“Electronic Scholarly Editions” by Kenneth M. Price.

Digital technology is playing an increasing role in society and in academic studies. Many traditional academic principles, such as, literature, are now utilising digital tools in order to create, critically analyse and adapt works of literature. Kenneth Price’s article “Electronic Scholarly Editions” explores the role and effects, both positive and negative, of digital technologies in electronic scholarly editions.

A scholarly edition is a piece of work which is considered in-depth, thoroughly analysed and therefore reliable in academic circles. Reliability, is a key term associated with scholarly editions with the Modern Language Association stating that “the scholarly edition’s basic task is to present a reliable text: scholarly editions make clear what they promise and keep their promises”. The MLA further states that reliability is established through, accuracy, adequacy, appropriateness, consistency and explicitness. (MLA Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions). Price defines the scholarly edition as the establishment of a text on explicitly stated principles; created by someone with specialized knowledge about textual scholarship. Both definitions are crucial as they highlight a distinction between work that has been digitised and work that has been first critically analysed and is then digitally preserved, as Price states; “mere digitizing produces information; in contrast, scholarly editing produces knowledge.”

Similar to traditional works of a high literary standard preservation is fundamental.  Price exemplifies how prominent electronic editions are often referred to as digital archives. Traditionally, archives are collections of records and documents which provide information about an institution, place or a group of people (Oxford Dictionary).  However, traditional archives are seldom, if ever, methodically edited and annotated as a whole. Contrastingly, archives in a digital context have now become something that blends features of both; the annotation of an edition and the inclusiveness of an archive (Price).

Price states, the William Blake Archive, as an example of a distinguished scholarly edition. The role of the archive is paramount in the context of scholarly digital editions as: “the “edition” is only a piece of the “archive,” and, in contrast to print, “editions,” “resources,” and “tools” can be interdependent rather than independent.” (Price). The archive allows for critical analysis of original texts, alterations to the text, and finalised editions of the text, in contrast, to traditional editions where analysis can only take place when the text is finalised. The William Blake Archivewas established in 1996. The archive aims to deliver a free international resource that provides integrated access to major works of visual and literary works to a contemporary audience. Furthermore, the archive consists of fully searchable and scalable electronic editions of Blake’s work and in 1995 underwent a change from SGML to XML and Extensible Stylesheet Language, a change which was fundamental to the goal of the archive, which is to; “set a new standard of accessibility to a vast array of visual and textual materials that are central to an adequate grasp of the British art and literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” (The William Blake Archive: The Archive at a glance).

For more information on the William Blake Archive, please visit the below link which provides information on all aspects of the website, including its history, future goals, articles and user instructions:

About the William Blake Archive

An appealing aspect of electronic editions is their “capaciousness” with scholars no longer limited to a word count or to the high costs of print publishing (Price). Because electronic editions are not confined to the limitations of the printed page, editors of electronic editions have more autonomy to create more in-depth and comprehensive editions. Furthermore, editors are not restricted to guidelines set forth by publishers, who have previously had the ultimate say in exactly what was published.  However, editors of electronic editions are restricted by the amount of resources available. Price, provides an excellent case of this, in his example, of the inclusion of colour photographs in an edition. In traditional print literature, the insertion of many high-resolution colour photographs proves costly. In an electronic version of an edition, one can include as many colour photographs as desired. Nevertheless, large-scale projects, which involve copious amounts of scanning, collection and analysis of documents and which require technical expertise are limited to the amount of resources and persons available, with sufficient server space also necessary. A key aspect in the creation and maintenance of large-scale electronic editions is collaboration. As large volumes of documents and photographs may need to be digitised, a team of scholars working in conjunction with one another is necessary. Furthermore, the merging of academic knowledge from experts from varying disciplines allows effective knowledge sharing, thus, ensuring the production of works of high standards.

Price notes how increasingly editors have desired multiple texts. The advantage of electronic editing is that it allows more than one version of the same text. Which is a fundamental advantage in the scholarly study of literary works such as, Walt Whitman’s, “Leaves of the Grass” which went through six different editions. For further information on the artist’s works, please visit, The Walt Whitman Archive

Price’s essay also looks at distinctions between digital libraries and scholarly editions, digital library projects refer to large scale digitisation projects which are more refined and specialised works. An example of a digital library project is The Wright American Fiction Project.  Furthermore, Price highlights a new emerging form of scholarly editions; the thematic research collection, which aim toward being the ideal of being an all-inclusive resource for the study of a given topic. Price highlights an additional beneficial feature of electronic editions; “the possibility of incremental development and delivery”. Which refers to releasing works that are still in the process of being completed, which is often the case of works of large volumes. This can prove useful to academic scholars due to the searchability of the texts, however, it also raises critical questions, such as, when is the edition stable? However, electronic scholarly editions are not without disadvantages. Price argues that all editions have a perspective, for example, the Brown University Women Writers Project  is a project largely based on gender, which leaves Price to conclude that “even an inclusive digital archive is both an amassing of material and a shaping of it.”

Furthermore, Price cites, Jerome McGann, to highlight a fundamental issue associated with electronic scholarly editing, which is that universities have done very little in order to train academics of literature and of history to work with the possibilities of digital technologies. McGann in his article “Literary Scholarship and the Digital Future”  predicts:

In the next 50 years, the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be re-edited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination. This system, which is already under development, is transnational and transcultural. Let’s say that prophecy is true. Now ask yourself these questions: Who will be carrying out this work? Who will do it? Who should do it?

Bearing these questions in mind when looking towards the future of electronic scholarly editing is vital. In a digital age when both computing hardware and software are continuously evolving it is important for scholars to collaborate to ensure the preservation, archiving and dissemination of works. Price notes, that in our current ever changing digital environment it is paramount that “electronic scholarly editions adhere to international standards.” Consequently, Extensible Markup Language (XML) is now the common standard used to mark-up languages in digital humanities projects with future versions of Text Encoding Initiative becoming XML only. XML defines a set of rules for encoding text documents which may be read by both computers and humans. XML is a valuable tool to electronic editors as it allows areas of interest to be tagged, thus, ensuring easy searchability and flexibility. Moreover, Price stresses the importance of the use of Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standards which integrates metadata into thematic research collections. The use of descriptive information, such as metadata, has been in existence for many years, for example, libraries use descriptive information about books to establish library catalogues. The use of Metadata Encoding and Transmissions Standards in conjunction with TEI-encoded transcriptions, archival TIFF images and EAD finding guidelines is essential in electronic collections in order to record essential relationships between files (Price).

For an insight in the power of metadata, please view the below Ted Talk:

To conclude, Price’s essay provides an invaluable insight into electronic scholarly editing and illustrates how electronic editing allows a new engagement with texts. Price’s comprehensive insight into the advantages and disadvantages of electronic editing illustrates key areas that academics must consider when undertaking electronic editing. Furthermore, Price’s essay is instrumental in understanding the future role of electronic scholarly editing in the academic environment. Moreover, Price’s essay illustrates the importance of editing and of editorial theory. The editing and preservation of texts is instrumental in providing an insight into the past, as Price eloquently puts it: “editing texts is a way to preserve and study the past, to bring it forward into the present so that it remains a living part of our heritage”.