Canadian literature is going online – as literary scholars, we have a unique opportunity to rejuvenate public interest in our national literary culture through this transition to a medium that allows for more open and democratic participation in content production. For my final project, I am beginning work on a digital edition of works by Edith Eaton/Sui Sin Far (EE/SSF), under the auspices of Editing Modernism in Canada (EMIC) project, that will push the edges of this opportunity by integrating innovative approaches and tools from both inside and outside the academy.

My primary goal for this exercise is to explore ways to innovate on the interface design for digital editions in order to allow the reader/user to have more authority in designing his or her reading experience. This is a natural extension of the last decades’ efforts to de-centre the author in literary criticism, and Edith Eaton is a perfect candidate for a digital edition that furthers these efforts. As an author with multiple identities who has primarily been read through one limited lens (i.e. race) Eaton and her work are burgeoning with potential re-figurations. Dr. Mary Chapman has already been working diligently to move beyond the narrow construction of Eaton as a bi-racial writer. Eaton’s known body of work, now quadrupled thanks to Dr. Chapman’s efforts, includes poems, children’s stories, love stories, humor pieces, stridently anti-racist editorials, “native informant”-style magazine features, stunt-girl journalism, sensationalized reportage of a murder case in small-town Ontario, and more. Eaton emerges from this body of work as an incredibly complex figure whose “real” perspective on the events of her time is obscured by the many different authorial identities she chose to assume.

The first step I’ve taken towards completing this project has been to install and begin customizing a Drupal site, using the free hosting provided to me as a student of BCIT (this is a temporary solution – finding longer term hosting is something I intend to work out with EMIC). Given that much of the contribution of this project will involve designing a user interface (UI) that helps represent the complexity of EE’s identity, design has been the main focus of my early work. I have quickly learned that I need to at least quadruple my estimate of the amount of time it will take to complete different aspects of the project, partly because of the challenges I’ve encountered in using Drupal.

Drupal — an open source content management system — is almost completely bare bones out of the box, but can be extended and made more sophisticated through the use of modules. For example, the user has an immediate option to create webpages via a basic Drupal install, but must create them in HTML unless she enables a WYSIWYG module. To work with images, an image editor module must also be downloaded and installed. For this project, I worked with IMCE.

The basic look of a Drupal site — i.e. fonts, colors, position of links — is determined by its theme – again, a basic Drupal install comes with just a few options, but there are many free user-contributed themes you can download and install. Unfortunately, the theme that best matched my vision for how my site should look (Framework) continuously breaks the administrative control panel of my site, rendering it unusable. At this juncture, I’m expecting to have to learn how to customize my own theme, something that should add at least a week onto my timeline for completing the project.

My original goal was to the have the basic structure of the site and the user interface complete as my mid-term project. In reality, I’m not even done the homepage yet, after at least 30 hours of working on the site.  I began working with an image of EE/SSF, but as the only images of her available are very low quality, I was not able, using Photoshop, to create something aesthetically pleasing with my limited graphic design skills. I finally settled on an image of a white narcissus, which inspired Eaton to take the name Sui Sin Far (apparently the Cantonese word for the flower). I anticipate that figuring out how to get the page title and the RSS logo removed from the homepage will take at least another few hours, if not more. Learning how to make the homepage image interactive will be even more work.

One learning from this experience so far has been how quickly the more traditional scholarly elements of designing an edition can seem like a low priority. Choosing the words I wanted to use on the homepage, which will become the basis for the structure of the website, was something of an afterthought as I was rushing to create an image I could live with, and then solve the problem of how to put it in place as the homepage of the site (I ran into extensive problems here related to the default text on the Drupal homepage). Fortunately, these categories can still be changed, but it was instructive to see how quickly the scholarly aspects of the humanities can get short-shrift when one is trying to conceive, design and build an entire digital project alone.

My goals for the completed site include the following:

  • Intro page to appeal to the widest possible audience
  • Brief bio pages for each of the authorial identities we’ve chosen to highlight: journalist; ethnographer; traveller; cross-dresser; storyteller; amd anti-racist.
  • Suggested exercises for teachers
  • Facebook & twitter share buttons
  • Canadian modernism timeline
  • Map showing EE/SSF’s pattern of travel and resettlement throughout her lifetime.
  • Scholarly apparatus
  • Documentation of scholarly principles
  • Google analytics

I’m still optimistic that by end of April 2012 I will have completed the items on this list. I’m revising my goal for the end of this term, though, to reflect what I’ve learned thus far. My aim for the end of term is simply to have the structure of the site in place, including primary and secondary navigation, and all the subpages (which will be ready but blank). This is an ambitious goal.