Reading the Archives:
Ten Years on Nonlinear (Kairos) History

Jim Kalmbach

About this Site

It turns out to be a daunting task to design a webbed text that critiques other webbed texts. No matter what you do, someone will hold your website up to ridicule, gleefully pointing out how you have deconstructed your argument. Well, like I tell students: Don't use technology if you can't take the humiliation when things go wrong. Because they will.

In addition, I do not have the skills to create dazzling, interactive, media-rich websites like the WIDE cooperative and Joseph Squiers, cool QuickTime movies like Daniel Anderson and Anthony Ellertson, or breathtaking Flash/Director pieces like Ellen Cushman, Anne Wysocki and Madeleine Sorapure.

What I am pretty good at is thinking about readers and about how readers interact with texts, so I tried to design a hypermediated text that would support reading online. To that end, I brought back a modified form of webbed text from Kairos' earliest days: the looping hypertext. In this form, the author starts with a page of anchor text of some sort (often an extended overview of the paper) and then links from that text at strategic points to additional nodes of elaboration. You might click through several screens exploring such an elaborating thread, but eventually you would have to return to the main thread or page to continue reading. Looping hypertexts made up 31% of the webtexts published in Kairos' first volume but quickly disappeared after that. Their great strength is that you can contextualize your links, giving readers a reason to click within an evolving narrative; their big weakness, their really big weakness, is that it can be maddening to be forced to constantly loop back to a home page just to find something new to read.

My solution was to situate this form within a modified blogging interface. My anchor page consists of my introduction and a series of blurbs explaining what will follow, as well as some tips about whether or not it would be a good idea for you to skip a section. Once you click into the webtext, however, you never have to loop back to the main page (unless you want to) because the links at the bottom of each section will carry you through the entire text. (Drawing on blogging metaphors also enabled me to use long, scrolling pages that follow the arc of their arguments and call it an aesthetic choice rather than laziness.)

One weakness of this strategy, however, is that it is optimized for a single reading of the text. Should you return to the first page to reread a specific section, you have to scroll down to find that link. Since I was constantly rereading as I wrote, I added a drop-down menu for returning readers who want to jump to a specific section without burning up their scroll pads.

You might be interested to know . . .
One of the challenges we will increasingly face is how to best make use of gaming and other interactive elements in online texts. People expect to be able to do things on the web and not just read. (Ball, 2004, calls this process "enactment.") In the context of this webtext, many readers will be familiar with Kairos and its archives, but not all will be. To provide a way for newbies to get a feel for the fascinating work published in Kairos, the interactive element I created was a random walk through the Kairos archives as part of my introduction. To create this random walk, I constructed a file with urls to all of the hypertexts published in ten years of Kairos and used a simple PHP script from to pull a random URL from the file and send the reader on an adventure.

I developed this approach after reading about emergence and complexity theory, especially Steven Johnson's (2001) book, Emergence. Johnson argues that if you are building a system designed to "learn from the ground level . . . where macro intelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge," you should, among other things, "encourage random encounters" (p. 77). Johnson's description of building complex systems sounds a lot like the process of reading and learning from complex, challenging texts; consequently, I have been experimenting with random walks as entry points to large digital archives. These random walks also have a nostalgic value, as they remind me of wandering the stacks as a graduate student, browsing the titles and randomly bumping into exciting undiscovered books.

If you are new to Kairos, I encourage you to pause at the introduction and use the random walk link to explore the Kairos archives before continuing. Since we can't flip pages to skim texts in a digital archive, a random walk is an excellent way to get a feel for work that might otherwise be invisible.

About the Footnotes
I have always said that I like the Storyspace version of Jay David Bolter's Writing Space better than the print version because I find his digressions more interesting than his argument. In an online text, however, balancing digressions and the forward push of argument is a real challenge. Too little digression and the reader feels cheated, too much and the reader gets lost in the many side trips away from the webtext's main arc.

In order to not overwhelm the flow of the text with too many branching digressions, I put some fairly substantial content into the footnotes. These notes are indicated by the following symbol: (). They will open in new windows that automatically close when you click back to the main text (an embodiment of self-consuming artifacts). The notes are also listed on the resources page, so don't worry about missing any.

I would like to thank the Editors, Cheryl Ball and Beth Hewett, without whose encouragement this webtext would have never happened, as well as my reviewers from the Kairos Editorial Board whose insightful comments significantly improved the final webtext and who remind me yet again of the strong, supportive community that makes working with Kairos such a joy.

Jim Kalmbach
Normal, Illinois
April, 2006

The only move that makes sense at this point is to return to the home page and start reading.