This post was written by Jeff Edmunds, Digital Access Coordinator.
In December 1995, when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, the Libraries did not yet have an official Web presence. They were, however, already hosting what is probably the Libraries’ earliest digital humanities project: Zembla, a Web site devoted to writer and translator Vladimir Nabokov, author of (most famously) Lolita.
As a world-renowned writer in three languages (Russian, English, and French), Nabokov seemed an ideal subject for Web-based collaboration among scholars from different, often isolated, neighborhoods of academia: English and American literature, Russian literature, Slavic studies, and Comp lit. Early iterations of Zembla harnessed the power of the Web to connect scholars from around the globe.
An online bibliography of critical works about Nabokov was jointly compiled and regularly updated. Scholars were encouraged to allow online publication, or re-publication of their works–a novel, and somewhat unsettling, idea at that time. Translations of seminal critical articles (from Russian, French, and Japanese) were posted online so that Nabokov scholars from different countries and different disciplines could more easily stay abreast of developments in the field outside their areas of linguistic comfort. A “Homes and Haunts” section, illustrated with photographs taken by Nabokov fans and scholars, tracked the author’s travels from his native St. Petersburg, Russia, through the Crimea, to England (where he studied at Cambridge University), Berlin (where he lived for more than a decade), to Paris, the United States, and finally, Montreux, Switzerland, where he spent the last several years of his life.
Within two years of its launch, Zembla had a world-wide reputation for excellence. The International Vladimir Nabokov Society adopted Zembla as its official site and began providing monetary support. In June 1997 The Net magazine featured Zembla as its Site of the Month, calling it a “vitalizing illumination.” In 1999, the centenary of Nabokov’s birth, CNN online referenced Zembla in its retrospective on the author of Lolita and hired Zembla’s creator and editor, Jeff Edmunds, as a consultant for the project. In 2000, Zembla was cited as an example of cutting-edge use of the Internet by libraries in a book by Dieter E. Zimmer (long-time editor of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit) called Die Bibliothek der Zukunft: Text und Schrift in den Zeiten des Internet [The Library of the Future: Text and Writing in the Age of the Internet].
One of the most significant, and collaborative, outgrowths of Zembla is Ada Online, an online annotated full-text edition of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Nabokov’s longest novel. Permissions from both the Nabokov Estate and Random House had to be secured before making the text of the novel freely available online. To convert the OCR’d text into HTML required an international team of volunteer coders: from Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States. Nearly all the HTML code was written by hand!
In 2006, Jeff Edmunds was invited to deliver a keynote lecture in Nice, France at the Third International Conference on Nabokov. His talk was entitled “Nabokov à l’âge d’Internet” and described how Zembla, and projects like it, had changed the ecosystem and dynamics of humanities scholarship.
Since 2010, when Edmunds abandoned Nabokov studies for other pursuits, updates to Zembla have ceased. The HTML code underlying the site is now wildly outdated, having been created at a time before things like CSS, PHP, and ASP were being widely used. On December 1, 2015, Zembla’s 20th birthday, the site will be officially decommissioned; updates will no longer be made and the site will serve as an archive only. Ada Online, on the other hand, will continue to live and grow at its new home at the University of Auckland under the care of Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, and his international team of collaborators.