Evolution and Growth in On-line Resources for Early Modern Literary Studies
Raymond G. Siemens
University of British Columbia

Siemens, Raymond G. "Evolution and Growth in On-line Resources for Early Modern Literary Studies." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 1.1-10 <URL:

  1. We live in an age which is seeing, as Paul Delany and George Landow have put it, "the most fundamental change in textual culture since Gutenberg" (5). Only three years old, this statement has gained the status of being an accepted truth. Indeed, it has quickly become commonplace in many circles to hold an understanding that the electronic medium has itself prompted the redefinition of what lies at the heart of our interests -- that is, the textual and text-related artifacts upon which the field of literary studies is built. However, what one has typically found less commonly (though with increasing frequency) is an appreciation that, in addition to the privilege we have in being spectators to this change, we are also privileged to be witnessing at the same time the transformation of academic resources this redefinition necessitates, particularly those facilitating scholarly interaction.

  2. The change of which I speak is of such a magnitude that it can be noticed by those who have not yet approached, even suspiciously, the electronic technologies that promise to reshape many aspects of scholarly interaction. That said, an understanding of its degree and rate of growth is better held by those who have actively utilised resources in the new medium for some time, for this group has had the opportunity to watch the rise of electronic scholarly resources proceed at a pace far different from the accelerated one of today.

  3. An appreciation of this can be felt in many ways, of which noting an accelerated rate of growth is just one; another way is to note the rising level of support given to such resources. Scholarly institutions and organisations often provide support via policies and initiatives, while individual academics do so through positive feedback (or the absence of negative feedback), utilisation, and involvement. To dwell briefly on one aspect of the latter, shortly after the announcement of EMLS in November 1994 we received a note addressed to the editor which expressed excitement and support for our publication; we welcomed this response, and we have since had the pleasure of further and similar correspondence. Such responses exemplify, I believe, the support which is currently being given to like-minded ventures worldwide; couple these responses with the increasing activity around sites such as EMLS, and a clearer picture comes into focus. The publication of our third issue, which marks the end of the first publishing year for EMLS, also marks the end of a calendar year in which our medium has taken the first steps towards coming into its own. Largely through the use and positive backing of resources such as ours by individual scholars -- but, quite necessarily, by the support given by individuals via the representation provided them by institutions (departments, faculties, and universities) and organisations (the MLA, quite notably, and others) -- the year has seen a considerable expansion of on-line resources related to the study of early modern English literature.

  4. In examining these new resources, as our cataloguing, monitoring, and evaluating activities urge us to do (refer to our pages listing On-line Resources and Electronic Texts), one cannot help but ask if the terms we are using to describe this change are completely accurate. Certainly the word growth addresses quite fully the increased presence and awareness of such resources, but growth describes only part of the larger reconfiguration, the expansion. A word which suits some aspects of the recent developments beyond that referring to expansion is evolution. Evolution has its failings as well as an accurate descriptor, for it does not capture fully the spirit of the medium, one originating in the early internet's chaotic organisational assumptions and manifesting itself today in our field in an atmosphere characterised by mutual support and cooperative efforts; typically, these are characteristics not often exemplified by those employing metaphors relying on Darwinian theories. But it is still a useful term, as is the other, for recent developments depict both growth and evolution.

  5. The increasing resources that facilitate scholarly interaction have been growing with an eye to the boundaries set by traditional models -- correspondence, conferences, journals, and so forth. Every so often, however, our medium allows us to challenge the boundaries of those models that are set by their media, to build upon a model of interaction or, put simply, to evolve.

  6. Between the traditional models and those in the new medium one may see correspondences: mail equals electronic mail, conferences are akin to electronic discussion groups, and journals may be equated with electronic journals. At times, however, the very nature of the electronic medium makes possible types of exchanges not allowed by the restraints of traditional media. Those familiar with electronic mail know only too well that, though an e-mail is the new medium's application of mail (from the traditional model dictated by exchanges via post), the possibilities of e-mail are far greater than those of traditional mail alone. E-mail made possible the adoption of the conference model by on-line academic discussion groups because it allowed for messages to be distributed to a large group of people with great speed and ease; it allowed written correspondence to be treated with an immediacy and a dissemination that the traditional mail model did not easily allow. If we accept this, at the same time we must also recognise that equivalent possibilities exist for other models as they are adopted into the electronic medium.

  7. The example of e-mail facilitating the on-line discussion group represents an evolution and, with the increase of participation in and support for such models of interaction, this evolution has brought about further growth. The popularity and usefulness of generally-focussed groups such as HUMANIST influenced the growth of other similar groups, though with more specific interests. In our field, SHAKSPER and FICINO (to name only two) have influenced the growth of other such groups; their success led to the emergence of others based on the same pattern of interaction and focussing on various aspects of the larger area of Renaissance studies in response to the specialised interests of the growing on-line academic community. Today, a good number of such groups exist (many of which can be found catalogued on the EMLS Academic Discussion Groups & Internet News Groups page). Their importance today as scholarly resources is only partially suggested by the name by which many have come to know them, a name which suggests also quite clearly the model they seek to emulate: Electronic Conferences. At times interrelated, and certainly with considerable overlap among their participants, they inhabit the electronic medium together, complementing one another and so serving the area as a whole much as traditional academic conferences and gatherings of groups focussed on specific issues have done for some time.

  8. So, too, is it beginning to appear today with electronic journals -- in much the way as it has been among traditional journals for some time -- and it is a pleasure to find EMLS now amidst a growing group of Renaissance-oriented journals which publish in electronic form, as well as an increasing number of non-electronic journals which have established a presence on the internet. English Literary History, of course, has been available on-line since its early association with Johns Hopkins' Project Muse, but among newer initiatives more specifically focussed on our period are the innovative Milton Review which, well-worth watching because of the way it fuses models of scholarly interaction (in addition to, of course, its content), operates in co-operation and conjunction with the Milton-L discussion group, and Renaissance Forum which promises, quite like EMLS, a concentration on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary topics, though with a strict interdisciplinary focus on historical scholarship and critical methodologies. Among non-electronic journals that are establishing an exemplary presence in the internet are Milton Quarterly, Cahiers Élisabéthains, Exemplaria, and the Sixteenth Century Journal, and others. Like the expansion of discussion groups, this proliferation in many cases is perhaps best characterised as good growth based on what is already an established model.

  9. This is not intended in the least to devalue the importance of the increasing presence of electronic journal resources; quite the contrary, in fact, for this expanding group of journals is very good company, indeed! But, that said, we should in our enthusiasm be willing to recognise the difference between growth and evolution and, as both are quite positive, we should revel in and appreciate each for what it is. The recent growth in the areas of on-line journals is indicative of an increasing knowledge of the technology's adequacy (as well as its cost-effectiveness) for scholarly publication, of a greater recognition by individuals, universities, and professional organisations of work published in the medium and, ultimately, of the growing body of scholars who are making profitable use of such resources. Because of such involvement and acceptance, this particular model of interaction will have the opportunity to evolve.

  10. We at EMLS are happy to have had the chance to be part of the smaller community of electronic resource providers that existed at the time of our announcement in late 1994; now, just a year later, we are pleased to have been of use to the nine thousand or so individual readers who have visited the pages of EMLS. Having been the first electronic journal exclusively to serve our area, we are now even more excited to have the opportunity to serve the early modern period along with others, so we may together promote the evolution of a model in what appears to be its first period of rapid growth.


Works Cited

[http://asgard.humn.arts.ualberta.ca/emls/EMLS footer.html]

(RGS, rev. 28 February 1998)