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Kathi Inman Berens opens door to electronic literature at Library of Congress exhibit

by: VERN UYETAKE - Kathi Inman Berens doesn't want future generations to miss out on experiences like seeing the brass bears in front of the Lake Oswego Public Library.Kathi Inman Berens simply loves the Lake Oswego Public Library.

But on April 3 to 5, she was in a larger library that holds 35 million volumes. It was the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Inman Berens, a resident of Lake Oswego and a professor at University of Southern California, was there to present the first-ever program on electronic literature.

Instead of backing slowly away and seeking out another section, tourists were enchanted by Inman Berens’ presentation. Not everyone understood it, but the 751 people who saw it liked it. Inman Berens wants to reach as many people as possible because she believes that electronic literature is the wave of the future.

What is electronic literature? First of all, it is experienced digitally and cannot be printed. Instead, there are links, multimedia content, sounds, generative aspects, animation and reader interaction. It is literally a new world at your fingertips.

Certainly, everyone who saw her exhibit got the impression that time is passing quickly. Inman Berens set up five creation stations with computers, including a 1990 Mac Classic and an old laptop with a 1994 browser. As far as young people were concerned, it was like a visit to the ancient past. Did people actually once use floppy disks? Yes, they did.

“They’re not like books,” Inman Berens said. “A book can be two, three, 500 years old and it will do exactly what it did when it first was printed.”

Inman Berens noted electronic literature is still in the process of emerging and has not yet produced the huge breakthrough success that captures a mass audience. Right now it is mainly for brainy professors like Inman Berens and her USC students. But she believes such acceptance is inevitable. Her own two children are evidence that a new time is coming.

“Electronic literature reaches broader notions of our lives,” Inman Berens said. “Our lives are accelerating. We need a response ‘right now!’ We have a new way of looking at time. People will come to expect interactivity as part of a story.”

“People’s first reaction to electronic literature is, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Their second reaction is, ‘It shakes up what I thought was possible.’ My show helped people see the connection between the old techniques of literature and our present way of telling stories.”

If a too technical definition of electronic literature scares you away, Inman Berens suggests another kind of introduction: looking at the stars.

“Electronic literature is a series of moments,” she said. “The reader clicks to make her own meaning of those moments. E-literature makes stories that live everywhere, all around us — on Google maps, in browsers, in games, on Twitter, even in the reviews of some Amazon products. Readers can tap into it and play along.”

Yet the most fun creation stations at her Library of Congress showing were two technological dinosaurs from the past — a manual typewriter and an electric typewriter.

“It might as well have been feathers and ink,” said Inman Berens, laughing at the memory. “The children were touching the keys softly, like they would on an iPhone.”

Yet, as Inman Berens observed, “The times they are a-changing. Too fast.”

The road to obsolescence is becoming shorter and shorter for computers. With electronic literature very possibly around the next corner, what does that mean for our common culture of the future? That was what Inman Berens was seeking to find out with her show at the Library of Congress. She is eagerly reaching toward literature’s future and taking people along with her, but she also wants to tightly grasp the incredibly rich past.

“I wanted to show how our current way to communicate came to be,” she said. “What antecedents gave rise to the new ideas? As we become more digital, what stuff can’t we digitalize?”

To answer her own question, Inman Berens points to the brass bears in front of the Lake Oswego library — mama bear and her two cubs.

“It’s the kids climbing on the bears (that can’t be digitalized),” she said. “The ethereal becomes more precious now.”

Keeping one foot in the past and the other one in the future is difficult. But with people like Inman Berens leading the way, it can be done.

Inman Berens’ co-curator on the project was Professor Dene Grigar of Washington State University at Vancouver. Assisting on the exhibit were the Lake Oswego Public Library and Marylhurst University.

For more information, go to kathiiberens.com.

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