Making the Digital Physical

Exhibit by Virginia Humanities Fellow tells the story of early online publishing

Books & Literature  •  Fellowships

Katherine McNamara at the exhibit opening
Katherine McNamara at the exhibit opening

In 1996, Virginia Humanities Fellow Katherine McNamara started one of the earliest online literary journals, Archipelago. She recently partnered with UVA’s Rare Book School to produce an exhibit —  An Archipelago of Readers: Forming a Literary Culture in Digital Media — that tells the story of this pioneering digital publication.

Amitha Muthiah, a fourth year student in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences, sat down with Katherine to talk about her work on Archipelago and how she went about creating a physical exhibit of a digital publication.

Why did you choose “Archipelago” as the name for your online publication?

The name itself was offered to me by another poet, who had thought for some time about setting up a literary magazine, but had abandoned the idea. I was struck by it as a fine metaphor for a digital publication – in part, sorrowfully, it echoed The Gulag Archipelago, but more presently, it seemed to represent the idea that serious readers weren’t located only in New York, or major cities, or the coasts, but that there were islands and peaks scattered across the ‘sea.’ I was pleased when a contributing editor, the poet and novelist Kathy Callaway, discovered that archipelago means both islands or peaks linked underwater, and also, the sea around them.

Katherine McNamara with Assistant Curator Will Norton

 What did you learn from starting Archipelago?

When I created Archipelago I was really thinking it to be writers presenting to readers. But what I noticed is that you really form a community with online publishing. I am still old fashioned enough to believe that the community is not just the relationship with the writer but what the writer has written. Between the written piece and the reader, and that is a very close and intimate relationship.

How do you feel the online publication has done?

Archipelago did all right. I published for ten years, almost exactly. During that time, the web grew up and changed. It became more than a means of transmission; it became its own medium.

In New York, where I lived before moving to Charlottesville, where I founded Archipelago, I heard trade publishers say, disparagingly, that there were only “60,000” or “30,000” “serious readers” in America. They meant, readers who bought “literary” novels. Well, by around the 8th year, our monthly readership ranged from around 10,000 to 13,000 ‘unique readers.’ Those readers stayed on the site an average of 12 minutes.  Multiply that times 12 months – not bad for a quarterly review that published “serious literature.”

How different would it have been if it was printed?

I never would have undertaken a print publication, because – though you do all the same work to get the publication ready to go – with print, you add the costs of printing, paper, distribution, and the limits of territorial rights. The web lets you distribute to the world.

What does it mean to form a ‘literary culture in digital media’?

I didn’t know what that would mean when I started Archipelago. There was very little serious literature available then – 1996 – on the WWW. I saw the web as a means of distributing prose, essays, poetry, and fiction to a wide-spread readership. I began with the old-fashioned idea that a text would find its readers, and that the relationship between text and reader was both intimate and private.

But publishing a journal on the web showed me that the relationship could be broader. For instance, after I published poems by Kevin McFadden – a fine poet in his ‘real’ life – some New Zealanders formed a discussion group on the web (a sort of bulletin board, as there used to be) to discuss his poems.

How did your exhibit end up being presented by the Rare Book School? 

I’d taken a course at RBS, having won the auction bid at a Virginia Arts of the Book Center fundraiser, and loved it; it was in digital archiving. Knowing they were interested in this, I approached them about my archives. We had some inconclusive discussions, and the matter rested. Some months later, Barbara Heritage, Associate Director & Curator of Collections, suggested they sponsor an exhibition of the archives, to go up in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. I was astonished – and delighted.

What does a physical exhibit of a digital publication look like?

It’s metaphorical! You’ll see nineteenth century glass-fronted bookcases — as if they were screens — full of books, screenshots blown up, manuscripts, digital equipment, art — and running labels with  narrative on them. They are laid out by themes: first and last issues, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose, politics and war. Certain noteworthy projects are highlighted. For the poetry I thought let’s hang the poetry up as if it was on clotheslines. So you’ll see screenshots of poetry dancing through the case.

Why did you choose to apply to Virginia Humanities for your fellowship?

I love Virginia Humanities, and in fact I first approached them as a publisher for Archipelago, not long after I started it. Virginia Humanities gave Archipelago several quite wonderful grants and one actual donation to publish our version of the Great Book of Gaelic. So, I had that experience. I really liked Virginia Humanities because you could talk to anyone there and they listened and asked smart questions. I also liked Virginia Humanities’ international and national view on projects, the idea was that the world could be brought to Virginia and that seemed to be an intersection with Archipelago.

How might it be different if you were starting it today?

The web was new territory when I started. The graphical web – browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape – were only a few years old. Nobody could tell you how to design a journal, because only a few of them existed, and each was different, with a different purpose. I was most fortunate – the late Mike Uriss designed the first logo and hired Debra Weiss as coder. She became the designer and made the journal beautiful.

Today, putting up a journal is so much easier technically. For Archipelago, Debra designed every issue in HTML. The web is different now, the world is different now.

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