coherence and generalization of traditional writing. But the pronouncement is useful for helping us acknowledge that historians will need to be just as disciplined and self-conscious in hypertextual history as before. We will be writing in an environment of plenitude, which could easily become an environment of excess without the greatest self-discipline. As a first act of asceticism, let us set aside the (remarkably exciting) hypermedia possibilities of the new media for our current discussion. What we imagine from here on out will concern words alone: no images, no sound. If those of us interested in the potential of digital technologies are going to penetrate to the heart of our professionís traditional and well-entrenched concerns, purposes, and prestige, we must be able to enhance our ability to construct purely verbal narratives and analysis. The unadorned word lies at the heart of our discipline.

Fortunately, we have long known how to deal with complex forms of words on paper. The footnote, the table of contents, the index, and the acknowledgements page augment our conventional texts. We have also grown comfortable with words in databases, the sort of thing we see in our university on-line catalogs. They are multirelational, with connections within each database and across many of them. And those connections can be immediately reconfigured. The Valley archive translates these capabilities to history by combining dozens of databases, encouraging us to understand a piece of information in its various meanings as a part of various systems. A line from a census means one thing in relation to a family, something else in relation to patterns of gender, something else in terms of neighborhood, and something else in terms of class stratification. People of all ages have no difficulty understanding this, so far as we can tell. As Vannevar Bush suggested, itís how we think.

But we also think in sequential patterns we call stories. Humans, presented with pieces of information about people, put things into the form of a story. They need not be simple stories, for we know how to deal with unexplained lapses of time, flashbacks, and overlapping narratives. We know how to imagine, infer, things happening at the same time in different places. Film and television train all of us at early ages to weave strands of narrative out of intentional (if carefully constructed) confusion and to take pleasure in that weaving. Stories in which everything is spelled out now seem simplistic, as literal and as limited as a Norman Rockwell painting. History may be the only narrative art in which that kind of simplicity, that apparent transparency, is valued.

In fiction, certainly, the more complex the narrative form the more it is esteemed by serious readers. Historians can see themselves, for example, in William Faulknerís, Absalom, Absalom!, for that novelís richly layered textures evoke the way we make history out of memory, document, and supposition. Quentin works with Shreve to follow trails of association in that cold New England dormitory room, tracing back over the stories to see where they might branch into another story, where they might connect, what the lack of connection might mean. Historians of other times and places get the same satisfaction from Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, or Toni Morrison, the same sense of participating in the making of a story rather than watching it unfold like a pageant before us. Many people prefer John Grisham, of course, but they recognize the relative simplicity of those books in relation to what is considered "literature."

If we judge from other forms of narrative, then, hypertextual history need not displace older kinds of history writing. We need, in fact, to abandon the language of displacement and substitute a language of enhancement, addition, and combination. Books are not going away any time soon, nor should we want them to. We might abandon, too, the language of purposeful obfuscation and disorientation that some theorists and practitioners of literary hypertext have adopted. Early books on the subject gloried in the postmodern possibilities of disjuncture and lack of closure, but more recent accounts emphasize the commonalities between narratives on paper and film and those emerging on the computer screen. Just as books contain multirelational text so do computers convey so-called linear text.

Historians are already adapting to the electronic environment without much trouble. Studies show that a considerable majority of us use computers for our research and teaching. Moreover, the president of the American Historical Association and leading historian of the book, Robert Darnton, has recently issued a call for using digital media to revive the monograph. He, along with other important allies in the world of publishing, learned societies, and foundations, has launched a program to make that happen. Darnton believes that we have already lived through three distinct phases of electronic publishing: "an initial phase of utopian enthusiasm, a period of disillusionment, and a new tendency toward pragmatism." Ironically, Darntonís pragmatism sounds a lot like Vannevarís Bushís utopianism: "Anyone who has done long stints of original research knows the feeling: If only my reader could have a look inside this dossier, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could pursue that trail through the archives, despite the detour from my central argument. If only I could show how themes interweave through diverse bodies of documents, even though the patterns extend beyond the bounds of my narrative."

To bring that feeling into reality, Darnton envisions an electronic book in layers: "The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation . . . . A fourth layer might be historiographical . . . . A fifth layer could be pedagogic. . . . And a sixth layer could contain readersí reports, exchanges between author and editor, and letters from readers. . . . ." Darntonís vision, while exciting, is more archival than hypertextual. It elaborates upon the traditional book but does not change the central narrative. That is probably for the best right now, certainly for someone involved in complex institution building, and the project he describes will certainly be exciting--and will keep any author busy for a long time.

In the superheated technological environment in which we live, however, we also need to be thinking ahead. In some ways, the World Wide Web has set hypertext back. Though it has created an astounding global network, its language, html (hypertextmarkup language), is limited to the simplest kind of linking: one-to-one and static. It has led people to assume that the current limitations of the medium are its intrinsic properties. But html is already being replaced by more fluent languages that will soon provide a richer environment in which to work. The physical components--the machines and the networks--are improving at a remarkable rate. Even the light, portable, and precise reading surfaces we need are likely to be here by the time we can create much history worth reading. In fact, if we can define the tools historians need programmers can probably create them. But only historians can define what we need. Only we can think of how to share the excitement of discovery and connection, the longing that Bush and Darnton evoked.

That longing to convey historyís "patterns of desire" is both analytical and aesthetic. Letís deal with the analytical first. Hypertextual history promises to be a tool that lets us think more rigorously. We might be able to imagine ways to write that let us deal more effectively with multiple sequences, multiple voices, multiple outcomes, multiple implications. As Robert Coover has pointed out, "there is a tension in narrative, as in life, between the sensation of time as a linear experience, one thing following sequentially (causally or not) upon another, and time as a patterning of interrelated experiences reflected upon as though it had a geography and could be mapped." Time and space seem incapable of occupying the same linear narrative space. Historians either have to hold our temporal breath while we look around or ignore the changing social landscape as we push ahead in time.

Older forms of history talked about only a few people and followed them across time, much in the form of a story. The first generations of social history arrayed themselves against such narratives and instead talked about social structures such as wealth distributions or residential patterns. We still struggle to combine those two impulses. Both kinds of history have obvious strengths but equally obvious limitations. Historiansí traditional fixation on simple linear narratives, Hayden White explains, "arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origins in wishes, daydreams, reveries." Real events have more complicated shapes than the simple arcs we display, more beginnings and endings than we give them. But the structures described by the now old "new social history" are scarcely more realistic. It has become increasingly clear that such flat and abstracted ways of describing social life are inadequate, that satisfying explanations must be dynamic, interactive, reflexive, and subtle.

Might we be able to combine structure and flow, space and time, if we had a more complex space in which to work? Perhaps hypertextual history could let us express what we already know to be true but cannot contain in our current forms. For example, the Valley Project, built of hundreds of thousands of discrete parts, resolves into the impression of systems, pieces of systems, nodes within larger systems, the meeting of internal systems and external systems. Newspapers, political parties, and economies in the anonymous counties of the Valley Project appear as parts of larger wholes, larger systems. Systems are, by their very nature, dynamic, subject to and sensitive to events within and beyond themselves. Systems seem just coherent enough as ways of imagining social relations, comprehensible without so easily slipping into the reification that constantly threatens when we speak of structures or the imprecision and teleology that loom when we talk of processes. A focus on systems would let us better wrestle with just what we mean when we say one thing or another "caused" the Civil War, if only by making us more conscious of what weíre assuming and what weíre trying to say. It would lead us to reflect on the relative importance of public and private spheres, on national, state, and local power, on manifest and latent histories. By allowing us to hold our analysis in suspension, as it were, keeping multiple lines of evidence and argument in play, a focus on systems might not merely complicate our understanding but also refine it.

What might a verbal description of those systems look like? We can imagine the maps that could be drawn, the charts and tables that might be created, but conveying them in words seems more challenging. Maybe this is a place hypertextual history could help. Each system could be described on its own terms, much as in a conventional book. There would be a compelling account of the party system, the economic system, the system of racial control, and so on. A reader could follow one account start to finish and then follow the next one. But perhaps the reader could also click on a button that reads "time" and the various narratives would appear in a series of columns aligned by date. Where the systems touched, the reader might see connecting text telling us how Irish immigration, say, and the dissolution of the Whig Party and the hard times in cities intersected in the mid-1850s. Or perhaps the reader would supply that connection herself when she saw the juxtaposition; all the interesting juxtapositions could not be anticipated by the author. Conversely, a reader might prefer to read an integrated narrative that wove those things together in the first place. But then she might touch the "structure" button and see the parts of the story separate into separate, elaborated, strands. The point would be to embody complexity as well as describe it, to permit the reader some say in how history is conveyed, to create new spaces for exploration.

Aesthetic possibilities accompany the analytical possibilities of hypertextual history. Such a history would share something with poetry. "The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible," Jerome McGann tells us, "--literally, to put the resources of the medium on full display, to exhibit the processes of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which they are." This is also what hypertext does. Its form calls attention to itself in a way that conventional writing does not. Some hypertextual history, as a result, could be associative and poetic even as others are especially analytical and utilitarian.

In the Valley Project, for example, one often gets the sort of rush that Bush and Darnton describe, that shock that comes from the juxtaposition and connection of the unexpected. To search for a marriage record and come upon a death of a child, to see the heartbreaking ways in which soldiersí letters use the word "home" arrayed one after another, to juxtapose confident predictions of victory from both sides--all partake of poetry as much as analysis, of association as well as explanation. Yet they tell us something worth knowing about these times and places. And they are created unpredictably, on the fly, in a continuous form of spontaneous poetry. A carefully constructed text could invoke those associations intentionally and to great effect, weaving together source and connection in new ways.

Make no mistake: writing such works will be hard. We will have to devise new ways of making arguments and associations, of arraying evidence and documenting our assertions. We will have to think about ways to build layered or branching or interweaving narratives, or deep and dynamic annotation and indexing. We will need to think about the choice between internally complex narratives that are bounded and fixed even as we think about narratives embedded in networks that therefore grow and change. We will need to think about a new aesthetics of historical narrative. We will need to think about the distinctions between reading history and doing history, about the locus of authority.

If we can come up with some workable responses to these challenges--and that can probably only be done by actually trying it--hypertextual history might grow into the most sophisticated form of historical narrative. In that form, it might bond analysis and evidence in rigorous ways impossible on a printed page. Or it could come to resemble high modernist fiction, glorying in complexity and connection. In either form, hypertextual history might offer a richer history than our older technologies have permitted, allowing us to embrace complexity in ways we have longed for. That seems as interesting a challenge now as it did to Vannevar Bush half a century ago--and perhaps a bit closer to realization.