Internet Shakespeare Editions

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Meta-musings on metadata

In this issue, we announce the exciting publication of two major plays, Hamlet and Othello, we look at the important contributions to scholarship from one of our sibling sites that publishes out-of-print early drama, and we explore the previously little known concept of metadata and its application to our site. 

Shakespeare was very much a man of the theater for whom all the world was a stage. His plays celebrate the theatrical, both through the device of the "play within the play" and through pervasive "metatheatrical" metaphors. We watch the comic antics of the workmen in A Midsummer Night's Dream presenting a play before Duke Theseus, and we eavesdrop on the ironical and tragic overtones of the play that Hamlet presents before the court of Denmark as he seeks confirmation of the King's guilt. 

As metatheater is the process of using drama to examine its own structure and its effect on audiences, metadata is data that describes data, in an essential process of providing structure to large bodies of digital objects. Until very recently, the concept of metadata would have been understood by a select few, mainly librarians and computer programmers. But the topic has been much more in the news recently, in a context that has given it a somewhat sinister reputation. The former general counsel of the National Security Agency, Stewart Baker, remarked that "Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life, . . . If you have enough metadata you don't really need content" (Quoted by Alan Rusbridger in The New York Review of Books November 21, 2013).

Despite this claim, we are happy to say that content is central in the online publications of the Internet Shakespeare Editions (ISE). In order to search and organize the growing body of texts on our site, however, the metadata that describe our publications—from complete editions, to separate documents, to individual words and phrases within a document—are vital in creating the navigational structures that drive the site, and in providing the kinds of searches that our visitors seek.

Behind the scenes (or pages) at the ISE we have been working hard on metadata in a very positive sense. From the inception of the project, the ISE has been careful to develop standards in our use of metadata, using a modification of the Dublin Core standard. Each document in our growing range of textual materials has embedded within it information about its date, authorship, and provenance; each page of our library of facsimiles recorded similar information in the image database. 

But as the site has grown in size and complexity, and as the technology of display has matured, our original structures have been superseded by more advanced information architecture. We are now in the process of modernizing our system of recording metadata such that we can make some exciting enhancements to the site. Our file structure in the past meant that each edition was conceived as a unit (very much following the tradition of print), but today's editions are increasingly the work of collaboration, where this monolithic structure makes it difficult to distinguish clearly the contributions from different scholars. Our site is now able to attribute work within an edition in a way that is rewarding to the scholars involved, and equally useful for readers and students who want to be able accurately to attribute work they cite.

The new metadata structure also makes it possible for us to repurpose documents so that they can appear in more than one collection or edition. Over the years we have been able to publish old-spelling transcriptions of all plays published in the First Folio of 1623; almost all of these are now fully integrated into the editions of individual plays. But in addition we will soon publish online an edition of the entire First Folio using these same documents. The Folio will be edited by our distinguished General Textual Editor, Eric Rasmussen, whose expertise on the Folio is celebrated in an earlier issue of the Shakespeare Herald in a piece on his contribution to establishing the authenticity of the recently discovered copy of the First Folio in Saint Omer, France.

Our site is continually expanding, not only with the continuing publication of Shakespeare's works as our team of editors completes them, but with contributions from our sibling sites, Digital Renaissance Editions and the Queen's Men Editions. With this increasing richness of content, the principal background structure that makes scholarly exploration of the site intuitive is our judicious and thorough attention to metadata. News stories have been stressing the potentially unsettling power of metadata in private communications, but in the context of the ISE website, metadata are the very opposite of sinister.