Annotation of complicated texts – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, experimental fiction – is a familiar concept. In 2005 I had an idea: what if I used a wiki to create such a guide? Would anyone contribute to it? Would anyone read it? Would the results be any good? Since then, hundreds of users have annotations thousands of pages of experimental fiction by the authors Thomas Pynchon and Umberto Eco, and the projects PynchonWiki and Umberto Eco Wiki.
What have we learned from these projects? What can other digital humanities and crowd-sourcing projects learn from their successes and failures? The Eco wiki project is still ongoing, but I plan to present my findings and insights at DH 2012.
When Umberto Eco’s novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, was published a few months later, I launched what I called the Queen Loana Annotation Project, a wiki organized by chapter and page.1 Eco’s novel was a perfect test case for the experiment I envisioned, a literary annotation wiki. First, Eco frequently quotes texts without attribution, which led to wiki entries like:
P. 15, ‘you always said you could resist anything but temptation’
quotation from Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde.
Second, many references in the novel were confusing to readers, making my wiki a useful resource. According to a Village Voice review at the time, ‘Early reviews have dismissed Mysterious Flame as nostalgic and at times so personal as to be impenetrable. Eco concedes he wrote it with his own generation in mind. “It’s a book for Italian people of my age”.’ Thanks to the wiki, though, readers could easily read up on all those references, with entries like this:
P. 382, ‘Rina Fort’
On November 30, 1946, a woman and her three children were found beaten to death in their apartment in Milan. In January, 1950, Caterina Fort, the lover of the woman’s husband, was condemned to life imprisonment for the murders.
Third, Eco has written dozens of books and he frequently references the same incidents, themes and ideas across them. For example:
P. 297, A rose by another other name
from Romeo & Juliet.
Eco remarked in Postscript to The Name of the Rose that everyone assumed that the title, Name of the Rose, was a reference to this same line of Juliet. Eco emphasizes, however, that he meant his title to mean the exact opposite: names are important.
This kind of entry requires more than just Googling. Only someone truly familiar with Eco’s previous works could have written it, thus adding another useful element to the wiki on par with traditional published literary analysis and commentary.
In short, the Queen Loana Annotation Project was a modest success. A couple dozen contributors from around the globe added hundreds of high-quality entries. This group of contributors, which briefly felt like a ‘community’, annotated seemingly every last historical, literary, and artistic reference in Eco’s novel. The quality of the annotations was also surprisingly good, on par with a publishable guide book.
The next year, 2006, a musician and writer named Tim Ware converted his extensive online notes on the novels of Thomas Pynchon into a wiki, which he aptly named Pynchonwiki.com. The works of Pynchon were also perfect for a literary wiki, as Pynchon’s novels teem with countless obscure references which, when analyzed, often illuminate his bigger themes and messages. I joined Pynchonwiki as one the earliest contributors (under the handle ‘Bleakhaus’) and created a section for page-by-page annotation in the manner of the Queen Loana Annotation Project. This one took off beyond the wildest expectations of a literary annotation wiki geek.
According to Ralph Schroeder and Matthijs den Besten, scholars at Oxford’s Internet Research Institute and e-Research Centre who published a paper2 on Pynchonwiki, some successes of Pynchonwiki include:
Schroeder and den Besten also concluded that:
Section for Pynchon’s other novels followed shortly at Pynchonwiki.com, and in short order there existed annotations for almost all of the thousands of pages in Pynchon’s oeuvre.
Over the next few years, I thought vaguely about how the lessons and successes of the Queen Loana Annotation Project and Pynchonwiki could be repeated. I created a site, Literarywiki.com, for my own experiments in annotating different kinds of texts. But I quickly discovered that most novels do not benefit from extensive commentary or annotation. Only certain kinds of novels, those that teem with information, references, and/or enigmas, benefited from such supplementary information. The novels of Pynchon and Umberto Eco, I came to believe, were exceptions rather than the rule.
To explore these issues in greater depth, I will launch, this coming week, the first of November, 2011, a new website named Umberto Eco Wiki, which I am creating through the support of my current employer, the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (Mannheim, Germany).3To coincide with the German- and English-language editions of Umberto Eco’s new novel, The Prague Cemetery, I will launch this wiki in the spirit of the above-named projects.
Umberto Eco Wiki has secions for German and English annotations, and I plan to explore how successful and useful such a resource in multiple languages can be.
My proposed short paper for Digital Humanities 2012 will document the history of the literary wiki as summarized above, relate the progress on the new Umberto Eco Wiki, explore issues relating to the literary wiki concept, including how its lessons can be applied to other digital humanities areas.
1.The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana Annotation Project was initially online at http://queenloana.wikispaces.com/. Later it was moved to my own Literarywiki.org, and its contents will soon be migrated to the Umberto Eco Wiki (a project of the Institut für Deutsche Sprache), at http://eco.ids-mannheim.de
2.Schroeder, R., and M. L. den Besten (2008). Literary Sleuths Online: e-Research Collaboration on the Pynchon Wiki. Information, Communication & Society 11(2): 25-45. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1086671