Week 4 (September 15-19)

Working with Electronic Editions

“Digital curation emphasizes adding value to data sets and digital objects, through things such as additional metadata or annotations, so that they can be reused.” – Ross Harvey, Digital Curation: A How-to-do-it Manual, 7-8

“Scholarly editions comprise the most fundamental tools in literary studies. Their development came in response to the complexity of literary works, especially those that had evolved through a long historical process (as one sees in the bible, Homer, the plays of Shakespeare). To deal with these works, scholars invented an array of ingenious machines: facsimile editions, critical editions, editions with elaborate notes and contextual materials for clarifying a work’s meaning. The limits of the book determined the development of the structural forms of these different mechanisms; those limits also necessitated the periodic recreation of new editions as relevant materials appeared or disappeared, or as new interests arose.” – Jerome McGann, “The Rational of Hypertext,” paragraph 8

“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. It is not as if economic problems go away with electronic editing, but they are of a different sort. For example, because color images are prohibitively expensive for most book publications, scholars can usually hope to have only a few black and white illustrations in a book. In an electronic edition, however, we can include as many high-resolution color images as can be procured, assuming adequate server space for storage and delivery, and assuming sufficient staff to carry out the laborious process of scanning or photographing materials and making them available to users. […]. The possibility of including so much and so many kinds of material makes the question of where and what is the text for an electronic edition every bit as vexed (if not more so) than it has been for print scholarship.” – Kenneth M. Price, “Electronic Scholarly Editions,” paragraphs 4-5

“The idea that electronic texts encourage a new kind of reading has also been overstated. Because the press of a key or the click of a mouse can (if the texts have been so linked) take one instantly from a given point in one transcribed text to a given point in another and can make it easy to locate the same points in images of the relevant documents or to go to reproductions of relevant visual art and music, there has been a feeling that new reading habits will emerge: the reader will constantly move around and backtrack rather than taking a straightforward linear path. No doubt many (perhaps even most) people will find it easier to read this way in electronic editions than in printed ones; but the codex is not in fact an inefficient instrument for ‘radial reading’ (as it is now often called), and most readers–of all kinds of books, not just scholarly editions–have always done a great deal of it. What makes the job easier is less a matter of technology than of how thoughtfully a text or set of texts is cross-referenced–with tables of contents, running heads, footnote numbers, indexes, and so on, as well as lists of variants and other textual data, in codices; or with a network of searching capabilities, as well as linked apparatuses and other editorial material, in electronic texts. Such aids to radial reading can be well or poorly constructed regardless of whether the means of presentation is printed or electronic.” – G. Thomas Tanselle, “Forward,” Electronic Textual Editing, paragraph 7

Whether it’s reconstructing the damaged manuscript of Beowulf; creating a definitive edition of The Canterbury Tales; highlighting and providing access to rare and less familiar texts such as those found at the Emory Women Writers Resource Project; adding commentary to a poem such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship;” or adding metadata to a music video of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues;” the purpose of textual criticism and other forms of textual scholarship has always been about adding value  to a text for reuse.

As McGann, Price, and Tanselle make clear above, textual scholarship has long existed before computers, and a wide-range of tools and practices were created to add value to printed editions of texts. Computers offer us a number of possibilities for creating and working with texts, from increased access (the Beowulf mss), to the increased ability to add interpretive material (TEI the encoding of Dylan’s song to the annotations added to Browning’s poem), to the ability to place texts within a larger interpretive context (the Emory Women Writers Resource Project).

As we begin to investigate and begin to create our own electronic editions, it is worthwhile to remember that all technologies, including media, come both with affordances and constraints, and electronic editions are no exception. For example, take a look at any print version of a specialized dictionary or encyclopedia such as the Oxford English Dictionary, David Crystal’s A Dictionary of Language, Holman and Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, or The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media and look up any term of interest, or simply browse through the physical book. After doing that, look up a particular word or term using an electronic version of the same resource or Wikipedia.

As you look through the physical book you will see other entries, some of which will catch your eye. Often such discoveries are serendipitous, such as when I found “Quirkian” in A Dictionary of Language the other day. I immediately knew that it had to be a reference to the British grammarian Randolph Quirk, a major figure in the study of descriptive English grammar. It never occurred to me, however, that our idea of a quirk (a peculiarity) came from his name. With the electronic versions, or with Wikipedia, while we can also follow links to related material which can lead to serendipitous discoveries, the constraints of hypertextual linking in reference materials almost always means we’re limited to encountering related concepts, whereas in a print version we have much greater chance of stumbling onto anything regardless of how related or unrelated it might be to our initial search.

This is not to suggest that electronic editions are more limited or constrained than print ones or that print texts are better. Rather, as we begin examining and creating our own electronic editions, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the limits of the digital as well as its capabilities, which are numerous and powerful.


  • McLuhan Proposal: 10:00 PM, Mon., 15 Sept.
  • Reading Response post: 10:00 PM, Wed., 17 Sept.
  • Community Response post: 10:00 PM, Sat., 20 Sept.
    • Group 1 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 4.
    • Group 2 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 1.
    • Group 3 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 2.
    • Group 4 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 3.
  • Participation posts (3): During the week.


  • Read lecture posts for the week. The most recent lectures can always be found on the front page for the course or using the Lecture category. Short lectures will be posted throughout the week.
  • Review and begin weekly Participation assignment forum posts.
  • Reading Response and Community Response blog posts (Online Writing Activities).
  • Look at examples of electronic editions (see below).
  • Work on the McLuhan Project. Due 10:00 PM, Oct. 6.
  • Graduate students: Continue working on the Annotated Bibliography assignment. Due: Dec. 2, 10:00 PM.


Sample Electronic Editions

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