Thinking about digital scholarly editions

Once I decided to produce an edition for my PhD thesis, I had the idea of creating a digital edition. Now I’m faced with some practical questions: what is a digital edition? How is it different from a traditional, printed edition? Why should I do this instead of a print edition? How are will I create it? How do I want it to look?

In a very timely coincidence the digital humanities conference 2015 was held in Sydney (first time ever in Australia) at the University of Western Sydney during the first week of July. The conference was absolutely fantastic and exposed me to current practices in the digital humanities and ideas on how to approach my project.

I attended a great pre-conference workshop, ‘An Introduction to Digital Manuscripts,’ run by Elena Pierazzo and Peter A. Stokes which was a very shortened version of  the Medieval and Modern Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age camp, run through DiXiT, who also sponsored the workshop. The workshop was a quick introduction to digital editing, creating digital editions using TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) and XML, and manipulating manuscript images. In the course of the workshop Elena addressed the question of what a digital scholarly edition is. She quoted Patrick Sahle’s explanation of the distinction between a digital and digitised edition, which I quote below.

Definition of “digital scholarly edition”

My working definition is “Edition ist die erschließende Wiedergabe historischer Dokumente” which cannot be translated into English straight. “A scholarly edition is the critical representation of historical documents” would be a fair approximation. Here we have three argument places:

  1. “historical documents”: editing is concerned with documents which are already there. In this wide sense of “historical” the definition includes documents relevant for all subjects, history as well as literature or philosophy. Scholarly editing goes back to and starts from existing documents. To edit (to publish) a new document (which doesn’t refer to something preexisting) is not scholarly editing.
  2. “representation”: covers (abstract) representation as well as presentation (reproduction). As I use to say: transmedialization (representation by data) and medialization (presentation by media). Publishing descriptive data (e.g. metadata) without reproduction is not critical editing. A catalogue, a database, a calendar is not an edition.
  3. “critical / scholarly” (erschlieend): reproduction of documents without critical examination is not scholarly editing. A facsimile is not a scholarly edition.

That’s a wide definition of what “scholarly editing” is. But what is “digital scholarly editing”? Digital scholarly editions are not just scholarly editions in digital media. I distinguish between digital and digitized. A digitized print edition is not a “digital edition” in the strict sense used here. A digital edition can not be printed without a loss of information and/or functionality. The digital edition is guided by a different paradigm. If the paradigm of an edition is limited to the two-dimensional space of the “page” and to typographic means of information representation, than it’s not a digital edition. – Patrick Sahle

Now that I’ve worked out what a digital edition is, the next question is why create one instead of a traditional print edition? For me, there are a few advantages digital editions have over print or even digitised versions. Digital editions can have more features such as an interactive gloss and links between parts of the text; since they are not restricted by the cost of print you can include manuscript images (depending on copyright) and perhaps other sources, e.g. Latin sources for vernacular texts. There is also potential for greater access and a wider readership than print editions, especially if it is open access – of course scholarly editions are only ever going to have limited readership no matter how accessible the text is. Joan Grenier-Winther mentions some other benefits of electronic editions including greater access to the text for readers, since they can access facsimiles of all relevant manuscripts and verify the editorial transcriptions; and in the cases where there are multiple manuscript witnesses readers can be presented with all of them.*

Of course there are problems with digital editions, as there are with all formats. Gurpreet Singh from the University of Lethbridge, Canada discussed some of these problems in his paper (presented on behalf of the other collaborators as well) ‘The Old Familiar Faces: on the consumption of Digital Scholarship’ at Digital Humanities 2015 conference. Singh referred to Dorothy Porter’s 2013 essay, where she discussed why digital editions were not being used and concluded that the problem is the editions themselves. Porter argues that they are not properly understood and Peter Robinson [I think this is the paper they were referring to] that they are not revolutionary enough. My understanding Robinson’s problem is that if the digital edition is basically the same as the print edition – then why would you bother with the digital edition? I think this related back to the difference between digitised editions and digital editions: digital editions should be radically different from print editions. Singh et al used editions of Cædmon’s Hymn as a case study and found that digital editions weren’t used as much as print ones for a few reasons including how easy it is to access the edition. During questions, Singh acknowledged that some digital editions weren’t used because they were released on CD-ROM which didn’t really catch on and that there is an old and existing problem of scholars not citing newer scholarly editions.

Another area I am unsure about is publication: obviously a goal for most PhD candidates is to publish a monograph from their thesis but I am not sure how I would be able to do that with a traditional publisher since I plan on creating a web-based interface for my edition. Though this is really just a minor concern.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that preparing a digital edition greatly increases my workload. Not only do I need to do the textual scholarship and translating work, but also the programming and digital humanities side of it. I also don’t know whether that programming work will be taken into consideration by the markers or even if they will have a someone who specialises in computer science mark it as well as medievalists.

The last, major question is now that I know I want to make a digital edition, how will I do it?

The current standard for creating digital editions is to use TEI. I have also considered using a relational database which Grenier-Winther used in her project and Tarrin Wills (one of my supervisors) discusses using for the Skaldic Project in his article. However some people I was speaking to at the DH conference thought that a database would be overkill, that for a project of my scale the TEI would be sufficient and that I should think about doing a minimalist edition. These two options are also for the data, I also need to think about programming the user-interface.

An important consideration is that I will be programming myself, so there is a great time and resources restriction because of that. I think the best way forward is to complete a sort of use case study/ software requirement analysis to review what I want to produce: how it will look and work, how I should do it, and how much time I have to actually spend on it.

If anyone reading has any opinions on the matter, I am more than open to ideas!

*Grenier-Winther, Joan, ‘Server-Side Databases, the World Wide Web, and the Editing of Medieval Poetry: The Case of La Belle dame qui eut mercy‘ in The Book Unbound: Editing and Reading Medieval Manuscripts and Texts ed. by Siân Echard and Stephen Partridge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 190-220 (pp. 191-2). [Can be found on Google books here]

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