One of the great (if often undervalued) scholarly achievements of the twentieth century was to re-theorize and adapt the ancient tradition of textual criticism toward the specific end of critically editing print-era texts. I believe that digital publishing bears the institutional burden of carrying this achievement forward into digital environments and should do so primarily by producing open-access, collaborative critical editions of the many pre-1900 print texts that are in the public domain and increasingly available in digital archives like Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and GoogleBooks.
The digital revolution has had an ambivalent effect upon the practice of critical editing. On one hand, digital technologies have enabled a steadily increasing number of the multimedia, hypertextual scholarly editions called for in Jerome McGann’s famous 1997 “Rationale of Hypertext.” Digital technologies (such as Juxta and other collation softwares) have moreover expedited the editorial process even for print form editions. On the other hand, the architecture of the many digital archives now offering scholars and students ready access to a mass of print form documents in the public domain has effectively blinded their users to the questions of textual authority fundamental to the tradition of critical editing that aims to identify, collate, adjudicate, and (crucially) display to readers the variants among different documentary witnesses to the same “work.” For the OCR scans used for digital mark-up in archives like ECCO are unedited at even the basic level of proofreading, yet most such archives hide these error-ridden OCR scans from readers, who instead see only the visually “perfect” PDF images displayed as the results of searches based on those “dirty” OCR scans. Ironically, the digital revolution has thus at once expanded and enriched the tools available to editors and exponentially multiplied the number of works that editors need to prepare for properly critical use by scholars and students.
I propose that the best way for digital publishing to respond to this ironic situation is to publish open-access, collaborative critical editions of the print form texts available in digital archives like ECCO. And let me stress that the kind of critical editions I propose are different from multimedia hypertextual “editions” like the Rossetti Archive and the Blake Archive. For as the name of these “archives” indicates, and as Kathryn Sutherland has cogently argued, such “editions” are in fact more like ECCO than twentieth-century print form critical editions, insofar as these archive-editions effectively refuse to establish a historically and theoretically authoritative and stable text of works, and instead allow each individual user to construct her own text(s). And as Sutherland argues, by thus shifting the editorial function of “establishing” the text onto users/readers, hypertextual archive-editions tend to short-circuit communal interpretive debate about texts, since different users make and interpret different versions of the same work.
This is certainly not to say that hypertextual archives are innately pernicious and should be abandoned. Rather, it is to stress that hypertextual archive-editions have different affordances and functions from properly critical editions that do, on explicit historical and theoretical grounds, make an argument for the authority of a particular text of a work and even (in the case of “eclectic” editing) create a “new” version of the work by judiciously combining readings from different historically extant witnesses to the work.
There are many ways that digital publishing can expedite and facilitate properly critical editions, but because digital publishing facilitates collaborative work in ways that print forms rarely does and also increasingly facilities and legitimate open-access publication (for example by post-publication peer review/crowd-sourcing peer review), I would propose that such editions should be produced by collaboration and published as open-access shared intellectual property. Being the instructor of the course in Textual Editing that Megan Mize earlier posted about on this survey, I obviously believe that one major way to produce digital critical editions is through such courses, which achieve two related ends: they train a new generation of critical editors, and they produce critically valid editions that inform users about the textual history and status of the texts they are reading.
Megan rightly (and by laudable intellectual habit) frets over the validity of editions such as the one our course produced of Hell upon Earth/Memoirs of John Hall. She is right that there were problems in making the explanatory notes consistent in scope and intent within the timespan of a semester. But even if those explanatory notes remain imperfect, as an experienced editor I would say that our edition fully accomplishes the basic task of critical editing as summarized above: to identify, collate, adjudicate, and—again crucially—display to readers the variants among textual witnesses to the work(s) edited. There certainly remain issues to do with the mechanics of peer review and legitimacy. For instance, can I or students in the class include this edition in our CV lists of publication without the * that conventionally delegitimizes them as non-peer reviewed? This and other issues remain to be worked out at an institutional level, but based on my experience of this class, ones like it are a legitimate and useful application of the protocols of critical editing within digital publishing environments. Toward the end of fostering similar courses, the course syllabus and a pedagogic reflection will be (shortly) published along with our edition on the webpage of the PhD program here at ODU.