Kenneth Price’s article “Electronic Scholarly Editions discusses how the scholarly edition is evolving into a digital form. Price uses the term “digital archive” to describe the electronic edition but he is keen to point out the differences between the traditional archive which is a repository of artifacts which are rarely edited and the digital archive which should be a collection of carefully selected materials. Price’s digital archive is an exciting space that can use the scholarly values of the edition and combine it with the inclusiveness of the archive. But there are issues that need resolving such as cost, audience and shaping of the archive. In this post I will discuss Price’s concerns about the intentions of the writers, the question of the definitive edition, the cost of creating this new archive and the similarities between the archaeologist and the archivist.

Price’s language describing the archive is interesting, particularly his use of the word “artifacts” . He is drawing on archaeological language to describe the collection of literature. Both studies share the problem of not knowing what to preserve. The modern archaeologist is always trying to imagine what will be of interest to future studies. This is also a problem for the literary archivist who must decide how much of an author’s writings to preserve. Do we assume that every scrap of writing produced by the writer will be of great significance and how do we decide what to preserve and what to disregard?

This leads into another problem proposed by Price which is the question of the writer’s intentions. There is a tendency among scholars to examine and represent the ‘intentions’ of the writer over the surviving documents. By omitting the interruptions of editors and censors, the digital archive produces the text the writer wanted to achieve, even if the text he did produce is quite different. This is viewed as the “purer” text. Others argue that this is creating an ahistorical text that never existed. I would agree with the latter argument. Assuming that any alteration made by someone other than the author diminishes the text seems like blind devotion to that author. Every outlet of media requires some form of editing because it is difficult for a writer, musician or film-maker to see their own work objectively.

According to Price there is a shift away from the single text “definitive” edition. We assume that the final version of the text is the strongest representation of the author’s work. But this view creates a static writer whose style or views don’t change throughout his life. And as Price points out, the later editions would suffer more heavily from the editors and censors. The digital archive would ideally represent all editions of the text, allowing the reader to make their own choices regarding the validity of editions.

The similarities between the digital archivist and the archaeologist appear again. The archaeologist is very much aware of how his grouping of recently found artefacts will determine how these artefacts and their culture are understood by the wider audience.  The archivist accepts the same responsibility as his selection and presentation of texts send a message about how he thinks the texts should be read. Price gives us an example of this when he mentions that “an author-centred project may imply a biographical framework for reading”. Presenting the entirety of the author’s works with equal importance implies that no one work is more important than another which is rarely the case.

As exciting and innovative the idea of the digital archive could be the reality is that such a project requires a huge amount of time, a large team of trained contributors and a lot of money. The financing of the project might be the biggest issue. McGann believes that literary and historical scholars should be trained for the immense re-editing such a project would demand. But such a project as it is now would require editors, librarians, scholars and technical experts as well as access to thousands of books. Ideally art councils and university presses would support these projects but failing that, private companies will have to step in. Few private companies will be willing to invest that much time and money for little or no financial gain which could mean access fees. Access fees will enforce the elitism that open access is struggling to move away from. Paying for access to an archive is no different to a scholarly edition tucked away in a library accessible only by other scholars.

However, open-access websites such as Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and Librivox are not without fault. These websites rely on contributions by interested users but not necessarily users with the most knowledge of the field. These websites are subjected to the scorn of the academic world for their loose regulations regarding contributors and standard editions. The idea of a ‘standard edition’ of any text is a thorny issue but Project Gutenberg has actively rejected the demand for an “authoritative edition” claiming that its work is not intended for the reader concerned with exact phrasing of a text. Instead they work towards texts that are “99.9% accurate in the eyes of the general reader”.

Price raises excellent points about the rapidly evolving form of the edition and the challenges raised by a medium that is always changing. The artifacts of the archaeologist are useful to us for our understanding of the past, but there they must remain. Price is insistent that the digital archive is the only way we can ensure that the literary edition can remain a “living part of our heritage” but we must also be willing to adapt with it and change our understanding of the literary edition.

 Works Cited.

Price, K. “Electronic Scholarly Editions.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

“The History and Philosophy of Project Gutenberg by Michael Hart” Project GutenbergAugust 1992.