Visitor: Ken Hiltner, Professor of English, UC-Santa Barbara, Visiting Professor of English and the Princeton Environmental Institute and Secretary of the Milton Society of America
Topic: Digital Editions as digital humanities projects
Kenneth M. Price, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.3 (2009).
Take a look at the MLA draft Guidelines for Electronic Scholarly Editions (2002) and compare with the guidelines on the MLA site, approved by the committee for both electronic and print. Worry less about specific content and more about what you see as the significance of the official version as compared with the draft. Is the official MLA version an improvement? A step backward? Is there an assumption regarding electronic editions that they should conform to print form? What would a distinctively digital edition look like and how could it be distinguished from a print edition, if indeed it should be?
No further reading, but I want everyone to post a response to one or more of the above questions to our blog, or to post a comment in response to someone else’s blog response.
It seems to me that the final draft of the Guidelines was much more forward thinking than the draft. The draft seems close-minded and controlling. For example, although they say it is “recommended” it seems as if they are really pushing for a specific encoding for the electronic text in the draft whereas in the final guidelines they seem much more flexible, allowing for editors to provide a “rationale” for how they have encoded the work. Perhaps it has much to do with the language. The draft includes statements like “electronic editions should” and “conform to non-proprietary standards.” Statements like these make the draft seem overbearing while the final guidelines seem more like guidelines.
The final draft also seems to be written with the future in mind and is still useful to electronic editions now. But the draft seems horribly outdated (1997, MS-DOS and CD-ROMS).
I believe there will still be many standard for the Electronic conditions that came from print culture, but are necessary anyway, like an accurate textual history and thorough editing.
Based on my understanding of the two sets of guidelines, the official MLA version seems to be a step backward from their original draft. Whereas the draft gives in-depth consideration to the possibilities of electronic publication to enhance user experience, the official version seems to completely ignore these possibilities. The draft does state that its “guidelines for electronic scholarly editions are closely based on the guidelines for printed editions,” but it also recognizes that “their goal is to enhance the usability and reliability of scholarly editions by making full use of the capabilities of the computer.” Likewise, the draft acknowledges that “criteria for what is to be included in an electronic critical edition will generally be more expansive than those for a comparable printed edition” and “can also make use of existing electronic materials” in ways that print editions cannot. The final version mentions nothing about enhancing usability and reliability and little about making use of new software and technology. In fact, the final version seems to favor print form over electronic form and to expect electronic editions to conform to the same guidelines as print regardless of the different capabilities and formats of the two. It’s as if the MLA thinks electronic editions should be nothing more than the print edition available via CD-ROM or the Internet. The list of questions that the MLA recommends an editor consider when choosing a format seem particularly telling, especially the last one: “How important is peer review (and if it is important, how will it be provided)?” Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it’s almost like they’re saying, “If peer review and scholarly recognition/approval are important to you, you probably want to stay away from electronic editions.”
Now, I will admit that the draft’s guidelines for electronic editions are a little more meticulous and even downright strict, but I think this has more to do with the date of their creation and the major concerns of future usability. The rules for coding and the like seem a bit tyrannical at times, but this is mostly because MLA was (understandably) concerned about an electronic edition’s ability to be used over different interfaces and browsers and “to be ported into future systems without too much difficulty.” The original draft seems aware of its limited understanding of the full potential for and future of electronic editions, stating, “At this stage, the guidelines are phrased in terms of desiderata rather than requirements, since hardware and software capabilities are changing so rapidly.” It even encourages “experimentation and a variety of approaches” in an effort to help better realize and utilize the capabilities of computers and possible uses of electronic scholarly editions. Thus, I would argue that the original guidelines, how ever narrow they may seem to us, take into account the growing possibilities for electronic editions and present themselves more as flexible guidelines than unbreakable laws.
Taking both Joseph and Cassandra’s comments into consideration, I’m still deciding whether this is a step forward or backward from the original draft. As Joseph says, the original draft is horribly outdated. Even though it was published in 2002, it was formed in 1997. It’s fifteen years old; the internet in 1997 isn’t even the same as the internet now. That is, when the almighty MLA formed this draft, there was no social media, and, to put it crudely, digital humanities didn’t have nearly as many nifty gadgets as we do now. The internet wasn’t as accessible to everyone as it is now. So when the MLA drafted this in 1997, electronic scholarly editions were a different thing. Or rather, scholarly editions may be the same, but the public which they are available to has changed. In 15 years, the public’s means of getting information, scholarly or not, has rapidly increased speed, and the way information is expressed gets smaller and smaller.
I’m saying all of this to explain why the official 2013 guidelines aren’t as in-depth as the 2002/1997 guidelines. I think the MLA realized that guidelines rest on standards, and standards rest on something that doesn’t change much. The internet, coding, the software used for coding, etc., has changed a lot since the original draft, and things are only changing faster. So the MLA decided to cut out anything they couldn’t prove was going to be around for another fifteen years, making the guidelines not as specific. After all, as the original draft says, “These elements should be as machine- and software independent as possible and of such sufficiently wide-spread use that they can reasonably be expected to be ported into future systems without too much difficulty; since a well-prepared electronic edition will in all likelihood outlast the hardware and software environment in which it was produced.”
Price’s article “Edition, Project, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” is, as the title suggests, primarily concerned with what digital research projects are ultimately called, how they are defined both by the people that use them, and how these names signify the projects’ contents to an outside audience. Ultimately, he finds that none of the terms currently in usage properly express the nature of digital projects, saying “Importantly, we should not strive to fit our work to one or another existing term but instead expect that, in time, terms will alter in meaning — or new ones will come into existence — so as to convey the characteristics of a new type of scholarship.” In the next sentence, though, he says that a new term is needed, and he suggests one: arsenal. He goes on to talk about the ways in which the term arsenal is appropriate, but then mentions that it may not be an appropriate term because of its current military connotations. He insists, though, that the meaning of the word can change.
What bothers me about this part of his article is that Price seems to want a new term for digital work simply for the sake of having a different name. While calling digital works projects may imply jobs with definitive end-points or deadlines, or terming them archives may emphasize a library-like preservationist aspect, these terms are familiar, but flexible enough to still logically apply to the kinds of works that Price seems most concerned with, such as the Walt Whitman Archive and the William Blake Archive. Part of the difficulty with Digital Humanities, it seems, is the difficulty in pinning down their natures. Creating new and exotic terms for them will only further alienate scholarly projects like these two archives that, while more expansive and ever-evolving than a printed collection could ever hope to be, still stay true to the general spirit of “the scholarly edition”. If, as Price argues, the term “arsenal” could be appropriated and adapted to fit archival online projects, then would it not be more appropriate to adapt terms already in use for similar projects in printed media to include their rapidly growing digital cousins?
At the same time, however, I agree that there is some need for new terminology. Not all scholarly projects fit neatly into familiar forms. While the Walt Whitman Archive presents Whitman’s collected works in their many forms alongside biographical and historical data, not all literary digital humanities projects are as easily translated to printed media. Those that take the form of video games, interactive maps, or other media are certainly much further removed, though potentially no less useful, than more traditional forms of digital publication.