The Author of History in the Age of Electronic Reproduction: Hypertext and the Historian

This is Ted Nelson demonstrating Project Xanadu. Nelson first coined the phrase 'hypertext' in this article: Nelson, Theodore.H. A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Intermediate Proceedings, Association for Computing Machinery,1965.

This is my 1998 Masters thesis completed at the University of Melbourne in 1998.  This was my first serious inroads into the ‘digital humanities’ and some of the language within it now seems very dated (ie CD ROM). I was reflecting upon how I entered the digital humanities after being prompted in a stimulating article by Johanna Drucker in a book (Debates in the Digital Humanities) that I am reviewing. This was perhaps my most personally-extending work as many of the individuals in the bibliography I have since met and many have become colleagues and even friends.

I am not sure how mature my thinking was about the humanities and the digital was at the time; I was certainly a lot less mentally traveled. Still, I stand by its central concepts and I later went on to apply a prototype system to explicate the ‘history and hypertext’ thesis. And hypertext became normal to be usurped by data! I think I like hypertext better than data. I wish we has an Australian National Hypertext Service than a Australian national data service…

The objective of this thesis is to investigate critically some of the recent developments in information technology within the discipline of history. In particular, I will focus upon hypertext and how it is being used within the World Wide Web and CD-ROM (Compact Disk Read Only Memory) environments. By applying recent hypertext theory (that is both book and author centred) to the practical adaptations of historians, I hope to offer some insight on where these projects stand in relation to the book. The printed and published codex with its idea of the author has been the stalwart of humanist intellectual culture in the Western world for many centuries. Its understandings, both in a physical and intellectual sense, offer an excellent position to illuminate some of the central issues that hypertext raises for our discipline. The historical record makes clear that the most distinctive features of the printing revolution were to stabilise written culture into a canon of authored texts, to create the notion of the book as property, and to envision the author as creator. In a hypertext environment, the physical manifestation of the book and the institutions that support it do not exist; thus the framework of what we understand as an author is altered considerably. The questions that I wish to address in this thesis are: what is a hypertext history author in both the CD-ROM and World Wide Web environments or in place of the author what structure does one use to determine if hypertext can successfully communicate the knowledge of our craft? To explore these questions I have surveyed a number of web based and CD-ROM hypertext history projects that were mainly produced by professional academic historians within Australia. The development of hypertext, both technologically and as a means of communicating history, is decentralised and patchy. This is a reflection of the multiplicity of use of these new mediums, as opposed to the somewhat established authorial practices of the standardised modern book. This thesis seeks to define hypertext history authorship, discuss how this is different to a book, and hopefully in doing so, reveal some of the best practices. Will hypertext produce simplistic catalogues of empirical facts or uninterpreted primary sources, or will hypertext with its combination of image text and sound, offer the historian fresh scope for authorship? (link to .pdf)

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