Monday, June 18, 2012

Do we need a new book on scholarly editing?



Following up on my first blog entry about the possibility of producing a 4th revised edition of Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age, I think we are at a point in the development of electronic scholarly editions to justify the idea. SECA was addressed to serious scholars who saw a need to edit a text but who had no training in scholarly editing. Some of the best textual critics (and some of the worst) come from the ranks of those untrained in bibliography and textual criticism but whose scholarly research rendered them unhappy with the existing editions of works they have investigated.
   Following the publication of the first three editions of SECA, I wrote (in part by gathering up scattered essays, revising them and adding new chapters) Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning (1997), this time trying my best to answer my own remaining questions about the nature of literary texts and the consequences of a range of editorial strategies that could be adopted for scholarly editing. The best compliments I have ever gotten about my writings have been about this book from scholarly editors whose works I have respected. I have also gotten dismissive remarks from folks who think it is too hard to follow, especially its key chapter, "Text as Concept, Matter, and Action". But I was wrong about that book being the place to work out my final thoughts on scholarly editing.
   Following developments in electronic scholarly editing, and in particular going to work as a colleague of Peter Robinson at De Montfort University, revitalized my attention to the potentials for electronic editing. However, it does not take a rocket scientist to see very quickly what was wrong with all the electronic edition prototypes that had developed by 2005: they were either developed by serious textual critics with poor technical support (ugly but useful) or by ersatz textual critics with wonderful technical support (pretty but amateurish scholarship). Or they were just still stuck in the mire of decisions that had been made in the 1990s: stuck with HTML or XML's hierarchies that prevented a swathe of things scholarly editors want to do; committed to transcriptions because images were too slow; and mired also in the inflexibility of the social editorial principles espoused primarily by Jerry McGann who was, without any doubt, the most influential textual critic of the last twenty years.
   So, I wrote From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts (2006), trying my best to explore what was meant by representing in a new medium the complexities of an old medium. Driving my thoughts were a respect for the illusive past--the history of particular literary works in the print era--and a deep curiosity about what could be accomplished in new digital media. What I mainly discovered is how much I did not know in areas where I thought I had known enough. The book is, in many ways, the work of an amateur in fields related to textual criticism. I despair of ever knowing enough to write a professional book on the subject. A number of people have been kind enough to say that they have learned things from me in that book, but I fear I have "shared ignorance" with them, as well. Much of From G2G looked to the future, focusing on what was wrong with the first two or three generations of electronic scholarly editing and imagining what would be better. Six years later, having spent a lot of time with computing professionals at Loyola University Chicago, working on HRIT (Humanities Research Infrastructure and Tools), it might be time for a new book rather than a reprise of SECA. The research side of textual criticism has not changed; the delivery side and the tools for developing that side are still at unsatisfactory development stages.