In the last month or so, I’ve taken some initial steps on a new set of research questions: how do libraries develop, preserve, and provide access to collections of electronic literature? At present, I’m approaching this issue from both a historical perspective and by considering current efforts to collect contemporary works of e-lit.
From the historical perspective, I’m looking at how libraries collected the corpus of titles published by Eastgate Systems, a prominent purveyor of literary hypertext works written in the Storyspace authoring environment. Eastgate published about 40 titles over the 90s and early 2000s on floppy disk, CD-ROM, and USB drive, including the hugely influential Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson. I’ll have more on this project, which is a bit further along, in a future post, but essentially I’ve been working with a graduate student to conduct a ‘census’ of every Eastgate title currently available (in some way, shape, or form) in a library collection.
How I’m approaching the research on current collecting efforts, though, is far more nascent. While we’ve been able to identify over a thousand copies of works published by Eastgate in libraries all over the world, there is scant evidence of libraries collecting works by more recent publishers of comparable sorts of e-lit. A query in FirstSearch (an interface to OCLC’s WorldCat database) for the publisher “Choice of Games” only returns one relevant result: The Road to Canterbury by Kate Heartfield (not listed as the author in the catalog record — cataloging for e-lit has a lot of issues as I’ll also discuss in a future post), though even this work does not appear to be held by library.
As a publisher, Choice of Games has released over a hundred works of choice-based narrative games with a literary bent, several of which have been recognized with Nebula award nominations. Basically, if these works had been released on CD-ROMs in the 90s, they’d be all over library collections. So why are libraries not collecting these works now?
I’m still early on in this research, though I’ve got some initial reflections based on efforts I’ve made to start a circulating collection of contemporary e-lit here at UNCG. The major stumbling block is that there is no physical media release for these titles. Libraries were able to collect CD-ROMs through basically the same acquisition workflows as books, and were (with some exceptions) able to circulate these titles like books, too. CD-ROMs pose some significant preservation challenges, which I’ll talk about in another post, but they work well enough for a good amount of time!
Libraries have adjusted to this shift away from physical media for other types of content like movies and music by buying into subscription services and licensing agreements with distributors. Given the niche audience for e-lit and narrative games, there’s no equivalent distributor for these types of works. In my initial conversations with a couple publishers, they either have no existing model for licensing directly to libraries, or it’s not worth the hassle to keep updating standalone builds of e-lit works so that they can continue to function on a library’s server. The library is also wary of committing to collecting a boutique piece of software that they can’t guarantee will work for too long.
Rather than licensing games directly to the library, the publishers I’ve talked to have preferred that the library acquire titles from Steam, a massive online gaming platform that’s great for individual users but not well suited for providing licensed institutional access. UNCG has collected a few titles on Steam, but these are tied to a dedicated library account and machine. This is not ideal for works that are already shared and played over networked systems. A library could provide access to e-lit works like e-books — someone clicks a link from the library catalog to bring up a reader/player embedded in their web browser — but there is no straightforward way to do this in the current ecosystem.
Of course, many libraries, including UNCG, have collected video games, and there is more I need to learn from digging into that literature. In my initial research, these collecting efforts face similar challenges to the e-lit/narrative games I’m interested in collecting, with licensing and access issues escalating as the gaming industry at large has shifted models from predominantly physical media releases to digital-only distribution.1
This is a lot of effort to put into collecting works that are readily available online for $10-15 on the high end. Libraries have a long history of collecting ‘popular’ materials like genre fiction or comics and graphic novels, none of which are typically expensive as individual consumer products. While many library users could afford to purchase one or some of these works, there is a power and potential in amassing a collection of these works in one place. The library isn’t just a place to read books for free, but a place to discover works you might not have encountered otherwise, a collection that catalyzes a string of engagements with one work to the next.
I’m also interested in exploring how a collection of current e-lit works might provide a foundation for event programming and workshops: group playthroughs, game clubs, workshops for creating your own games with open-source authoring tools. The library can use its collection to promote creation of new works and the exchange of ideas about works in the collection. This isn’t anything new, since libraries have been doing this forever with print culture; but how libraries accomplish this for digital culture is still developing.
- Diane Robson, Catherine Sassen, and Allyson Rodriguez, “Advances in Academic Video Game Collections,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 46, no. 6 (November 1, 2020): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102233.