Thoreau, Digitized. Deliberately.


by Paul Schacht

Henry_David_Thoreau-350wIn Walden, nineteenth-century American author, philosopher, and activist Henry David Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” In the same work, he also wrote that “Books must be read as deliberately as they were written.”

Digital Thoreau is a joint initiative of SUNY Geneseo, the Thoreau Society, and the Walden Woods Project aimed at promoting the deliberate reading of Thoreau in ways that illuminate his creative process and facilitate thoughtful conversation about his work.

The projects that comprise the initiative are open in a variety of ways.

FluidDigital Thoreau’s main scholarly project is a “fluid text” edition of Walden. Thoreau revised the manuscript of Walden seven times between 1846, when he began working on it while still living at the pond, and 1854, when the first edition was published. Our fluid text Walden makes it possible for readers to follow the manuscript revisions across the seven versions, comparing any version with any other and with the Princeton University Press edition of the finished work.

The project would not have been possible without the cooperation of Thoreau scholar Ronald E. Clapper, who freely shared with us his 1967 dissertation identifying all the manuscript variants. Nor could it have happened without the Versioning Machine: the open-source platform for displaying text-versions that we’ve adopted to display the variants on-screen.

TEIIn turn, we’re openly sharing the XML-TEI code that’s the back end of that Versioning Machine display — code written right here at SUNY Geneseo by Milne Library faculty and staff. Other digital humanists have already downloaded the code to see how the variants display on another versioning platform, Juxta.

Walden: A Fluid Text Edition also incorporates the scholarly notes that SUNY Distinguished Professor and former SUNY Geneseo English department member Walter Harding wrote for his Walden: An Annotated Edition (1995). This addition was made possible because the notes were freely shared with us by the Harding family.


Screenshot: A Readers Thoreau

Another of our projects at Digital Thoreau, funded by a SUNY Innovative Instruction Technology Grant, is a text of Walden designed to invite conversation both in the text’s margins and in discussion forums. Readers can participate in this conversation individually or in groups. The Readers’ Thoreau brings together two open-source plugins from the open-source blogging platform WordPress — Commons In A Box and CommentPress — to create a “social reading” experience that has the fundamental features of a social network. Readers can comment on any paragraph of Walden, add labels to comments, search other readers’ comments by label, follow the comment activity of friends in the network, join forums, and continue conversations that begin inside the text in other ways. They can filter comments so that they only see the ones that interest them. Two or more groups can decide to read Walden with each other. They can “like” the comments they find most valuable and recommend comments to friends.

DigThorSliderWe think of The Readers’ Thoreau as a tool for reading deliberately by reading deliberatively. You could also think of it as space for open conversation about one of literature’s greatest works.

Open access is the means by which Digital Thoreau’s projects have come into being; it’s also the end they serve.