Session 2: Scholarly Editing in a Digital World: Pushing the Boundaries

In this session three leading American scholarly editors, all experienced proponents of born-digital scholarly editions, address questions central to the future of scholarly editing. It generally dealt with the future, possibilities and problem of scholarly editing in a digital world. The three speakers have extensive experience in the world of born-digital scholarly editions which allows them to define the advantages as well as the limitations of the digital age. Edward Lengel represents the project of the Papers of George Washington, Holly Cowan Schulman talks about the Dolley Madison Digital Edition and Constance B. Schulz informs us about the Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry plus the Pinckney Revolutionary Era Statesmen. The born-digital scholarly editions took centre stage in this session as illustrations.

Schermafdruk 2014-11-10 14.03.40The first paper by Edward Lengel was read by Constance B. Schulz and dealt with the tension between patience and innovation, an issue that still matters in editing today. A first obstacle for innovative thinking in the seventies and eighties was theoretical. Interpretation was no longer a main concern for full-time editors, who became highly trained technicians working to deliver editions as accurate as possible. It was all about being loyal to the texts. The accessibility of those editions wasn’t even discussed. Productivity became an issue in the nineties due to the increasing financial and economical pressure. It could take decennia before the editions were finished. Scholarly editions were too expensive and often remained unread. Accessibility became a big issue since 2000. Lengel argues that the increasing demand for productivity, accessibility and evaluation of the impact of editions creates a situation in which editors adapt or die. According to him this leads to charming ideas like crowd-sourcing and programmes that can transcribe whole texts by pressing a single button. Lengel doesn’t believe in magical solutions. There is no advantage in terms of time and cost. In the words of Lengel: ” There are no short cuts to the Promised Land” and “Patience is a rare virtue”. Innovation though remains important component in The George Washington Financial Papers Project. But Lengel concludes that collaboration is needed to acquire more and better data. We should attempt to bypass challenges that have preoccupied traditional scholars for generations, experiment with and implement new technologies to create integrated, modernized scholarly editions in digital public history.

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The next speaker, Holly Schulman, talked about the hope, fear and digital future. She started by making a comparison between the media,  books and the digital world. Schulman also states that there are no shortcuts in research. She gave us an insight in the technicalities of editing and the structuring, visualisation of digital and print edition. Books have already proved their sustainability, Schulman argues, but are not by any means a static object and do not presume a linear process. Digital editions are not physical objects, but they do have a structure and visualisation. Digital tagging makes it possible to separate visualisation and meaning. A book has an index to do the same thing, but on a very different scale and not quite as user friendly. Digital annotations are a way to give even more information outside of the text, while still staying linked with it. Those annotations can get a life on their own. The relationship between traditional letterpress editions and those being now published in the digital world were central in her paper. Lastly they were able to develop a new content-management system named Docktracker. It developed through the Dolley Madison Digital Edition. This system could make the technical side of digital editions easier. But creating a more sustainable platform for digital edition funding is essential for the future of scholarly editing.

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Connie Schulz concluded this session with her paper about the essential aspect of digital editing. She argues that it’s not the technical issues that are problematic, but the business plan. Digital editions are easier to use and more accessible. But that accessibility comes with a price: creation, production and distribution of content costs money. Schulz discussed a lot of different models for publication and access. She is working with the university of South Carolina to develop a publishing platform that could also be used on a smaller scale by archives, libraries and museums. Smaller projects could become their own publishers.

All three speakers share their disbelief in magic solutions, such as crowdsourcing, and they believe that collaboration is much more sustainable. But is there absolutely no advantage in crowdsourcing? Another key element is the cost of free-content.  Creating free content costs money. Should the users be receiving the bill? How far does the right for information and documents go when national and/or international funding is insufficient? The digital age means better ease of use and accessibility, but it also means the need for more funding to obtain and maintain these advantages. What we need is a business model that can sustain the already existing born-digital editions, but can also fund new projects and tools to help advance digital editing. What is the best model for publication and access?

We, the younger generation, are generally considered to be ‘digital natives’. However, when we compare ourselves to the expertise and experience both professors were demonstrating, we can only conclude that we’ve still got a long way to go until we are completely familiar with the developments and general evolution in digital editing. There was one interesting question asked at the end of the session: Do we historians have to specialise ourselves in informatics, coding and web design? The answer was clearly no! It is the publisher’s responsibility, as it is with paper editions. However, it can be very useful to have a basic notion of it.

Schermafdruk 2014-11-10 14.02.56 The George Washington Financial Papers Project:

The Dolley Madison Digital Edition (DMDE):

The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry and the Pinckney Revolutionary Era Statesmen:

  • Silke Bergans

  • Shauni Braem

  • Louis Dejaeghere

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