Readability versus Preservation – A Debate in Digitization

Maintaining textual integrity is supposedly a foundational aspect of editing, but this does not always appear to hold true when creating digital editions. By textual integrity I mean maintaining not only the content of the work, but also the formatting of the text. In Shillingsburg’s Scholarly Editing in the Digital Age this dedication to upholding the originality of the work would fall into the category of documentary or historical orientation. Followers of this editing style support maintaining the original text with the reproduction of facsimile editions or electronic archives.

In contrast to this type of editing, our work in Wikisource seems to undermine the importance of the original document by giving priority to readability. The documents we have edited, transcluded, and annotated started off with a focus on maintaining the formatting principles initially set by John Oliver Hobbes and her publisher, Thomas Fisher Unwin. But as our project has progressed, we have diverted our attention away from upholding the principles of documentary orientation in order to suit the Wikisource guidelines. This divergence is largely due to Wikisource’s focus on creating digital texts that are easy to read, making them more appealing to an audience of online consumers. We have formatted the pages in a narrower column so that the reader is not forced to scan the entire width of the screen (for an example see The Annotated The Works of John Oliver Hobbes on our Links page), and we have created hyperlinks within the document, especially in our References.

Although these editing choices have created a more reader-friendly environment that has the potential to entice wider appreciation of some long-forgotten or outdated literary texts, the dismissal of the original formatting ultimately suggests it is irrelevant to the content. As a believer in the importance of book history I take great offense to a dismissal of the printed work – after all, we cannot ignore the historical context of the work since many of the formatting choices indicate certain principles of the time that provide greater insight to the document as a whole.

Are we forsaking book history and print culture for the advantage of easy readability? What will this do to the future of literary studies if the importance of the original document is lost through widespread digitization that lacks an appreciation for the original formatting?

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6 Responses to Readability versus Preservation – A Debate in Digitization

  1. michelle.keith says:

    You ask a couple of really important questions here, Olivia. One of the things that strikes me as both hilarious and ridiculous is the reasoning behind the chosen format (according to Wikisource guidelines and principles) for our annotated version of The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes. We have worked as a group on this project for quite a few weeks now and our pages have gone from the actual scanned versions of the book to each chapter appearing as a long, skinny column filled with annotations and hyperlinks. As you have stated above – this narrower column was chosen “so that the reader is not forced to scan the entire width of the screen.” This type of reasoning for a formatting choice is laughable – when did it become straining to read the width of your computer screen? And if that straining of the eyes is being taken into account when formatting, then realistically, shouldn’t we also be considering the idea that it is more work to scroll down this longer, narrower column than it was when the column was wider? If the column remained the width of the screen then the reader wouldn’t have to scroll as much, and therefore that would be less of a strain on his/her hand.

    If you look at digital formatting choices from this perspective, it really does seem as though, in this digital age, we are forsaking book history and print culture for a very debatable advantage of easy readability. In current literary studies, a great amount of importance is placed on the original document. Students of literature need to be asking questions about format and how that changes the intentions of the author – does it change the intentions of the author? did the author have anything to do with the chosen format? or was it published after his/her death? And if so, how does this effect the way that we read and interpret the text? — With such a lack of appreciation for the original formatting, future students of literature will have a harder time in their studies. They may have easier access to texts but, in the end, is this really beneficial if they do not know how to read and interpret them to their fullest potential?

  2. cstelman says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Olivia, and it reminds me of a debate we had recently regarding Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market in a class called “Modernity and the Visual,” where we primarily discuss the relationship between images and text in Victorian literary works. While the original publication of Goblin Market published certain images side by side, the British Library edition that most students in this class were reading failed to follow suit, changing how the images were interpreted. While this decision by the publisher upset many of us, it also proved that the way a publisher chooses to reformat a text, either digitally or in print, immensely effects how the reader interprets it.
    It is important to note that this controversy regarding the placement of images was in regards to a print edition of Goblin Market. I believe this suggests that reformatting a text in the digital realm is less dangerous than doing so in printed publications, since print publications are often given more credibility than their digital counterparts in how much they reflect an original publication. While many of us reading Goblin Market were unaware of the reformatting of the images, most readers on Wikisource are likely more aware of the significant reformatting taking place.
    So while agree with a lot of what you are suggesting here, I don’t think Wikisource is necessarily “undermining” the original text. If the reader is interested in the format of the original publication, hopefully they are aware that our Wikisource version is nothing like it, and have the means to seek out a more reflective version. Further, I think a digital version could include a number of different publication formats side by side, creating a more inclusive and dynamic representation of a texts publication history than a single print edition could.

  3. Pingback: Editing and Authorial Intention | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

  4. steven.jankowski says:

    when did it become straining to read the width of your computer screen?Michelle

    Within the field of design, the line-length of a body of text is considered to be very important. The idea being that if a line-length is too long, then it makes it difficult to locate where the next line begins when you end on the right and move to the left with your eye. So your question is not so much rooted in the computer screen but conventions of print which are practiced today. There are some web designers who seek to uphold the craft practices of book design online. For instance, the website webtypography.net takes the principles from the Canadian typographer Robert Bringhurst and describes how to use them using CSS code. For instance if you go to the article measure, the term used to describe the line-length of a body of text, it explains that the web page is a dynamic surface and that proper attention to this surface is required. To test this, go to the site and adjust the size of the screen. You will see that the number of words changes in proportion to the size of the window.

    This kind of attention to detail is a celebration and a reverence for the material practice of book making, even though it make use of the digital form.

    In this regard, I think that had we been able to reimport the original Tales of John Oliver Hobbes we could have kept that ability to view the digitized pages. As well, given a little bit of coding, the annotated version could also pay homage to the practices of book history by proportionally adjusting to the window. In this medium, we can do both.

  5. sydney.tyber says:

    steve.jankowski, is what you propose, or more so highlight, eliciting feelings of apprehension in you at all? Your post drives dangerously close to the Baudrillardian assertion that the further down we travel down the simulation rabbit hole, the more we will attempt to grasp for the (so-called) real – which in turn, forces us to create simulations that are so mimetic, that we come to forget they are simulations at all. And thus, we are caught forever chasing our own tails in an attempt to grasp the real, which of course no longer exists. I put this question to all the users posted on this thread: should we not revel in the fact that we can’t simulate the book (object and history) in a way that is so true to the original, it masks the simulation? Does this not offer the idea that print actually cannot cease to exist as it offers different areas for exploration?

    • michelle.keith says:

      I think that this is a really good distinction and observation, Sydney! As someone who studies literature (and has an obvious preference for actual books over digitized versions) this is a very calming and satisfying outlook. If the print version cannot cease to exist, then our area of study can never be truly obsolete and the dread that surrounds digitization lessens. This being the case, I think that it becomes easier to embrace social editions for what they are and what they lack because the print edition will always be present and available for exploration.

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