World Wide Humanities?


R. Allen Shoaf 
(from CLASNOTES [June, 1999], the Newsletter of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the University of Florida)

    My comments require a bit of background. I've been working for over nine years now on an edition of a relatively minor but still important work of Middle English prose dating from the 1380s, entitled The Testament of Love, written by Thomas Usk, a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer. For the past five years, I have been employing the World Wide Web in my work on this edition: in June, 1998, the edition appeared in print and on the WWW at the same time; and this June, I will finish the project by launching my translation of The Testament on the WWW. I would like to share with you some of the conclusions and realizations I've reached during this long period of work.
    First and foremost, I believe the WWW is full of promise for the Humanities, especially the study of literature of the far past, access to which has always been problematic. A text on the web is, above all, accessible. However merely obvious this may sound, it is nonetheless of inestimable importance. That text is accessible in, say, New Zealand, in Switzerland, in California, in Iceland, equally and at the same time. A print edition of this text might cost $150 and be as a result beyond the means of someone in one of these places, especially if s/he lives 50 miles from a research library; but if this text is on-line on the WWW, anyone can access it, no matter how impecunious s/he may be or how far from the library s/he may live.
    The wonder of such accessibility, though great, is chastened when we realize that something happened to those $150—they did not get spent, and credit for producing that text does not, as a result, cycle through the normal (and normative?) channels. And yet, surely, someone paid for the text, and in more senses than one.
    Here's the rub. Who paid? Who gets the credit? Who controls the dissemination of this information? Behind these questions lie some others that are, perhaps, troubling in their implications. They are questions that have to do with the definition of academic institutions and with the ways in which such institutions distribute rewards and awards. Inevitably, I predict, they will be questions also involving such very fundamental notions as tenure and teaching. For what the WWW does is submit to interrogation the ownership of information.
    If the series editor, the publisher, and I all agree to launch my edition of The Testament of Love in its entirety on the WWW, at the same time as we print it in a traditional bound volume, have we not violated an elementary business practice? Have we not effectively eliminated the demand for the print version of our product? You "own" our product simply by opening it in a WWW browser. And, as anyone who has researched, taught, or conversed on the WWW readily knows, the text on the WWW is preferable for most of your needs to the print version: it can be searched, copied, and otherwise manipulated for many critical purposes. The question, then, really boils down to this: who pays for your "ownership"?
    At no other time in my career as a professor of English literature has any question emerged so starkly in its irrefutable relevance. For it is not, as we have seen, just one question but a host of questions. Would I get tenure for publishing the results of my labor on the WWW? Would I get promoted? Would I compete successfully for external grants? Would graduate students elect to work with me? Will, to turn to darker questions, my work be plagiarized? Or, to quip in a darkly humorous way, will people browsing the WWW at 3 AM mistake The Testament of Love for pornography?
    We are on the cusp of the greatest technological revolution since the printing press—such a statement is now commonplace, of course. But, even so, scores of questions still need to be answered and perhaps just as many need to be asked that we haven't formulated yet. As a teacher of Medieval literature, a field in which editions regularly do cost $150, I think I can safely say that if we do not address these questions—both those already asked and those not yet asked—we who profess the Humanities may find ourselves even more marginal than many now moan that we are. Literature takes many forms, comes in many styles, but without accessibility, literature is at risk. We must answer the question, who pays?, and answer it soon, or resign ourselves to a wide world of video games and bomb recipes—hardly humane creations, much less creations of the Humanities.