This past spring, I participated in a Textual Editing and Criticism course, in which students worked collaboratively to edit the unattributed print texts Hell Upon Earth (1703) and The Memoirs of John Hall (available in two variants from 1708 and a 1714 version), creating a hybrid of the two. As a result of that hands-on project, two major issues arose. First, we confronted the value of open access and collaboration. If we open a text to amateurs (in our case, students learning the proverbial “ropes”), how do we guarantee quality? If we use “expert” editors after receiving amateur input, how do we preserve the collaborative nature of the project? Second, we examined the changing role of the editor as a content producer, who must now consider coding and visual rhetorics to use digital spaces effectively. Is developing such a wide-ranging skill set worthwhile when crowd-sourced editing is an option?
As novice editors grafting editing theories and strategies onto a new medium, our project undermined assumptions regarding the “ease” of digital publication. Students edited in pairs, dividing the texts into sections; after transcribing and collating sections, the groups combined their work, reflecting the hybrid nature of the text through a complex structure. In a short time, the class produced a multi-faceted document with a wealth of contextual information and publication details; in some ways, it suffered from information overload. Initially, the new text would not have eased the reading process (a common goal); it was difficult to recognize the combined text as a uniform, critical edition. The final solution was old-fashioned: a few dedicated editors combed through the document, standardizing the structure, footnotes and so on, when possible.
The situation gave rise to a series of questions. If the digital space allows for a democratization of the editing process, inviting “non-expert” participants, who may not be editors but may have (or might not have) expertise in content, to work alongside expert editors, is the product still a critical edition? Does such a product serve the same purposes as the traditional critical edition and have the same ethos (perhaps it has more)? If experts are needed to “clean up” the text, is it possible, or even desirable, to preserve the collaborative nature of the project?
In addition to decisions regarding the critical apparatus, levels of editorial intervention, and the organization of the combined primary material, participants considered the affordances and constraints of publishing online. For instance, if one employs a hyperlinking structure, how does this influence the ever sticky issue of authorial intent, regarding the way the text “should” be read (complicated in our case by the lack of a clearly identified author)? Does this approach undermine the critical choices made by editors by encouraging the reader to act as a sort of individual editor, piecing together meaning? Or conversely, do those hyperlinks control the reader’s experience in undesirable ways?
In the end, our edited text mimics its print counterparts in most ways, as the class choose to create a pdf. with footnotes that hyperlinked to the appropriate appendix when necessary. Anything more would require a level of coding knowledge and document design for digital spaces that none of the participants possessed, as well as time beyond the constraint of a semester. The complicated publication history of Hell Upon Earth and The Memoirs of John Hall continues to evolve, from four related textual witnesses of unclear origins to an eclectic text, produced by several editors and published in digital form. The completed edition will be published, for free, on the ODU English PhD page in the near future; it is informative and well worth the read.
With that being said, I now need to turn this article over to my editor, for her approval.