ERIC Identifier: ED308882
Publication Date: 1989-08-00
Author: Bevilacqua, Ann F.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information Resources Syracuse NY.
Hypertext: Behind the Hype. ERIC Digest.
Hypertext is an organizing principle, like the 15th-century invention of
alphabetical order or the Platonic invention of dialectical argument. Ted
Nelson, who coined the word in the 1960s, defines "hyper" as "extended,
generalized, and multidimensional" (1973). Michael Heim writes, "text derives
originally from the Latin word for weaving and for interwoven material, and it
comes to have an extraordinary accuracy of meaning in the case of word
processing" (1987, p. 160-61).
This image of a multidimensional fabric of knowledge linked with all its
intellectual antecedents is one that is familiar to librarians. In a sense,
we've been advocates of hypertext all along; encyclopedias, card catalogs,
citation indexes, and abstracts all make up this invisible web of knowledge. As
librarians, we are used to such organization; in fact, it remains central to our
way of teaching others how the library works. However, the electronic hypertext
document has few of the built-in frustrations of the paper system.
The essence of hypertext is a dynamic linking of concepts allowing the reader
to follow preferences instantaneously and to be in control. The scope of a topic
is no longer defined by editor or author and is limited only by the initiative
of the reader. As Heim explains, "instead of searching for a footnote or going
to find another document referred to, the dynamic footnote, or link, can
automatically bring the appended or referenced material to the screen. The
referenced material could be a paragraph or an article or an entire book. A
return key brings the reader back to the point in the original text where the
link symbol appeared" (1987, p. 162). The reader may also choose, however, not
to follow diversions, but to continue through a particular document without
interruption. It is this interactivity with the database that is the key to
hypertext systems; pictures, sound, and text can be instantly retrieved
according to the user's needs or whims.
The term "hypertext" is actually a misnomer, as many of the current systems
allow and even encourage the inclusion of non-text data such as graphics,
animations, and digitized sounds. In the future, the more precise "interactive
hypermedia" will probably replace the term hypertext since, in a digital world,
sound, text, and images are all represented by the same binary signals, and
microcomputers are evolving to take advantage of these new capabilities.
Eventually, CD-quality stereo sound and high-resolution video display will be
available from the same device--a television, computer, and stereo all in one
Currently there are two types of hypertext: static and dynamic (Byers, 1987,
p. 250). Static hypertext does not permit changes to the database, but it is
interactively browsable. In dynamic hypertext the user may add or subtract data
and links. An important aspect of many dynamic hypertext systems is the ability
to maintain multiple versions of a document as it changes over time. This allows
the writer to track the history of a document and weigh alternative versions
simultaneously. In a multi-user environment, this allows the original writer to
maintain the first version of a document even after others have changed it.
Prototype applications are under
development at several educational institutions. At present, however, these
projects are not commercially available except as demonstration packages.
*Intermedia at Brown. Hypertext research has been going on at Brown
University since the late 1960s. Over the years, many hypertext systems have
been developed; since 1985, the Institute for Research in Information and
Scholarship (IRIS) has been working on Intermedia, a large-scale multimedia
system that currently runs on a network of IBM RT/PCs using the UNIX operating
system and Sun workstations that support Sun's Network File System (Yankelovich,
Landow, & Cody, 1987, p. 3).
Two courses--Plant Cell Biology and English Literature from 1700 to the
Present--were chosen initially to be part of the project. Context32, The English
Corpus is the name of the database developed for the English course. It contains
biographical sketches of each author under study as well as essays and
discussions of styles and techniques. A database of images comprises another
category; portraits, photographs, drawings, and reproductions of works of art
allow students to juxtapose image and text for the same historical period
(Yankelovich et al., 1987, p. 7). Students explore the database for their
reading and research assignments, and as part of a final project they are
expected to contribute essays, drawings, and links to the database corpus.
*Harvard's Perseus Project. The Perseus Project of Harvard University is
developing interactive courseware on classical Greek civilization using
HyperCard. The preliminary database currently includes a historical atlas of the
Persian Wars, an archaeological catalog, and texts of Greek tragedies. Plans
call for expanding the database to approximately 70 megabytes of text and
thousands of images. "This will include almost the entire surviving body of
Greek tragedy, comedy and epic; works of major historians such as Herodotus and
Thucydides; and substantial portions of the massive surviving works of Plato and
Aristotle. There will be color images and measured drawings of museum objects
(such as sculpture and Greek vase paintings), plans and pictures of buildings
and sites in Greece, and an atlas based on Landsat images. Much of the material
commonly studied in courses on classical Greece will be included in the
database" (Crane, 1988, p. 51). The required hardware is a Macintosh computer;
the software, HyperCard.
*Project Jefferson at the University of Southern California. Introduced in
the fall of 1987, the Constitutional Notebook is a collaborative effort of the
university library, the freshman writing program, and the engineering school at
U.S.C. The interface was designed to organize information relating to freshman
writing assignments and to build a database online to meet their needs. The
program uses the metaphor of an electronic notebook to make this database more
accessible to undergraduates. Recently, the Project Jefferson Team released
another application, titled the Bali Notebook, that assists anthropologists and
biologists in building a simulation model of a Balinese hydrological system.
Both of these projects run on Apple Macintosh hardware and HyperCard software.
LIMITATIONS OF HYPERTEXT
As hypertext systems have
progressed over the past 20 years, several problems have surfaced. Among the
most vexing issues facing hypertext developers are orientation to the database,
cognitive overload, and compatibility.
It is feared that readers who are used to finding their way through books
with the aid of tables of contents, indexes, footnotes, and marginalia might
become lost within hypertext systems. However, new visual cues are integrated
into most hypertext systems to lessen feelings of disorientation. As databases
grow, navigational tools such as the global map of links and documents and the
history of paths taken, though complex themselves, become necessary. And, as
hypertext documents develop standards, users will develop "pattern recognition"
of those standards, much the same way they do with city bus maps. Over time and
use, hypertext will probably change our way of thinking; perhaps, as we learn
how to move non-sequentially in texts, the feeling of not knowing where we are
will no longer be an issue. Perhaps, too, the notion that one can ever finish a
"book" may disappear.
Another criticism of hypertext is that users are presented with so much
information that their human circuits burst with cognitive overload. While
reading through a document, choices must constantly be made about which links to
follow and which to ignore. Following several paths at once may lead to the
navigation problem described above. Although this problem is not new with
hypertext, computerized access does add a sometimes overwhelming dimension to
The issues of standards and compatibility have yet to be addressed. Some may
argue that imposing standards while hypertext is still in an experimental stage
will dampen creativity, but the reality is that currently we are developing what
Van Dam calls "docu-islands" of knowledge that are incompatible with one
another. Just when it seems that compatibility problems of microcomputers have
eased somewhat, new, more complex hyperdocument systems will make all those
interconnections obsolete. It is not too soon to press for standards and
compatibility to insure not only connectivity but also ease of use.
HYPERDEFS (Hypertext-related definitions)
*Hypertext: Non-sequential computerized text retrieval system that allows
users to link associated information into a personal path through the document.
*Hyperdocument: A collection of documents in a hypertext system.
*Hypermedia: Dynamic linking of "documents" of varying formats--sounds,
graphics, video, and text.
*Global Maps: Visual cue to all of the links possible in a hypertext
*History of Paths: A chronological map of choices taken by an individual in a
Byers, T. J. (1987, April). Built by
association. PC World, 5, 244-251.
Crane, Gregory. (1988). Extending the boundaries of instruction and research.
T.H.E. Journal (Technological Horizons in Education), Macintosh Special Issue,
Heim, Michael. (1987). Electronic Language: A Philosophical Study of Word
Processing. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Nelson, Theodor H. (1973). A Conceptual framework for man-machine everything.
National Computer Conference and Exposition, June 4-8, 1973, Mew York, NY. AFIPS
Conference Proceedings VOL. 42 (pp. M22-M23). Montvale, NJ: AFIPS Press.
Van Dam, Andries. (1988, July). Hypertext '87 keynote address. Communications
of the ACM, 31, 887-895.
Yankelovich, Nicole, Landow, George P., and Cody, David. (1987). Creating
hypermedia materials for English literature students. SIGCUE Outlook, 20(3).
This digest is a condensed version of the original article, Hypertext: Behind
the hype, by Ann F. Bevilacqua, which appeared in AMERICAN LIBRARIES 20(2),
February 1989, pp. 158-162. Printed with permission of the American Library