Starting a Community

About two weeks ago I met with a few folks from the Institute for the Future of the Book to talk about starting collaborative communities. Right before our meeting I had a couple of ideas about creating commentary space within the archive search results and making the whole thing more editable by readers. So I went to the Institute's place in Williamsburg thinking we'd have two "separate" discussions about community and interactive functionality. But once the brainstorming session got going I was struck by how intimately the two were bound together.

One of the recurring points was that this archive, as currently constructed around the church motif, is "my reading" of Proust. I began to see that it would probably be difficult to interest others in participating when their readings of the Recherche -- re: gender, airplanes, phenomenology or whatever -- would have little impact on the archive itself. There was also a sense that it would be difficult to form a community around a project that an individual has already brought to a fair level of completion.

Most literary digital archives provide scholars with material but go no further. The value here would lie in taking the next step of providing commentary space within the search results themselves -- not just in the blog and discussion board spaces. The ability of readers to add images, tag passages, or even add new passages would take that principle even further and make the archive itself a collaborative reading of the Recherche. And of course making the commentary searchable would add yet another dimension.

But why bother? What purpose(s) does this archive serve? What would it contribute to the field of literary scholarship?

Put plainly, The Archive has changed. The traditional model of humanities research commonly identified as 'the lone scholar in the archive' has been opened by digital networks and social software. This has been the case for years, especially since blogs and wikis became popular. Yet scholarly blogs tend overwhelmingly to be individuals' personal web journals, which means that the model of the lone writer -- despite post comments -- still persists. That's not a bad thing, and I'm not saying it should go away, but neither is it an effective use of the advantages offered by the technology.

The distributed, long-term conversation that has been happening in articles, books, conferences, and classrooms over the years will continue, of course, and it should. But social software allows us to publish at will, to communicate with similarly interested scholars wherever they are, whenever we like, and thereby to generate and hone ideas collaboratively as they are being developed.

A couple of interesting experiments along this line have been tried by Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at NYU who has been collaborating with the Institute for the Future of the Book. He put up a blog where his book on the history of atheism, Without Gods, was discussed, challenged, corrected, and questioned by readers during the composition process. Similarly, he put up a paper designed as a discussion: The Holy of Holies features a more effective commentary space, developed by the Institute, that ties comments to specific paragraphs. I could see working something like that into the search results of this archive. There was word, too, of making that comment functionality a WordPress plugin, which would be very useful for a number of projects.

This archive could take some lessons from the collaboration of Mitchell, his readers, and the Institute. I envision the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive as a more open-ended work of collaborative literary criticism, one that has the purpose of thinking and writing about Proust for its own sake, of developing ideas in conversation, but also as a space for spawning other projects. That is to say, blog members need not write about Proust and churches, but as long as there's some focus on Proust or other related topics such as technology, media, publishing, theory, and so on, it could have that eclectic interest but guided by a common thread. And one of the possibilities could be that people working on books or articles might develop them collaboratively at the archive.

That suggests to me that the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive could instead become something with a broader focus, where people can enter and tag passages, images, and other media to influence the structure of the archive with their own readings. The issue of copyright (I had to pay for the use of the text featured here) is a can of worms I don't have space to address in this post. Regardless, the amount of development required to expand this archive as mentioned would likely necessitate substantial funding. So probably a preliminary group would need to figure out what needs to be done in order to apply for a grant and then take it from there.

But the point is that if this is to become a useful resource where people think and also learn by doing, it will have to become editable by readers in some form or other, and by that very admission I can't determine it all by myself.

So, this is a preliminary step to see what kind of feedback is out there. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, suggestions or criticisms. And I would especially like to thank Ben Vershbow, Jesse Wilbur, Eddie Tejeda, and Dan Visel for taking the time to meet with me. If anyone is interested in participating somehow, please don't hesitate to contact me at