Digital Thoreau provides electronic avenue for analysis

A recent technological phenomenon, Digital Thoreau has taken literary analysis to another level, connecting students and scholars worldwide by digitizing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Launched on Feb. 3, Digital Thoreau has already gathered an abundance of members looking to utilize the resource, which is free of charge, to greater understand Thoreau’s creation of Walden. Described by Department Chair of English and director of the project Paul Schacht as “a social reading experience where people can share their ideas and connect globally,” Digital Thoreau has become a revolutionary combination of technology and literature.

Geneseo faculty and staff played a key role behind the development of this project with help from the Thoreau Society, the Walden Woods Project and State University of New York-supported grants.

“It started when Allen Harding asked the library if we would digitize his father’s work,” Milne Library Director Cyril Oberlander said. Son of the renowned Thoreau scholar and late Geneseo professor Walter Harding, Allen Harding discussed digitizing his father’s annotated notes of Walden with Geneseo’s Milne Library and teaching faculty.

The idea spread into a culmination of three online web projects and a Western Humanities II course held at Walden Pond. The Digital Thoreau website provides two versions of the text: “The Reader’s Thoreau” and “Walden: A Fluid Text Edition.”

“The Reader’s Thoreau” allows readers to observe the annotations made by Walter Harding while making their own comments on the text through an established community commentary group.

Grouping features on the site also allow a panel of literary scholars to annotate the text via a commentary group visible to all, but only select scholars can make annotations. It does allow students to create private commentary groups, providing a digital opportunity for classrooms worldwide to connect through textual analysis.

“Walden: A Fluid Text Edition” shows the seven versions Thoreau drafted of Walden side by side, so each change Thoreau made to produce the final version is noticeable. This originates from Ronald Clapper’s dissertation “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text,” which organizes Thoreau’s manuscripts into seven different stages.

The final project “The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar,” which traces the legacy of Harding and his work on Thoreau, is constructed by Geneseo students enrolled in the ENGL 340: Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age.

Milne Library, however, is the driving force behind the creation of the entire Digital Thoreau project.

“We have a research and development team that has been dedicated to the Digital Thoreau project ever since it began,” Oberlander said. “We have been a part of all the grand proposals: the writing, the design and the implementation.”

The entire technical services staff also learned the technical encoding initiative, which was used to transcribe the entirety of these Walden projects online.

After approximately three years of dedication, the final product has swept the idea of “giving readers the ability to talk to each other in connection with Thoreau’s texts” to another level, Schacht said.

“We want to bring in new readers and make people aware of Thoreau’s writing and his ideas,” he added.

As Digital Thoreau has already begun transforming the relationship between technology and literary analysis, it is likely this will not be the last text to be digitized with an emphasis on communal analysis.