Computers and Scholarly Editing

How has the advent of computers changed the practice of scholarly editing?

Since the 1970s, scholarly editors have used word-processing software rather than typewriters to prepare copy for publishing, and publishers have used computers and photography, rather than metal type and forms, to turn the copy into a printed book. These changes have had profound consequences for the workflow and products of scholarly editing, increasing flexibility for editors, publishers, and readers alike. Among other results, readers can now often choose whether to read a scholarly edition on paper or on a screen — as an ebook, for example, or a pdf.

Yet these changes have had little if any impact on the aims and methods of scholarly editing compared to another one that began taking place around the same time. This other change involved looking consciously and systematically at texts and their contents as data worthy of scholarly attention, and leveraging the power of computers to work with this data so as to facilitate new scholarly insights.

When we speak here of digital scholarly editing, we mean scholarly editing that takes such a data-oriented approach. It’s an approach that’s simultaneously old and new, building on longstanding textual traditions even as it entails new methods and opens the door to new ways of conceiving the edition as a scholarly product.

Data and the humanities

“Data” isn’t a word uttered trippingly on the tongues of most humanists, and if you’re new to digital humanities, treating the world of wondrous and inspiring things created by the human imagination as data may seem absurdly quantitative and reductive.

But consider the meaning of datum, the singular of the Latin data: “a thing given.” Data are things, and as wondrous and inspiring as they may be, the things created by the human imagination are … well, you see where this is going.

“I made a thing!” is the cry of many a creator on the internet. The Victorian advocate of “art for art’s sake,” Oscar Wilde, asserted that “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” His contemporary, William Morris, made books that are beautiful things to view and hold. He helped inspire a movement, still very much with us today, to make ordinary household objects beautiful things.

The humanities are actually a very thing-y space, a space in which we’re often making contact with other people’s imaginations through material things: a painting, a sculpture, a building, a book, a letter, a manuscript — a thing that takes up space in the world, that can be measured and weighed and otherwise described.

Not only that, but many of the things that humanists study — books, certainly — are chock full of things. They may be things in a world that doesn’t exist, but that just makes them things of a different sort: imaginary things. If we set about to describe the people, places, and objects in a novel in material terms, taking note of material attributes such as dimensions and colors, we’re likely to find we have a lot to say.

Books and other texts are typically filled with abstract as well as material things: structural entities such as titles, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, stanzas, lines, and words; and conceptual entities such as names (not to be confused with the things they name) and figures of speech: metaphors, similes, symbols, etc.

Humanists have always taken an interest in these things. As noted earlier, bibliographers and librarians have long made it possible to identify and sort texts by the kinds of things they are or contain. Scholarly editors have long sought to bring forth, from one or more versions of a text, an edition that not only delivers the text’s content but also carefully describes the text as a thing and the things in the text. This careful description, we noted, is not simply a process of recording observations; metareading, as we’ve called it, frequently requires judgment and interpretation.

When we say that digital scholarly editing treats texts and their content consciously and systematically as data, all we really mean is that it seeks to describe texts-as-things and things-in-texts in a language that a computer can understand. Doing so makes possible new ways to think about and interact with texts. Software applications capable of reading the descriptive language in a digital scholarly edition can, among other things, display the textual content in a variety of formats, extract bits of that content for re-presentation in charts and tables, surface patterns in that content that it would be difficult to detect through ordinary reading, and link content within an edition to other content on the internet, including content in other digital editions.

The use of a standardized, machine-readable language to describe textual data is known as text-encoding. In the next module, we’ll look at what text-encoding is, some of the ways it can be done, and how it changes what can be accomplished in a scholarly edition.