Initial Reflection of the Social Edition

I’ve always preferred reading printed texts rather than digitized versions. When assigned readings from an online journal, I almost always print them out. Perhaps this apprehension contributed to my initial reaction to the Social Edition of the Devonshire Manuscript on Wikisource as a frustratingly difficult platform to explore. Initially, I found the non-linear, “dynamic” interaction with this text alienating and complicated rather than intellectually enhancing my experience with it. It actually took me almost 20 minutes just to find the manuscript itself. However, after some patience and effort I finally found the manuscript. During my search, I realized the organizational effort that has gone into creating and maintaining this social edition, and I appreciated the historical context that the social edition provides. Aspects of the social edition such as family trees, biographies of contributors to the original Devonshire MS, as well as the commentaries accompanying certain pages, act as learning aids providing the reader with a potentially more nuanced understanding of the text. These additions to the Devonshire MS allow the social edition to be not just a digital reproduction of the text, but an adequate space for more efficient research.

Which leaves me with several questions regarding digitized texts: What is the purpose of a digital text that is simply a reproduction of the original printed text? Is there a purpose at all for digital texts that don’t offer anything beyond the text aside from accessibility?  In other words, does a digital text have a responsibility to provide a context and a greater pool of resources than the original would be able to offer?

Considering the Ray Siemens et. al. article “Toward Modeling the Social Edition,” I believe the reply would be “yes” to my last question. The article states that “electronic editions that live up to the potential of the medium… must also be dynamic; they must be able to navigate the contents of the edition in familiar ways, and also able to reflect and draw upon the growing, evolving, and unfixed stockpile of scholarship that relates to the matter of the edition.” Wikisource and Wikibooks provide platforms for social editions of texts that adhere to the above assertion. However, these platforms problematize an ability to view all social editions as “scholarly,” since they allow virtually anyone who can send an email to “edit” and “proofread” any aspect of a text.

I’m interested in this debate about authorial and editorial involvement in social editions, but also in the tendency within digital humanities to ignore the process of reading an original print text in favour of online, “dynamic” reading. While platforms such as Wikisource make an effort to include digital reproductions of original print texts alongside annotations, the relationship between the reader/researcher and an original print text as a viable aspect of the reader/research experience is diminished. Is it appropriate to discredit the personal experience between a researcher and a printed text? Is it possible that the “dynamic” method involved in reading social editions could skew our ability to interpret texts, preventing objectivity and originality on the part of the researcher? I understand the convenience of online social editions, but it seems to me that during this transition from print to digital, print editions may be losing credibility too quickly.

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2 Responses to Initial Reflection of the Social Edition

  1. julie.morrissy says:

    I have also been thinking a lot of about the type of digitization that simply serves as a copy of the printed text. I don’t think those kinds of reproductions are wholly lacking in value. I think for the masses of people who now read on e-readers and iPads, there is a place for the purely aesthetic digital copy. So in terms of whether the digital text has a responsibilty to provide more than the printed version, I think that depends on audience. For scholarly work, there are huge benefits to the breadth of information that a digital text can now offer, and such developments are welcome. I agree with Chloe though that we should not write off print editions too quickly. There are still plenty of readers who simply want to read a book, and there is nothing wrong with that!

  2. jason.boyd says:

    In response to the last question of the original post, I think proponents of digital/dynamic/social editions would argue (and have argued) that, on the contrary, it is print scholarship and print editions that have “skew[ed] our ability to interpret texts, preventing objectivity and originality on the part of the researcher”. The economies of print have resulted in scholars being unable to access and effectively use and thus ignoring huge masses of cultural material in favour of a highly selective sample (eg, the literary canon). As a result, the cultural and historical significance of these materials are misunderstood. Ed Folsom, in “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives” PMLA 122.5 (October 2007): 1571-9, and the responses to his article argue along these lines.

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