The Status of Electronic Publishing (Electronic Texts)

The emergence of Web 2.0 applications has focused attention on an area that might be defined as a many-to-many publishing model, which includes such activities as collaborative tagging, shared resource building, folksonomies, social networking, social bookmarking, collaborative editing (wikis), podcasting and RSS feed delivery. As with all other areas of arts and humanities research, the impact that this new breed of techniques may have on scholarship is, as yet, uncertain in its specificity but almost inevitable in its generality. Peter Shillingsburg has put forward a proposal for what he refers to as a ‘Collaborative Literary Research Electronic Environment’, which would operate as a ‘knowledge site’ consisting of interconnecting modules offering researchers the chance to create dynamic and interactive works in a shared scholarly space.

Peter Robinson has also expressed a view on the direction scholarly editions might take in the future. He refers to:

[quote]…the making of what may be called fluid, co-operative and distributed editions. These editions will not be made or maintained by one person or by one group, but by a community of scholars and readers working together: they will be the work of many and the property of all.
(http://computerphilologie.uni-muenchen.de/jg03/robinson.html)[/quote]

As should be apparent from other wiki pages relating to this working paper, the enthusiasm and ingenuity of practitioners in the field of digital text editing - in association with colleagues from other disciplines - has led to the development of a useful and interesting range of tools and methods for the preparation, analysis and presentation of textual data in scholarly formats. It is, however, difficult to ignore the fact that some of these practitioners have professed dissatisfaction at the levels of interest shown in digital editions by the wider community of literary scholars.

At a recent Methods Network workshop (http://www.methodsnetwork.ac.uk/activities/es03mainpage.html), Sharon Ragaz in her rapporteur’s summary concluded that from a number of remarks made by various speakers throughout the day, there was clearly a gap between the producers and the users of these resources, the inference being that messages about the utility and the quality of scholarly digital editions are generally not reaching the audience for which they are intended – or if they are, are falling on deaf ears because of a residual preference for printed formats, based (perhaps) on aesthetic and ergonomic factors rather than issues to do with function and facility. Edward Van Houtte illustrated this by pointing out that whilst electronic editions were of ‘inestimable value’ as academic resources, as cultural product they were valueless. Whether true or not, it effectively makes the point that the principle purpose of digital editions is to take full advantage of the extra analytical value that can be extracted from the presentation of material in this format, and that they should be seen as a necessary tool to sit alongside the precious first edition printed copy of a text, rather than an either/or decision.

The Model Editions Partnership was a consortium of twelve editorial projects publishing a range of historical documentation that was designed not only to make data available to scholars, students and the public, but also to pursue an agenda that promoted the production and dissemination of electronic editions and prescribed methods by which this could be achieved. The legacy of this project is perhaps uncertain, but as well as providing useful reference material, it also sets an interesting precedent upon which similar initiatives to raise the profile of electronic editions could be based.

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