Over the past few years the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and Center for eResearch, which I direct at the University of Missouri, have sought ways to leverage the IT medium in order to better understand and represent OT. Each of the three projects described below employs IT to deepen and democratize users’ experience of OT, either by recapturing the living reality of oral traditional communication or by radically broadening and networking the international community of scholars who are thinking about how OT works. The central question addressed by these projects is “How can this newest of human technologies help us promote study of the oldest (and still most widespread) communications technology?”
eOT: The Journal Oral Tradition Goes Online
On September 19, 2006 the academic journal Oral Tradition went online in an open-access, free-of-charge format with full-text search. About a year later the entire 21 years of the journal—containing 442 articles and almost 10,000 pages covering dozens of cultures—were posted to the same site. Soon a composite bibliography of every source cited over those two decades will be joining this online suite of research tools.
The motivation behind the migration from paper to web was compelling. For years we had received multiple e-mails every week requesting gratis copies of the journal, particularly from colleagues in parts of the world where financial or distributional barriers were high or even insurmountable. If OT were to fulfill its mandate of providing a truly international forum for an international field of inquiry, then we had to find a way to radically enlarge and diversify its natural constituency, including those on both sides of the exchange—that is, both readers and contributors. The online, open-access environment promised to move us toward that goal, and within two weeks of the initial launch our tracking software showed more than 5000 non-identical hits, more than a thousand pdf downloads, and readers from six continents (at last count as many from Beijing as from Chicago). Just as significantly, we have started to receive submissions from all over the world, in far more variety than was feasible while the journal was a brick-and-mortar publication.
eCompanions: Bringing OT Back to Life
Before the emergence of eOT we had already begun to move beyond paper publication by offering open-access eCompanions to the journal and to a trade paperback, How to Read an Oral Poem. These eCompanions supplement what a text can do by supplying audio, video, photography, and other resources that just don’t fit comfortably or economically (or at all) between the covers of a book. Especially for the bookless and pageless phenomenon of oral tradition, these “publication prostheses” play an essential role in the overall communication, restoring many dimensions of OT that are lost as a result of its reduction from living performance to paper. eCompanions help OT to live again, portraying the event more faithfully and creating a better informed audience.
eEditions: Resyncing the Performance
In 1935 an illiterate South Slavic oral poet, Halil Bajgorić, composed and performed a 1030-line epic later entitled The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey. The book publication of this performance includes a transcription in the original language, an English translation, a biography of Bajgorić, and several other sections that provide different sorts of context for the poem.13 It amounts, in other words, to the usual kind of text-bound edition, with all of the customary advantages and limitations.
Concurrently, we also constructed an eEdition of Bajgorić’s epic that includes all of the book-parts as downloadable static files. Far more importantly, however, it features a Performance utility whose role is to aggregate the book-partitioned parts into a single synthetic whole. In addition to the transcription and translation in opposite columns, this section offers in-text hyperlinks to the glossary and to the commentary, which can be clicked on to produce content in a box opposite the text. Instead of segregating contextual materials, the eEdition harmonizes them with the transcription and translation, placing everything “on the same page.” With the complete mp3 audio file playing, the reader/hearer/surfer is effectively scrolling through the reconstituted experience. To a degree the eEdition allows the performance to be resynced.14
OT/IT and eDemocracy
All three of these projects mirror the fundamental philosophy of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and Center for eResearch: to create learning and research instruments that take advantage of IT’s unique potential for understanding OT, and to make these instruments freely available to anyone with a browser and a connection to the Internet. Our future projects—an online bibliography and an eArchive of oral traditions, for example—will adhere to the same basic credo. Most centrally for our present purposes, however, the Pathways Project is offered as an open-access, gratis eUtility. And because it will remain expandable and updatable, it can continue to morph long after its fixed-format book-partner, Pathways of the Mind, has been published and set in (typographical) stone.