Lecture: Electronic Scholarly Editions and Digital Scholarly Editing

While Jerome McGann’s 1995 “The Rationale for HyperText” gave us a future-looking view of the possibilities hypertext/hypermedia might offer for the future of scholarly editing, Kenneth Price’s 2008 “Electronic Scholarly Editions” and Susan Schreibman’s even more recent “Digital Scholarly Editing” give us the view from our present – McGann’s future – looking back at what has been done and what our current challenges are.

One issue both tackle is the additive nature enabled by digital publication, by which I mean the ability to add more and more material to an edition (or an archive) because one is not limited by physical constraints and publishing costs governing the creation of print texts. Or, as Price puts it, “One distinguishing feature of electronic editions is their capaciousness: scholars are no longer limited by what they can fit on a page or afford to produce within the economics of print publishing” (par. 4). While McGann suggests we start thinking in terms of creating archives rather than electronic editions, Price argues that we need to distinguish between an electronic edition and an archive or library (par. 14-19), what Schreibman names “thematic research collections” (TRC) (par. 17-24).

As both articles are looking back on what has been done as opposed to McGann’s imagining what might be possible, both Price and Schreibman’s articles delve into the technical, with reference to and some discussion of various markup languages and standards used in the production of electronic editions: SGML, HTML, XML, XHTML, XSLTTEI (Text Encoding Initiative) and EAD (Encoded Archival Description). All of this can seem daunting, and be daunting, if you’re not technically inclined. If you’re familiar with proofreader’s marks, you’re familiar with an early markup language. One of the functions of proofreader’s marks was to “marked up” final pages sent to a printer to indicate issues of formatting. Likewise, one of the functions of markup languages is to tell a web browser how to format text.

Other markup languages exist to add metadata to electronic text. Using the TEI set of XML, for instance, one could mark up an electronic version of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Renascence” or Shakespeare’s Hamlet so that every sentence, subject and predicate, every noun, noun clause, verb, every adjective, adverb, preposition, and prepositional phrase as tagged as such. You could then create search functions that might tell you how many predicates exist in the poem “Renascence” or in Hamlet. Or, more interestingly, you could search to see if there are any predicates without a subject, or how many sentences include prepositional phrases. Or you could go through and mark up versification or poetic, rhetorical, and stylistic devices such as enjambment, alliteration, metonymy, internal rhyme, or dramatic irony, and then run searches to find alliteration in Hamlet’s dialogue (that is, the lines spoken by Hamlet), or where Millay uses enjambment in “Renascence.”

XML is particularly powerful in that while TEI and EAD define a set of XML tags, XML allows users to create their own tags. So, for instance, if you wanted to create the tag “adjectives that imply sound” and the tag “adjectives associated with danger, threat, or harm,”  you can. And if you mark up Hamlet using those tags, you can then run searches to find those instances. You could even run a search to find sound-adjetives that are associated with danger, threat, or harm. If this sounds interesting to you, I would recommend going back and reading paragraphs 25-42 of Schreibman’s “Digital Scholarly Editing” – the section I didn’t ask you to read. Her explanation of TEI and other standards is fairly gentle.

Also of note in Schreibman’s article is her discussion of future issues: electronic literature, crowdsourcing (it’s a lot of work to markup a text like Hamlet, especially if you want to include a number of custom XML tags), virtual reality, and mass digitization.

Why We’re Reading “Electronic Scholarly Editions” and “Digital Scholarly Editing”

Kenneth Price’s and Susan Schreibman’s essays offer us:

  • An introduction to how computers and digital technologies have been reshaping and reviving one of the key fields of literary scholarship. As Price notes, scholarly editing, while vital to literary study, had fallen out of favor, in part because work on the major texts had been edited.[The reality is that scholarly editing is a form of interpretation, so no text is ever really “done,” but it could be hard to convince a publisher that your critical edition of Beowulf or Mansfield Park is so radically different than what’s been done before that printing your edition will be financially viable.] Because electronic publishing is free from many of the constraints of print publishing, and because electronic texts allow us to work with and study texts in new ways (XML tagging is but just one example), computes and the possibility of electronic editions haven’t just reshaped scholarly editing, they have helped revive the practice.
  • A survey of how electronic textual scholarship has developed in the 20-some years since MGann first wrote his essay.
  • An general introduction to the field of scholarly editing along with good bibliographies, more than enough to get you started if you are interested in the theory and practice of scholarly editing, digital or otherwise.
  • An introduction to some of the pragmatic issues involved in creating electronic scholarly texts.
  • An introduction to the purpose and function of markup languages, standards initiatives, and metadata.

While our own forays into creating electronic editions, both the McLuhan Project and the Electronic Edition Project, will just scratch the surface of the possible, we will engage with some of the issues addressed in these articles. We will confront the issue of capaciousness, we’ll have the opportunity to dip our toes into markup languages and metadata,1 and we’ll think about how we want to represent our texts. For instance, in your annotated passage of The Medium Is the Massage, do you want to just display a facsimile of your chosen pages of the book, do you want to reproduce the text (the words) outside of their page context, do you want to display parts of each page so that you can focus in on features you’re annotated, or do you want make use of all these options? Whereas your choices might be limited were you to be creating a print edition, with an electronic edition you are limited instead by the amount of time you can spend.

  1. Fear not, we need not get involved with markup languages, and metadata can be as simple as adding into a text field basic information about a media file such as its title, the date it was created, the name of the creator, and a one sentence description of what it is.

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