Cheheyl Professor and Professor of English Tom Luxon wanted a way to open up the incredibly rich texts of 17th-century poet John Milton for his students, so he built a unique and powerful Web-based tool to serve as the ultimate Milton resource. His brainchild, the Milton Reading Room, provides comprehensive and exhaustively annotated access to nearly all of Milton's works and celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
"The initial impetus for the project was Milton's intimidation of first-time readers," explains Luxon, who has taught Milton for 24 years. The author, best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, peppered his works with classical, Biblical, historical, and political references, many of which are obscure to the average modern reader. "The best way to read Milton would be to do it in a library, surrounded by piles of books," says Luxon. "The Web makes it possible to read Milton in a virtual library with a strong array of classical, Biblical, scientific, and early modern sources."
The Reading Room, contains all of Milton's poetry in English, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and selections of his prose. Most of the works have introductions and have been fully annotated. The annotations appear as footnotes along with the text and the annotations themselves contain links to external sites that offer more information about each individual reference. For example, in Book One of Paradise Lost, click on the verse "hope never comes" and a footnote explains that the phrase is "a deliberate echo of Dante's Inferno." Within the footnote, a hyperlink takes users to the online Dante resource hosted by Columbia University. (Although the Milton Reading Room itself is free to all users, some of the sites it links to require paid subscriptions for non-Dartmouth users.)
Luxon, who has, with the help of undergraduate Presidential Scholars, maintained the site himself, says it is important that the Reading Room keep pace with emerging innovations on the Web, expanding the content and avenues to scholarship as new media develops. "The next challenge will be to apply for grants with the specific purpose of making it sustainable past my involvement," he says. In preparation for that eventuality, Luxon formally gifted the project to the Board of Trustees and put it under the administration of the Dartmouth Library.
Even among other single-author Web resources, the Milton Reading Room stands apart because the site "links out to the larger World Wide Web at every point in the reading process," says Luxon. "Other single-author sites are usually self-contained."
Sarah Horton, instructional technology specialist in academic computing, helped Luxon design the site and taught him the basics of programming. "Tom was an early adopter. He wanted to be able to consolidate all these growing Web resources. I opened the door to programming, and he never looked back." The site has since undergone a redesign, and Luxon has expanded his programming skills with additional help from Barbara Knauff and Mark O'Neill in curricular computing.
Luxon says that site traffic varies from about 7,500 to 14,000 page views a day. While Luxon's students account for some of that usage, many more users come from outside the College and from all over the world. Many Milton teachers include the Milton Reading Room on their course Web sites and syllabi, and other Milton sites, including the Milton Wikipedia entry, link to the Reading Room.
Next year will mark John Milton's 400th birthday, and Luxon is pleased with the avenues to scholarship that the Reading Room provides: "It does take people down byways and highways of humanistic learning and sometimes that leads them away from Milton, but that's a danger I'm willing to put up with."
By GENEVIEVE HAAS
*Paradise Lost, Book 2, line 354
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Last Updated: 12/17/08