Debating Accessibility: Digital Surrogate versus E-Text of “American Indian Stories” by Zitkála-Šá

Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertude Simmons Bonnin, was a Native American writer and political activist who was one of the first authors to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread English-speaking readership. She is widely noted as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century and is highly regarded for her writing on cultural identity and the complex relationships between white and indigenous cultures. Since Zitkála-Šá provides vital insight into the oral culture and literary traditions of Native Americans, it is imperative to recognize her work in order to appreciate the rich cultural traditions she passed on as well as preserve the literary archive of indigenous writers, whose work remains highly marginalized and obscured by white dominant culture. Thus, I was keenly interested in finding a digital surrogate of American Indian Stories, which is a reprint of her first collection of stories published in 1901. What does this digital surrogate offers readers in terms of textual analysis and accessibility?  

For this assignment, I relied a digital surrogate of American Indian Stories provided by HathiTrust Digital Library. The HathiTrust digital surrogate of American Indian Stories, originally provided by Harvard University, reveals a wealth of information about the original publication. I first read the book in the form of an e-text provided by “A Celebration of Women Writers” website; while this e-text allowed me to easily scroll through the entirety of the book and search, highlight, and copy text from the book, the digital surrogate provided by HathiTrust provides a much more detailed and authentic reading experience. 

Cover from HathiTrust Digital Library, digitized copy of American Indian Stories Accessed 12 May 2020. 

One of the first advantages of the digital surrogate that I noted was the fact that it included a colored scan of the cover of the book; while I would appreciate if the spine of the book could be included as well, I was grateful that the digital surrogate allowed me to study the colors and design chosen for the book cover. One of the most intriguing parts of the digital surrogate is the testimonial provided by Helen Keller; in the digital surrogate, this message from Helen Keller is one of the first pages of the book and clearly stands as a testimonial that praises Zitkála-Šá and her book. Helen Keller writes “I wish you and your little book of Indian tales all success” in an appreciative (albeit slightly infantilizing) testimonial. However, the e-text of American Indian Stories does not include this testimonial at the beginning of the book and instead adds Keller’s testimonial to the very bottom of the website. Thus, readers of the e-text version of American Indian Stories will not read Keller’s note until they are finished scrolling through the entire book, whereas readers of the digital surrogate will be immediately primed with Keller’s testimonial before they read a single word written by Zitkála-Šá. 

Hellen Keller Testimonial from HathiTrust Digital Library, digitized copy of American Indian Stories Accessed 12 May 2020.

However, the digital surrogate of American Indian Stories is not without its flaws. While the digital surrogate offers a more authentic experience of reading the original book due to its colorized scans and mimicry of flipping through book pages, it is not a perfect looking glass into the original publication. The digital surrogate includes pages where the scans are performed imperfectly and readers can see the curved words of the previous page on the margins, which is a useful reminder that there are many unseen agents involved in the digitization and preservation of the publication. Sometimes this imperfect scanning is actually a hinderance to the reading process; for example, page 25 of the digital surrogate is uncentered and does not scan the whole page. Thus, readers of the digital surrogate cannot read the book in its entirety because sections of it are cut off from the digitized scan. This mistake does not occur in the e-text version of American Indian Stories since that version is a transcription of the plain text and does not scan the actual pages of the original book. 

Page 25 from HathiTrust Digital Library, digitized copy of American Indian Stories Accessed 12 May 2020.

Overall, digital surrogates provide unique insight into print publications that are often difficult to access and preserve; by collecting scans of the pages of the original text that include written marks, images, typeset, cover design, and layout details, these digital surrogates allow readers to analyze the original features of the print publication and experience the text through a lens that is quite authentic to the print reading experience. However, it is important to remember that digital surrogates are imperfect lenses; while they may offer many features often missing from plain text editions like e-texts, digital surrogates are still susceptible to scanning and digitization errors. 

The question of whether the digital surrogate is truly more “accessible” than the e-text is therefore open to debate; while digital surrogates can offer more authentic and detailed snapshots of tactile print publications, plain text e-texts may offer different accessibility advantages. For example, the minimal computing movement highlights the environmental and productivity advantages of minimal design and space. Furthermore, plain text e-texts can also be more accessible to readers based on user-specific needs such as text-to-speech translation, restricted access to special software or digital tools, and the flexible migration of e-text to other platforms and applications. Thus, the decision of which type of edition to choose – plain e-text, audiobook, epub, print, etc. – is a deeply personal choice that should be open to all readers and contexts.  

Works Cited:

Zitkála-Šá. American Indian Stories. Washington, D.C.: Hayworth, 1921.

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