For three days, on April 3-5 of this year, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC hosted an exhibition, readings, and talks on electronic literature. Electronic literature, according to the Library of Congress website, is something different than traditional print literature:
More than a computer screen and different from an ebook or a digitized text. It is hypertext narrative, literary games, interactive fiction, kinetic poetry. Not just a new way to display the written word, electronic literature exploits the digital world’s capacity for multiplicity and interactivity to create new forms of literary expression that can’t be fully replicated in print. Like all literature, it explores the human condition—but as “born digital” content it is now mediated by underlying computer code, often combining the written word with sound, images, animation, and video.
The event, “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms,” created by guest curators Dene Grigar and Kathi Inman Berens, was a milestone for the electronic literature community, and a philosophical leap forward for the Library of Congress. Sure, the LOC has all of the 400 million tweets sent by Americans each day, so they’re not hurting for new media, but judging by the reactions of librarians at the event, electronic literature is alternately something they had originated themselves, or a first glimpse at a brave new world unimagined by Thomas Jefferson.
Either way, electronic literature is here to stay. Over the three days of the event, approximately seven hundred people wandered, nudged, and jostled their way through the Whittall Pavilion. They played, studied, and explored “twenty-seven works of electronic literature by American authors, relevant printed works from the Library of Congress collections, readings by select authors featured in the exhibit, and hands-on creation stations.” They watched elit authors do live performances of their work. They saw an exhibit of rare books, heard a keynote address, and listened in on a panel discussion about electronic literature. In the event’s most retro moment, young children discovering a manual typewriter for the first time were puzzled by the unresponsiveness of the keys. Why don’t they work? they asked, and upon being told to push them harder, learned that typing is still possible without a computer. At the end of it all, the question in the air wasn’t “What is electronic literature” but “Where can we find more?”
The answer is everywhere. Not just in Facebook posts (where people use multimedia all the time to tell their stories). Not just at the Webby awards, where a work of electronic literature won in the Net Art category in 2011, and another was an honoree this year. And not just in museums, galleries, festivals, online journals, and college classrooms around the world, where elit is no longer an emerging form, but a full-blown phenomena.
But for the purists, there are a number of databases on the web where you can familiarize yourself with the form. One is the Electronic Literature Organization’s and there’s the database for Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP).
To learn more about the event at the Library of Congress, go here.