Internet Shakespeare Editions

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Standing in Rich Place (3)

Challenges faced by editors in the electronic medium

There are many obvious challenges for the generation of editors who venture into the electronic medium: how to assemble and manage the vast amounts of data that can be assembled for the edition; how to integrate multimedia annotations into the textual commentary; where to delineate the edges of an enterprise that can clearly become endless; how to develop a new semiotic of the screen, much as over the years the signs on the quite complex printed page have become pretty much transparent to the reader.

That this last endeavour will be no small task is evidenced by the bewildering variety of navigational signals we encounter on any extended tour of Internet sites. Links will be in varying colours, or coloured text will not be a link at all. Buttons or links may or may not open up new windows in our browser. Graphics may or may not produce results when we click upon them. Mouseover actions may produce pretty changes in a button or text, or may prompt a dazzling variety of pop-up menus or further images that may or may not be buttons. It all starts to look rather as though the prevailing rhetoric of the Internet is that of the computer game: experiment and see if you can figure out what you are supposed to do.

Sober academic sites will clearly eschew such games -- and sober academics seldom have the funding to pay for this kind of high-end programming even if they want to use the tricks they see elsewhere. But there are some quite entertaining puzzles for editors to solve when it comes to the effective display of their editions. I have written elsewhere of the seemingly simple problem of the disconcertingly movable line number in prose, where monitors, or application windows, can cause continuous electronic text to wrap at different words. [Note 1] The result of this admirable flexibility is either that the edition must fix a specific width on the text (as is the choice in the electronic editions I have glanced at earlier in this paper) or that conventional line numbers must change meaning. In this case, the ISE has decided that a modern-spelling edition will assign a single line number to any paragraph of prose.

A more teasing and important problem involves what one might call the "unit of viewing." The printed page is remarkable in that it provides a comfortable length of text, a sense of progress, and a convenient navigational marker, while at the same time being apparently transparent to the user in the sense that a page is recognized as having no logical or necessary meaning. An alternative in the electronic medium, for plays at any rate, is the scene division. But scene divisions are controversially added by later editors, and are sometimes very long. The response of the designers of the Arden and Cambridge CD-ROMs has been to put the whole play into a single long scrolling window. This is a simple, but despairing solution. It is not by mere fashion that the invention of the codex made the scroll obsolete. The length of the text makes scrolling a navigational near-impossibility; the scroll box (the little square/rectangle in the scroll bar) moves minutely as one reads to the end of the screen and clicks for the next one, so that it is effectively impossible to return to a given spot one has left earlier. There is also a sense of intellectual fatigue as progress seems so slow, with no perceptible markers to encourage a sense of accomplishment.

I'm not sure what the alternatives might be. An appealing possibility might be for readers to select a specific number of lines for viewing at a time, so that they could choose the unit of viewing that best suited their own style, or which fitted neatly with the physical size of their monitors. This arrangement is certainly achievable with modern database software, and would have the advantage of the same kind of arbitrariness and transparency as print page breaks. There would also be the added bonus that it would give the reader the power to shape the data on the screen -- arguably one of the most important contributions that the electronic medium offers.

A less technical, more fundamental challenge for the editor will be learning how to answer to the multiple audiences the Internet provides, and how to find ways of bringing the insights of recent editorial theorizing to readers not yet ready to unedit the text. The creators of the Arden and Cambridge CD-ROMs chose to direct their texts to quite specifically scholarly audiences; such degree of focus on an Internet site is also possible, of course, but the Internet provides a potential audience of a far greater multiplicity. It is surely one of the responsibilities of the coming generation of editors to take advantage of this new level of accessibility: to create texts that are scholarly, accessible, and multiple in their capacity to provide increasing depth as their readers become more adept. Again current software provides sufficient versatility for the creation of an edition that provides alternative depths of commentary, in the same way that it can provide alternative ways of viewing the text.

There remain two further, fundamental challenges to editors working in the new medium: the need to ensure that the standards of a traditional print edition are maintained in a medium that is associated with transience and rapid change, and a related need to re-educate political structures within Humanities faculties in the appropriateness of collaborative endeavours in the discipline.

The determined physicality of a book promises stability and, with well-tested archival strategies, something as close to permanence as the muddy vesture of decay we call print can offer. A CD-ROM seems to offer something similar: it too is a physical artefact, unchanging in structure once published. Archival problems are greater with a CD-ROM, however, as the amount of data lost as we move from one kind of hardware and software to another attests. [Note 2] An electronic edition published on the Internet seems even less stable, but there are strategies that will ensure that Internet materials are at least as responsive to archiving as CD-ROMs. [Note 3] It is also important to realize that the seeming instability of the medium can be channelled to the advantage of works published electronically: texts can be maintained as new research is disseminated and as new performances offer further insights. The result is that any text published on the Internet is again a multiple one, as it is kept up to date in a way that is impossible for a print or CD-ROM edition.

The problem remains that any electronic edition -- Internet or CD-ROM -- is likely to be more demanding than a print edition in the sheer volume of supporting material that will be expected. The corollary of this expectation is that (like the CD-ROMs already published) the edition is likely to become of necessity a collaborative one. Again, it is possible to see this development as positive, leading ideally to something closer to a consciously social edition, where the interaction of the editors becomes one of the edition's strong points. There remains, however, the possibility that editors undertaking a task of this kind will come under a kind of double jeopardy: editing is still seen in many English departments as a secondary endeavour, significantly less significant than a significant book of criticism; and the further difficulty of counting the exact number of millicrits [Note 4] involved in an edition that is collaborative may lead to further devaluation in the currency of the editorial endeavour.


  1. "From Book to Screen: A Window on Renaissance Electronic Texts." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 4.1-27 <>. [Back]
  2. Patrick Finn calls the current period "The Second Incunabulum" because of the extent of data that is being lost. The use of standard markup languages is some hedge against loss: both the Arden and Cambridge CD-ROMs use Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which means that in the future the text can almost certainly be "translated" to a new platform or display system, with a sufficient infusion of programmers' time. But this kind of permanence depends on the goodwill or interest of the publisher, and there are many examples of electronic data that have become effectively unreadable as systems have evolved. The current convergent evolution of PC systems towards a Unix base may be the best sign yet that the speed of change in the computer world is slowing, though Microsoft continues its merry way of doing everything differently. The term was coined by Patrick Finn, and is used by Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1997). See Patrick Finn, "Reforming the Information Age: Formalism and Philology on the Net." Mots Pluriels. <>. October 2001. For the MLA position on electronic editions, see Faulhaber. [Back]
  3. Careful recording of versions, adherence to the increasingly accepted standards of XML (eXtensible Markup Languang), coupled with backup strategies that involve generation of CD-ROMs, for example. For a discussion of the issues, see Alan Burk and others, "Archiving and Text Fluidity / Version Control." [Back]
  4. Where 1 crit = 1 significant critical book. [Back]

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