About the Deena Larsen Collection
In May of 2007, MITH received the extraordinary gift of Deena Larsen’s personal collection of early-era personal computers and software. Deena is an author and new media visionary who has been active in the creative electronic writing community since its inception in the 1980s. In addition to being a writer and thinker, Deena has also been a collector and an amateur archivist (or, as we sometimes say of amateurs, a hoarder). Collecting and hoarding, it turns out, are essential activities, since too few of our cultural institutions and repositories are yet engaged with acquiring and saving the rich and various creative legacy we have inherited from the first generation of personal computing. The arrival of Deena’s collection at MITH furnishes us with invaluable source material which will further our in-house research in digital curation and preservation, as well as function as a unique resource for the growing number of researchers interested in early hypertext and electronic literature.
The collection consists of a diverse array of hardware, electronic data, and documentary materials. As Deena writes in an autobiographical statement she submitted with the collection:
The collection therefore includes not only Deena’s own extensive literary output, but original and sometimes unpublished material by nearly every author in her circle, effectively making it a cross-section of the electronic writing community during its key formative years (roughly 1985-1995). The files contain multiple versions of Deena’s Marble Springs and other Hypercard works (some unpublished), multiple versions of her Samplers and other Storyspace works (some unpublished), multiple versions of nationally recognized poet William Dickey’s electronic works, Dickey’s student work, nationally recognized poet Stephanie Strickland’s works, M.D. Coverley's works, Kathryn Cramer’s works, If Monks had Macs, the Black Mark (a hypercard stack developed at the 1993 ACM Hypertext conference), Izme Pass, Chris Willerton’s works, Mikael And’s works (the author himself no longer has copies), Jim Rosenburg’s works, Michael Joyce and Carolyn Guyer’s works that were in progress, Stuart Moulthrop’s works, George Landow’s works and working notes, textual games from Nick Monfort, Coloring the Sky (a collaborative work from Brown in 1992-94), and Tom Trelogan’s logic game. The hardware in the collection consists of five Mac Classics, two Mac SEs, and a Mac Plus, and associated accessories; the physical media includes some 800 diskettes, as well as nearly 100 CD-ROMs and Zip disks. The collection also contains manuscripts, newspaper clippings, books, comics, manuals, notebooks, syllabi, catalogs, brochures, posters, conference proceedings, ephemera, and a shower curtain, about which more below.
To give some further sense of the collection’s unique character, it is worth describing Deena’s best-known published work, Marble Springs. Marble Springs is a fiction written in Hypercard, and published on disk by Eastgate Systems in 1993. It tells the story of a set of interwoven women’s lives in a Colorado mining town in 1870s America. This work is represented in the collection by materials as diverse as published copies of the text, versions in various states of completion and composition (some of them annotated and extended by other individuals, a practice Deena encouraged), the only hard copy manuscript of the text (titled “Old Wives’ Tales”), Deena’s MA thesis on the project, notes and correspondence related to its publication by Eastgate, a hand-made “cozy” Deena would drape over the Mac running Marble Springs during public exhibitions, and a shower curtain to which Deena had affixed laminated screenshots and connected them by colored string, to visually map the work’s system of links and relations. What immediately becomes apparent is not only the richness of the electronic composition that is Marble Springs, but in fact its complex hybrid status as a transmedia artifact, encompassing materials both analog and digital. We believe that such hybrid, transmedia works are not anomalous but in fact typical of the kind of cultural heritage libraries and repositories will have to learn to curate and archive in the years to come.
And so the collection now resides at MITH, much of it is visible in the display cases in our conference room; it is indeed a treasure trove. With its opportunities, however, also come responsibilities. All of the material Deena has given us is in significant jeopardy, since software formats and physical devices are so fragile and vulnerable to obsolescence. Developing tools and best practices with which to ensure that this data can be migrated to future platforms and systems, while also ensuring its integrity—integrity as both a digital object and as a creative artifact—will be central to our work with it in the coming years. Indeed, we expect the collection to furnish the basis for both local and more distant collaborations, ranging from students in the English department and Information School at Maryland to the handful of archives and repositories elsewhere that have also begun collecting born-digital literary material in a serious way.
All of the physical items in the collection, including each individual diskette, has been cataloged and labeled with a unique identifier, and users can consult spreadsheets as preliminary finding aids. (John Murray, Helen DeVinney, and Amanda Visconti have all contributed to this work.) We have also completed an initial pass at imaging the data on the diskettes, CDs, and Zip cartridges in the collection (thanks to Zeynep Sumer). We encourage persons who might be interested in visiting MITH to work with the Collection to contact us using our contact page.
Associate Professor of English and Associate Director,
Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
The Collection Finding Aid
- The Deena Larsen Collection's catalog of physical artifacts can be downloaded in Excel format.
The Electronic Literature Community
- Please visit the Electronic Literature Organization's website at www.eliterature.org to read more about electronic literature and the community of digital writers.
More about Deena Larsen
- The Deena Larsen Collection focuses on the history of the early electronic literature community and authorship in the early age of the internet. To find out more about Deena Larsen herself, please visit Larsen's personal website.
Larsen created the following artist's statement to accompany her 2007 gift of the collection to MITH:
Thank you MITH, for saving the world of hypertext trappers and W.ily W.ilderness W.anderers
I stumbled into the hidden wonders and unsurveyed complexities of hypertext before that term even existed, before the web was thought of. All I really wanted to do was bring the deep hidden weaving of relationships between women in a Colorado Gold Rush town to the forefront of a reader’s imagination. And I wanted to show the *links*, dammit, the *connections*. So I used a model railroad set to mock up my pioneering vision, to show the women in all of their stories and complexities. But the embroidery threads between the little houses became far too complex to decipher, and someone suggested transferring this pioneered village into the rough outdoors of HyperCard. To get computing time, I had to write my Master’s thesis on hypertext—thus interviewing all of the experts at that time (Mark Bernstein of Eastgate System, Martha Petry, Carolyn Guyer, Michael Joyce of WOE and Isme Pass and William Dickey, playing HyperCard like a master).
HyperCard was really the Lewis and Clark expedition into the realms of what would become the Web, the first foray into the wilds before the web became the fast and loose Wild West of the dying twentieth century. HyperCard on a Mac provided graphics, programmable links, multi-noded spaces in 1989, while DOS was in its textual heyday.
So I learned how to program HyperCard, and (to make a long complex saga far too short), spent five years wrestling with the beast to create a semi-shadow of my vision. HyperCard made links, graphics, and images possible. But not easily. You had to have the vision of what to link to and what the patterns could be to be able to link—somewhat like having to know exactly what you will see when you walk a path to be able to walk the path. Even in its heyday, HyperCard was a business tool, not at all prescribed for weaving complex writing patterns.
Marble Springs debuted in 1993, the year HyperCard died. I went to the ’93 Hypertext Conference, saw the world-wide-web in its infancy (and, of course, completely failed to recognize its significance), and bewailed the announcement that HyperCard would no longer be a supported Apple software. Still, it was worth it. Just being able to be in that world of Marble Springs was worth all of the writing, programming, and fiddling and re-fiddling and debugging and re-debugging. It was even worth doing Marble Springs 2.0 on an antiquated system—even though this never saw the light of day. (Editing William Dickey’s entire works after he had died in ’94 was worth it—even though translating this to something readable –and figuring out who owns copyrights now—is still on my to do list.) I mounted exhibits of Marble Springs to showcase how quickly things become antique, replete with an old braided rug and a school desk rescued from a mountain-fast one-room school.
Searching for a new tool, I spent three late fast nights with Kathryn Cramer at that ’93 conference, learning the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of StorySpace. StorySpace is/was the best of software (at last, you could see the wild vistas links and spaces and understand the whole of an interlinked text) and it was the worst of software (save early, save often, and still experience the bleak frustration as the locusts of programming bugs swarmed and devoured your work). In StorySpace, I explored the meaning of structure, the idea that the sculpting of a text could mean as much as the connections and the words (Samplers). StorySpace was the closest we ever came to an embodying of link and node, with native hypertexts roaming the landscape.
And so I joined a band of intrepid explorers. We did not form a coherent, easily identifiable community, nor yet a school of similar thoughts. Rather, there was—and is—so much to explore that all of us went our own way. Each of us, like the mountain men of the west before the Old West, carved out our own voices and their own genres. Jim Rosenberg came to the field in search of a way to present word symphonies, where each word sounds a chord of meaning into the overlaying composition. William Dickey was fascinated with the idea of searching the image for the next key to the text—and programmed almost-but not quite- linear works in HyperCard. Bill Bly wove a novel into the fragments of futuristic scholarly inquiry. John McDaid created a funhouse turned upside down.
Some writers stumbled onto our works in the wilderness and came along to create more territory—M.D. Coverly fashioned a tale of exploration (Califia) on my Marble Springs, and Diane Slattery patterned a language of glyphs and glides…so Marble Springs became a proud mother and a grandmother to many little works.
Rather than a community, we did have wild and infrequent Mountain Men Jamborees of the early hypertext writing. These were adjuncts onto the Hypertext Conferences (which were mostly concerned with developing complex tools and visions of something that was more than links, more than text, more than multi-model connections and multi-nodal interpretations). These gatherings were more to acknowledge each other’s work and to encourage writers to soldier on, to continue explorations and intrigue than to create an orderly community. I conducted writers workshops at these conferences and even online. We worked together to develop critiques—but more importantly methods of critiques—of hypertext, as well as collections of schools of epoetry, lists and groups.
And thus I have been lucky enough to receive and view texts in their infancy—during the days when we thought floppy disks would live forever. And thus I amassed this chaotic, and perhaps misinformed treasure trove that I could bequeath to those interested in finding the Old West goldmines of the early internet days. Cataloguing this massive collection was on my to-do list, and I did at one point have labels on disks that meant something. Unfortunately, the glue only lasted a few years and when I started to pack, the labels came off in a hurry. I am infinitely grateful that MITH took the time to open these before there are no computers left that will even read these files. Thank you for saving the Library of Alexandria—an entire generation of works—from the flames of time.
When I was researching Marble Springs (which started when I was about 8 and found the wonder of wonders, the Colorado State Historical Library where I spent basically every free school day from then on), I found a wonderful scrapbook of articles about the first use of cars—a mule/car accident, an angry opinion letter about the dangers of vehicles going 15 miles an hour! And I knew that the internet was going to be as transformative, as quickly. So I saved tnewspaper oddments of internet activities since 1990. Unlike the neatly organized car scrapbook compilor, I never had time to sit down and catalogue. So I am infinitely grateful to MITH for taking on that task—or at least keeping the boxes until someone wants to delve into them.
Thank you so much for ensuring that the early days of this new universe are not lost.