<Insert Clever Title Here>: Critical Editing for Digital Publication

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.


Megan, I like how your piece got me thinking. I'm wondering if your concern is overridden by the concern for modernist conceptions of author and editor, even singular meaning of the text. I know that your reflection obviously demonstrates you are not locked into those perspectives; however, I wonder if your angst is because culturally, even individually (I want single meaning!) we want singular authorial intent and singular meaning.

All that to say...can we embrace layers of content and meaning and chaos of context & meaning? I think your final comment about needing to know/understand the technological possibilities to construct environments that can filter different perspectives, layers of meaning and annotation, etc. is important (obviously we can't make the space without knowing how to do so).

But that does bring us back to the reader; who wants to work that hard for meaning? It takes a lot more intellectual work (I'm channeling Moberly here) to negotiate the more chaotic, layered texts that could juggle all of the complexity you discuss. But isn't that type of work the point/purpose of why people read "critical" editions?

Again, thanks for the opportunity to think through/ramble on the topic/issue.

I think your response is right on point, in many ways. In particular, I would agree with your final question of "who wants to work that hard" as a reader? Now, that isn't to say I don't value or wouldn't like to see people modeling these complex re-imaginings of the text in a digital space. But at the same time, in terms of user accessibility, to my mind, the traditional critical edition is meant to perform these mental gymnastics for the reader in advance (hence their usefulness in a classroom). I wondered how hard a student or a scholar looking for information would be willing to work through those layers (we only have so much time).

And you are right in that, again, for me, there is still some desire to reflect or at least illustrate the "original" experience of the text, i.e. how it was "intended" (yes that is a long, sticky convo, esp with the likelihood of multiple authors) to be received - the "single meaning" of the text, if you will. When making our arguments for how to edit these texts, I strongly opposed a mere reproduction of the texts, each in their entirety, without any combination, pushing instead for the hybrid form (putting the texts in a structural conversation to highlight their intertexual relationship for the reader). So while we created a version of the text that has never existed before, we tried to illustrate evolving sociological concerns. Ironically, to my mind, the hybrid version would do a better job arguing for that evolution of the "original" meanings between Hell Upon Earth and Memoirs of John Hall than two essentially unedited reproductions, just placed side by side.

My response has rambled and I'm still thinking, so thank you, Shelley.

Megan and Shelley-

In reading this thread I'm struck by the sense that we are discussing 3 different issues: meaning, authority and usabilty.

First meaning- when I consider of the purpose of a critical edition of any text produced outside of this historical moment I question the sense that the editor's job is to help me find a singular meaning. In other words, trying to capture a reader's "original experience" (or experiences) is still often a layered and even conflicted project. When Shelley asks "isn't that intellectual work the point?" I would agree wholeheartedly. The editor's job is to give me the tools to understand these layers and see these contradictions through various annotations, supplementary materials and notes about emendations. I think the angst we are then addressing in the context of an online multi-participant editing project has more to do with whether a document produced in such a way affords the same authority in providing that reliable content.

So secondly-authority, credibility or ethos-- whatever we call it--Megan writes, " 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?" It seems to me we debate this question in a multitude of contexts and the question is ultimately not that different from debating the reliability of cites like Wikipedia. The tension between collective knowledge and expert knowledge in digital formats is not going away anytime soon. Personally, I do think that collective knowledge produced by such a project as Megan describes has the potential to generate a great deal of knowledge, not to mention resources for scholars who want access to lesser known texts that book publishers would be leery to take on the financial burden of producing. Perhaps the answer here can be found in the same place academics have always turned--peer review. Does such vetting erase the collaborative process? I doubt it. Even in the case Megan describes, the "non-experts" were supervised by an expert professor, thus providing a certain amount of credibility by default.  But more to the point, how do we even define "expert"? Certainly all the students involved in this project invested time and labor that the vast majority of us have not. In this sense they are all experts and have every right to present your work as such.

Finally usability- in addressing the question "who wants to work that hard?" that depends on the kind of work we are talking about.  If it's the intellectual work mentioned above, we all should. But navigating a high volume of information requires a certain amount of design to make the exercise tolerable. Megan writes, "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." Ultimately any text will need some amount of uniformity to is organization to make sense and be usable to its audience. But in my view to do so does not erase the collaborative effort of the work, it simply makes it accessible and useful. In the end, isn't that the whole point?

On your first point, I will concede I wrote poorly in response to Shelley. I do not believe the value of a critical edition is to lay down some sort of single meaning/interpretation for the reader. Nonetheless,  editors do have to make a series of choices regarding what sort of information/ approach they are taking, meaning that they are inherently limiting the construction of the text in some way (and whether they overtly or subtly guide the reader's interpretation is always something to consider when looking at a variety of editing styles - some times, perhaps we can argue always, the editor becomes a de facto author when inserting himself "too much" into the the text). In our case, we chose a sociological approach, highlighting historical context, publishing history, and genre issues in our notes, for instance. Other editors might have highlighted other concepts, dropping out what we chose to linger over. Returning to the idea that the angst thus arises from multiple editors, I would say, sure, at least in this experience for this product, as at times it was an "anything goes"issue: people annotated concepts in a wide variety of ways, which was completely at odds with the footnote theory we adapted (in which footnotes only function to clarify for the modern reader, offering as little interruption from the editor as possible, while easing the reading experience). Is that sort of product valuable? Depends on what you're looking for at the time; the initial product did not reflect our carefully argued and selected goal. 

The second point you raise I want to approach delicately, as I carefully tried not to take a position in terms of the expert/novice debate (even the defining of such is always up for grabs, depending on context). The traditionalist in me went "eek!" when you compared a crowd-sourced critical edition to Wikipedia - not because I don't see the parallels, but because I remain resistant to seeing them in the same light (I know, I know, people will howl me down now for not placing Wiki in the same place as other texts yet). Laura is bang on when she writes, "Personally, I do think that collective knowledge produced by such a project as Megan describes has the potential to generate a great deal of knowledge, not to mention resources for scholars who want access to lesser known texts that book publishers would be leery to take on the financial burden of producing." That is a huge plus! But as she also points out, in the end, it seems peer review is the solution. I return to the earlier post, in which peer review was helpful, but in at least this instance, and I can think of others, it mattered very much which "peers" were doing the reviewing.  Laura asks, and I agree it's important, "But more to the point, how do we even define 'expert'"? At the same time, I think it's fairly clear that there are those with training and experience that are often called in to bring some clarity to any large scale editing project. She is right though in terms of time, effort, and research; the students from the course marched post-haste through some impressively difficult work and certainly emerged knowing far more about the content and text than the average reader. They certainly earned the credit the professor gave to them. They are experts, of sorts (that's a purposefully hedged label there; I was one of the students and would not sell myself as an "expert" editor).

Finally, Laura rejects the idea that such vetting erases the collaborative process; I'll respond by saying in my opinion the answer is yes and no. In our case, we were fortunate to be given credit as co-editors (this is not so for all projects, or even viable in some); but large swathes of work was deleted or rewritten, so that the style became more uniform. Is this a bad thing? I don't have an answer for that, because as a (even at my fairly young age, I'm an old-school) reader, I am trained to expect uniformity from my editorial interventions. But if, perhaps, you were hoping for markers from a multitude of voices and concerns, then maybe such standardizing would not be your taste.

Thanks, Laura and Shelley! You have got me running over thoughts from months ago, which is very helpful!

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