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A Reflection on Digital Textuality Theories of P. Robinson & P. Shillingsburg

The ongoing and inevitably all-encompassing shift from print to digital publication of texts introduces numerous problematic considerations for Textual Studies’ scholars. Scholars, of this field and the related field of Digital Humanities, have yet to create the ideal digital edition of text; however, in exploring the works of  interested scholars (to the likes of Peter Robinson, Peter Shillingsburg, and others) we can begin to conceptualize how we might advance the scholarly edition utilizing the advantages of a digital medium beyond what has been offered by the traditional codex, print publication as we continue towards primarily digital production and publication methods. In his 2006 chapter “An Electronic Infrastructure for Representing Script Acts” featured in the book From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts, Peter Shillingsburg points out the current failings with electronic texts and the digital publication of editions:

“Our slow adaptation to the medium arises in part from the narrow concept of textuality to which we have been habituated in print culture and in part from a too easy satisfaction with initial efforts to transport print to marginally improved electronic forms” (Page 88).

“What developers of electronic scholarly editions to date have in common is the absence of a full array of interactive and compatible tools for mounting full-scale electronic editions” (Page 88).

“The chief characteristic of this account of the current state of things is that each developing scholarly project is tied fairly closely to a particular set of tools and markup protocols. One scholar’s data is not easily accessed by another scholar’s tools or adapted to new uses or different ways of structuring the data. This is so in part because texts and scholarship are often as proprietary as the software used with them” (Page 89).

In short, Shillingsburg identifies the necessity for more powerful tools that look beyond the constraints put in place by siloed scholarship and the mimicking of print publication methods to investigate and then systemize digital publication, readership, and community building. Similarly, in the 2010 chapter “Electronic Editions for Everyone” in Text and Genre in Reconstruction: Effects of Digitalization on Ideas, Behaviours, Products and Institutions, Peter Robinson identifies why the digital medium has failed thus far in being the primary method for reading texts even though we are in an increasingly digital-dependent world while also making a familiar call (after reading Shillingsburg’s chapter) for a more powerful implementation of technologies/tools that unite scholars’ methodologies of digital publication and digital text consumption, engagement, and most importantly - readership:

“To enjoy films and music we need a player: the electronic file… is firstly a distribution medium, requiring a separate performance medium. … The point is that distribution and performance media are separated in films and music, as they are not in print books. … There is no need for film or music itself to be fundamentally rethought. It is sufficient just to present the same film or music: just better and cheaper. ...For the great majority of books, digital methods carry little advantage in terms of distribution medium. … [M]ost books are already very small and convenient...Further, books are already cheap...Finally, books are already widely available…[A]s a performance medium, most printed books are far superior to any digital form of those books yet in existence. … [P]eople prefer print books to electronic books for most forms of recreational reading. … [B]ooks on computer screens are bland and monotonous. In summary: books are both distribution medium and performance medium. They both carry the text and allow it to be read. For electronic books to succeed they must have an overwhelming advantage in either or both of the distribution medium and the performance medium” (Pages 147-149).

“The potential remains, and there may be ways this potential can be unlocked. But I think it cannot be in any form which looks and behave substantially like any printed book, or any scholarly edition we have seen so far. ... [W]e can make scholarly editions which do all that we have dreamed. All we need is imagination, and some powerful tools” (Page 152).

“[O]ne can see how far digital scholarship remains bound by the model of print: each scholar (or group of scholars) makes a separate digital object. It is up to the individual reader to locate all these separate digital objects, and make sense of them. In the worst cases, this is like one of those wonderfully circular games: you can only find what you want if you know what it is you want and where it is. As most readers know only the text in front of them, they are unlikely to find the riches lying about them, and are unlikely to be able to make sensible use of them, if they do find them” (Page 156).

In each of their respective chapters, Shillingsburg and Robinson augment the concept of ‘social editing’ popularized by Jerome McGann's Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) and by Donald McKenzie's Bibliography and the Sociology of the Text: The Panizzi Lectures 1985 (London: The British Library, 1986) reiterating such benefits of digital editions like internal and external linked data and a more navigable (through hypertext) and inclusive representation of a text, all its transmissions, contextually related works, and documentation concerned with the creation, distribution, and reception of said text. Shillingsburg proposes a space and shape for developing digital editions  “where textual archives serve in tandem with every other sort of literary scholarship to create knowledge sites of current and developing scholarship that can also serve as pedagogical tools in an environment where each user can choose an entry way, select a congenial set of enabling contextual materials, and emerge with a personalized interactive form of the work (serving the place of the well-marked and dog-eared book), always able to plug back in for more information or different perspectives” (Page 88). While acknowledging the benefit of inclusion, as presented in the McGann and McKenzie style of ‘social editing’, Shillingsburg’s proposal emphasizes a necessity to not just present all of the materials of a text but to provide such materials in a more encompassing infrastructure that lends well to numerous ways of presenting the text (and its related texts) - clarity over simplicity (Page 96). In short: Shillingsburg conceptualizes a modular infrastructure that utilizes cross-disciplinary collaborations between “Internet technologists” (Page 88) and textual scholars “to provide a place where different readers can satisfy differing demands at different times from the same set of basic materials using an ever-developing suite of electronic tools … capable of handling every reader even though no single reader will handle all the capabilities of the knowledge site” (Pages 99-100). Robinson also expands on the ‘sociology of text’ mentality of scholarly editing and digital edition creating, in his chapter, with his model for digital scholarship. Reliant on collaborative efforts that remove the shackling disadvantages of disciplinary divides and individual project silos, Robinson’s model suggests an interface that predictively provides readers with linked data (or linked digital scholarship resources) in an aesthetically pleasing, logical, and future-research inducing manner through the utilization of existing web service protocols alongside standardized referencing schemes (that will need continued development to properly link such data).

It is interesting musing these two book chapters approximately ten years after their original publications because of the continued emergence of new methodologies and technologies in the related fields of textual studies and digital humanities. While one might expect Shillingsburg’s and Robinson’s models so clearly conceptualized came to fruition since the above-cited chapter publications, current digital editions and archives have yet to reach ‘digital edition creation nirvana’. While some might consider more recent projects like the Digital Mappa project - marketed as “Digital Humanities workspaces, editions, scholarship, collaboration & publications for the rest of us” - as making steps towards the basic principles of collaborative, linked scholarship or multi-entry navigation/presentation of digital scholarship as conceptualized by scholars like Shillingsburg and Robinson, there is still a lot to be imagined that will better utilize the abilities of the digital medium to distribute, present, and analyze texts. This is especially true as new technologies/tools and bridges of collaboration form between the above-mentioned disciplines of DH and Textual Studies and the related fields of computational linguistics, machine learning, network analysis, stylometry, etc. Such collaborations will hopefully foster new ideas in how to best utilize the digital medium as a means of navigating into texts and a texts’ possibly-infinite linked data points (other texts).


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