c/o Digital Medievalist: future digital editing

From Dot Porter, of the DHO at the RIA in Dublin … Any further thoughts, please contact her.

Dear List,

I posted this message to the AnsaxNet listserv yesterday (as part of a
thread about, well, digital editing), but I think it really belongs
here. I’m quick to point out there is nothing here that is really new
or that no-one has said before, but I like thinking about it it such
concrete terms. Thoughts?Dot


My own vision of the future of digital editions depends first on all
data (text and images) being released under Open Access licenses,
allowing for reuse and repurposing of that data (with acknowledgment
given to those involved in the development of that data), and second
on the continuing innovation in technologies (open-source and non) for
working with that data – interfaces, visualizations, search engines,
etc. etc.

In my ideal future, one day I’ll release a little edition of a text
from manuscript Y. Because I have limited time, I’ll just show the
text and pages facing one another. I’m really interested in the
paleography of this particular manuscript, so I’ll take special care
to mark all the special scribal elements in the TEI, give users the
option to view those, and I’ll include a separate paleographical
description as well.

Two years from then, another scholar interested in the text from
manuscript Y creates an edition of that text, comparing the readings
from manuscript Y with those from mss L and Q. He’ll use the
transcriptions I made for manuscript Y as the basis for his other
transcriptions and will include the images from my edition as well.
He’s not so interested in paleography, so he’ll ignore that code and
he won’t include it for the other manuscripts. His edition only has
the images for mss Y and Q, though – he wasn’t able to afford those
for ms L (yes, in my future libraries still charge a lot for images
unfortunately – although they are happy to have them posted online).
Since I released my edition a new open-source interface was released
that makes it easier to view textual variants, so this scholar
presents his edition through that interface. He includes my original
license statement and acknowledges the portion of the data he is

The next year, images for ms L become available and are plugged into
this edition.

The next year, a new editing tool becomes available (open source) that
enables the automated linking of lines of encoded text with lines from
manuscript images. Another scholar takes the data from the latest
version of the edition and runs everything through this tool. He is
also interested in paleography, so adds paleographic encoding to the
transcriptions for mss L and Q. When he releases his own edition
(using one of the three interfaces available to work specifically with
linked image and text), he includes license statements and
acknowledgments for all data he’s incorporated from the earlier
editions. He presents this new edition through an interface provided
by the editing tool developers – but the interface is commercial and
he has to pay a license fee (they have to make their money somewhere;
even so, eight months from now an open-source interface is released
that can also present the links, and it’s even better than the one
provided by the tool developers).

Now, four years after I released my little edition, there are three
very different editions available dealing with rather different
aspects of the text, each building on and adding to the last. I didn’t
anticipate any of this when I put out my edition – I only did what I
wanted to do, and trusted that those who came after me would add what
they need. I also trusted that they would respect my license and
acknowledge my original work.

There are still questions of course – four years later, will my lovely
simple and standard code still run on the same browsers, or will
someone (probably not me – I’ve moved on by this point) need to do
something to keep it running? One could argue it’s a moot point,
though, as my project has essentially been incorporated into these
other projects. That is, the data from my projects is there; the
original interface and methods for working with that data will
probably be different. But then, if someone finds the existing
interfaces unreasonable for their own use, they are free to take my
data and feed them through any available interface or visualization
system. In my future, programming experience is not required.

Ten years later, computers have changed entirely. The browsers and
other interfaces that ran these editions six years ago don’t work on
today’s computers. We’ll need to build new browsers and new interfaces
– but that’s all we need to do, because the edition data is standard
and expected. We just need to build them and plug that data in.

It’s possible this sounds crazy, and it does require that editors be
willing to release their editorial data under Open Access licenses. I
honestly don’t know if this is reasonable, but it would be the ideal.
It also requires that all this editorial data be encoded using the
same standards. This isn’t so much of an issue, as pretty much all
serious scholarly editions are currently encoded in some flavour of
TEI. And it won’t be *easy*, it will take community involvement and,
of course, people willing to build those interfaces and visualization
tools. But there are already digital humanities scholars and
programmers working on that… I think with cooperation it could be
done. If I’m not the only person who would want something like this.

Dot Porter (MA, MSLS)
Metadata Manager
Digital Humanities Observatory (Royal Irish Academy),
Regus House,
28-32 Upper Pembroke Street,
Dublin 2, Ireland

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