Preservation vs. Accessibility in the Digital Life of Louisa May Alcott’s “The Brothers”

Frontispiece of Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals, by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Ednah D. Cheney. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1890. Via the Internet Archive / public domain. Link.

Louisa May Alcott was a prolific writer in her day, best known for her work Little Women.  This novel, published in 1868, is hardly in danger of being forgotten, with an extensive, enduring readership and new editions coming out yearly.  However, this begs the question: what about Louisa May Alcott’s lesser known works?  In what ways have they been preserved?  Is the manner of their preservation accurate to the works’ original forms; how accessible are these preserved works to everyday readers?  One of Alcott’s works is the short story “The Brothers,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1863.  In attempt to preserve this lesser-known story, the text has been digitized in a variety of different formats.  Hence, in this post, I set out to analyze the affordances of the varying digital forms that exist of Louisa May Alcott’s short story “The Brothers.”

“The Brothers” has been published in multiple online formats.  The two I will be focusing on here are various preserved forms of the text in The Atlantic Monthly.  One is from The Atlantic website itself—a reprinted, abridged e-text version of the story as it appeared in the magazine’s Civil War issue in 2012.  The other is a digital surrogate: a scan of the original print magazine as it was published in November 1863.  Each of these versions offers different experiences for the present-day reader.

Specifically, these different forms vary in the accuracy of their preservation.  Since the digital surrogate form is an actual scan of the original magazine publication, it stands as a very authentic online representation of “The Brothers.”  For one, it maintains all of the formatting aspects of the original story: the simple, unadorned block text with the same pagination and two-column layout.  This is how the text would have appeared to its original readers when it was first published, and in this way, the digital surrogate form provides present-day readers with a very authentic reading experience.    

The opening of “The Brothers,” by Louisa May Alcott, from The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XII. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, London: Trübner and Company, 1863. Via HathiTrust / public domain.

This version also allows readers to evaluate the context of the original publication.  Because the digital surrogate actually preserves the entirety of The Atlantic issue in which it was published, present-day readers would be able to get a sense of other stories/articles that were printed in conjunction with Alcott’s.  This would allow them to make judgments about the story’s original readership and how the story “fit in” with the others.  Another interesting aspect of this digital surrogate is that it preserves the story’s lack of authorial recognition.  It seems that “The Brothers,” in addition to the magazine’s other stories, did not have the author’s name printed in direct association with the story.  This gives present-day readers a clue as to how the magazine appealed to its audience at the time of its publication: it likely would have been read more for the value of the collection as a whole rather than for any individual author’s acclaim.  Hence, the ability of the digital surrogate to accurately preserve the context of the original story allows readers to make conclusions about the story’s initial audience.    

On the other hand, the e-text version of “The Brothers” on The Atlantic’s website seems to have preserved the authenticity of the original story in a different way.  This form of the text is an abridged version, meaning that the story has been shortened in places.  In this way, this e-text seems to be a less accurate representation of the original form of the story.  However, it does provide present-day readers with something that the digital surrogate form does not: historical context.  At the top of The Atlantic webpage, as a preface to the story, there is actually a short introduction providing readers with some insight into Louisa May Alcott’s biography and also some important historical considerations for the story.  This would be especially significant for any uninitiated present-day readers who lack prior knowledge of the subject.  Hence, this version of “The Brothers” seems to have conserved a different aspect of the story’s original context, even though it doesn’t fully maintain the authenticity of the original publication. 

“The Brothers” from The Atlantic, Accessed 16 May 2020.

The varying digital forms of this text also differ widely in terms of their accessibility.  While accuracy of preservation is an important quality in these online texts, so too is the text’s accessibility to readers.  The digital surrogate seems to more clearly preserve the formatting of the original story; however, it is not the most accessible.  The text is nearly impossible to find online unless you already have a good sense of how to do so.  This is true for a couple of reasons—for one, the reproduction of this text is not dedicated solely to Alcott’s “The Brothers.”  Instead, the scan is compiled with the other stories and articles that were originally printed in The Atlantic in the same year; hence, readers would have to search through 800 plus pages of text just to find the story.  Furthermore, the scan of this specific volume of The Atlantic is catalogued in HathiTrust with nearly 70 years’ worth of other scans from The Atlantic Monthly.  Hence, there is no simple way to pull up this scan of “The Brothers” unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. 

On the other hand, the abridged e-text version of “The Brothers” found on The Atlantic’s website is very easy to find online.  With a simple internet search for “Louisa May Alcott + ‘The Brothers,’” this version of the text is the first link to appear.  Therefore, even though it is not the most authentically preserved, this work is clearly the more easily accessed of the two.

In conclusion, there seems to be a trade-off between an online text’s accessibility to readers and the accuracy of its preservation.  While there might not ever be a way to have both, I think that, together, these two versions are capable of providing readers with an in-depth understanding of the text in its original context.  However, the digital presence of this text doesn’t end at the two versions I have considered in this post; you can also find online copies of “The Brothers” as Project Gutenberg e-texts, Google Books, digital surrogates of the story’s later editions, and so much more.   Therefore, the mere existence of these digital publications speaks volume to the effort taken to preserve some of Louisa May Alcott’s lesser-known works and to the continued legacy of this beloved woman writer.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. “The Brothers.” The Atlantic, Civil War Issue, 2012. The Atlantic. Link.

Alcott, Louisa May. “The Brothers.” The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 7, no. 73, Nov. 1863, pp. 584-95. HathiTrust. Link.

Ockerbloom, John Mark, editor. “The Atlantic Monthly.” The Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania Library. Link.

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