The Digital Scholarly Edition

The Context

Although the very notion of a final and finite version of a text on a platform as flexible and dynamic as the digital may be questioned, one needs to set certain achievable short and long term goals in the preparation of any electronic or digital edition. A good point from which to start are still the questions Peter Robinson, summing up contemporary debates in electronic text-editing, asked more than a decade ago.1‘Where We Are with Electronic Scholarly Editions, and Where We Want to Be’  Jahrbuch für Computerphilologie Online here, January 2004. In print in Jahrbuch für Computerphilologie 2004, 123-143. A quick run-through of them at this point might not be irrelevant.

  1. Should an electronic edition simply present images or be centred around images?2Robinson refers to Kevin Kiernan’s Online Beowulf. Of course, the Online Beowulf, now in its third edition, contains editorial emendations and restorations with collation functions, but it is a documentary edition in that it does not offer commentary. For Kiernan’s position see, among others, Kevin Kiernan, “Digital Facsimile in Editing,” in John Unsworth, Lou Burnard, and Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe eds. Electronic Textual Editing  (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2006), p. 262–68.
  2. If there are many witnesses, should it include collations?
  3. Should there also be an edited text?
  4. If so, how should it be constructed?
  5. Should the edited text include commentary? If so, what kind of commentary?
  6. How should commentary materials be presented?
  7. Should we be making editions at all (given that all editions are mediated through interpretation and individual subjectivity) or should we only have archives (the impersonality of which might facilitate readerly freedom)?

The last question, which is allied to the first, is obviously the thorniest of them all. The proliferation of documentary editions based on facsimiles has led Robinson himself to answer them emphatically in the negative.3Peter Robinson, “Towards a Theory of Digital Editions,” Variants 10 (2013): 105–32, p. 127. Elena Pierazzo efficiently summing up the current state of the debate in a recent article defines a diplomatic edition as ‘an edition of a text based on a single document, which attempts to reproduce a certain degree of the peculiarities of the document itself, even if this may cause disruption to the normal flow of the text presented by the document.’4Elena Pierazzo, ‘Digital Documentary Editions and the Others,’  Scholarly Editing 35 (2014), para 3. Elsewhere she asserts that digital documentary editions record ‘as many features of the original document as are considered meaningful by the editors, displayed in all the ways the editors consider useful for the readers, including all the tools necessary to achieve such a purpose.5 Elena Pierazzo, “A Rationale of Digital Documentary Editions,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 26, no. 4 (2011) 463–77, p. 475. She finds that the single greatest obstacle to critical editions with multiple witnesses is a lack of strong intellectual investment in standardization and collaboration across nations and disciplines.6Pierazzo, ‘Documentary Editions and the Others’, op. cit. para 19 In this respect, the present project might be said to be taking a step in the recommended direction.

As is quickly apparent from even the most cursory glance at the participants of the debate (including the writers mentioned above), most discussion about the normative digital edition stems from the practical experience of the scholars involved in it (as indeed it does for print editors). Many of the essays in Unsworth et. al.7Electronic Textual Editing, op. cit. available as preview in the Text Encoding Initative’s Archive pages deal with TEI projects and most of the contributors of A Companion to Digital Humanities are humanities scholars or librarians who have been involved in their own digital projects for years.8Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens and John Unsworth eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). The theories of scholarly editing perforce stem from pragmatic premises, but in the case of digital editions, the material perhaps dictates editorial principles and choices to a greater degree than in a print edition. So is it with this project.

Although not as vast as, say, the corpus of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Anne Askew’s two examinations have survived in quite a few witnesses in four contemporary editions. More interestingly, several of the extant copies of the editions are censored, having had certain pages cut or pasted together. While the very presence of multiple witnesses makes the idea of a collated edition viable, the censored versions coupled with the voice of John Bale (the original editor or ‘presenter’ of the texts) demand critical commentary. Also, the bewildering amount of biblical citations on almost every page that shore up Bale’s commentary is rich ground for analysis of the kind of references used by militant reformers like Bale. But the arguments for a diplomatic image-based edition for the texts are also strong. Apart from facilitating the study of font usage, printer’s decorations, woodcuts and other visual aspects of the physical text, presenting facsimile images along with transcription could be especially appropriate for the censored copies of the books

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