Tag Archive: Digital

When we read a novel or look at a painting, the chances are that we look at its surface value. We appreciate a story for the entertainment it provided us with or we might admire the beauty of the image. But when we study it, we have to go further than this. We have to think of its historical and social context and the intent of the creator. We tend to assume that the final work was the desired product from its conception but this is rarely the case. Most creative works undergo a process of evolution. But if we can understand every step of that evolutionary process, then we can attain the fullest understanding of the work. This is why we are so interested in notebooks, sketches and drafts by the artist or writer and this has led to the study of the palimpsest.

The upper text is from the 13th century and the lower text is from the 6th century.

Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 90 verso, Lc 1,6-13

The cost and rarity of parchment meant that rather than destroy any pieces, the writing was removed by scratching it off the surfaces or through chemical removal. What resulted were layers of writing or sketches building up over time producing a palimpsest. They can tell us a lot about the process of writing and creating which becoming more and more an integral area of literary study. This is a tradition carried from the manuscript tradition and into the print culture. But there is a real anxiety about how this can be preserved when the print culture is falling into decay.

But John. A Walsh sees parallels between the production of illuminated manuscripts and the digitization of classics texts which he describes as “laboriously and intricately encoded, wrapped in a metatext that in its native form is often either invisible or opaque to all but the digital specialist” (Walsh, 2008).  Like a manuscript, book or painting, we see only the finished work, while the work that lies behind it usually remains invisible.  But Walsh sees the true equivalent to the digital age in the 19th century. This was a period which like our own period, saw a huge technological advance in the industrial revolution. This led to the invention of the printing press which in turn led mass production of books culminating in the rise of the novel. This huge increase in available texts is comparable to the flood of classic texts and digital texts available through the internet. More books are available to the reader than ever before through. Digital scholars are particularly excited to expand the study of 19th century writers.

But where does this leave the palimpsest? The act of writing is rapidly being replaced by the word-processor, a practice that leaves no evidence behind. The mistakes of the author can be wiped away from existence with a few taps on a keyboard, eliminating the successive drafts until the finished product is created. One website that is concerned with the workings of the author is the Walt Whitman archive. The website offers standard features such as the published texts of Whitman which includes his books and periodicals. But it also includes manuscripts, notebooks, several editions of poems and his original notes.

Poetry manuscript of "Starry Union"

Poetry manuscript of “Starry Union”

The archive preserves numerous manuscripts like “Starry Union” along with word-processed versions of the same texts with colour-coding to explain if something was overwritten, added inline, supplied from a different source or a very long deletion. This interaction with the original text will allow scholars from around the world to engage with these original sources as though they held the entire collection themselves. Another insightful feature of the archive is that it lists every repository for the different manuscripts.

While the digital age is finding new ways to preserve the scribal culture, it faces a real difficulty in preserving the works of multi-media artists like William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rosetti. On the surface, the website should be perfect for displaying the imagery and texts of an artist whose work crosses mediums. But it depends on how creatively the website can convey this, it can’t be enough to display an image and the accompanying text separately. The mediums will need to work together across the webpage to best convey the work. The William Blake Archive strives to offer the most information on Blake’s work without clouding the visual style of his work. The archive presents the users with a wide selection of Blake’s works including his illuminated books, prints, sketches, manuscripts and letters. We can see the challenge presented by a work such as Laocoon.


Laocoon, copy B, object 1 (Bentley 1, Erdman 1, Keynes 1) “Laocoon”

A work which draws on different media will always present a challenge to a digital archivist, but the archive offers editors notes, detailed descriptions of the illustrations, textual transcription as well as copy information regarding the different copies and editions of the various pieces. Various copies of works such as “Infant Joy” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, can be compared side by side.

The search engines of the archive are ingenious, allowing the user to perform a phrase search, exact or Boolean and it allows the user to search for motifs throughout the imagery. When we look at the work of a multi-media artist, we must always be aware of how text and imagery interact and here, the website editors have avoided the temptation to divide the mediums into rigid categories.

This leaves the modern reader or academic in a curious position. We are still interested in the early drafts and discarded notes of writers and we are interested in every facet of the writers work as it borrows from different mediums. This is why we create archives such as the two I have discussed. We can find inventive ways to preserve older works, presenting digital editions of manuscripts but the modern writer can, if he chooses,  leave no trail of his own work, deleting the rough drafts until the final product is all that remains. As modern scholars we should be aware that the digital medium through which we are hoping to preserve articles of the past is also the means through which we can destroy the modern palimpsest.

Works Cited.

Blake, W.  Laocoon. 1826-1827. Engraving with hand colouring. Collection of Robert N. Essick,  California. The William Blake Archive. Web. April 8, 2013.
Dodds, L.V. “Deciphering Palimpsests with Quartz Light” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 53, No. 306 (Sep. 1928), pp. 138-139

Ed. Eaves, M. Essick, R &Viscomi, J. The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress, 1996. Web. April 8, 2013.

Ed. Folsom, E & Price, K.M. The Walt Whitman Archive. Centre for Digital Research  in the Humanities. Web.  April 8, 2013.

Walsh, J.A. ” Multimedia and multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for 19th century literary studies.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.


Whitman, W. Starry Union, 1876. MS. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York


The study of antiquity and the Classics gives us the best example of how we can merge one of the most ancient cultures with the very latest digital culture. In an article on Textualarc, I discuss why I think that the current literary culture, particularly children’s literature, is returning to a Homeric oral culture. But the technological advances of the digital age go beyond making a more interactive space, they can expand the study of the Classics on a global scale, granting anyone access to the integral area of study.

During my very first lecture in Greek and Civilisation ( my first lecture in University), our lecturer listed numerous areas of study such as literature, drama, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy etc. He went on to say that we have the ancient Greeks to thank for these areas. Nearly every discipline has its roots in Greek and Roman civilisations, yet it is a struggling discipline. T.N Mitchell of Trinity College discusses why the Classics departments of many universities are being pushed aside for modern areas such as technology and sciences. In 2012 only 628 students in Ireland sat a Higher level leaving cert exam in the Classics compared to 3804 students who sat an exam in Design and Communication Graphics. There is a definite drop in the study of the Classics but a constant growth in the study of digital technology and communication. The question we should be asking is if the digital world can preserve the classical world?

Classicists have been eager to take advantage of innovations of digital technology. But to make a real difference to how we access classical texts, we have to acknowledge where the real weaknesses lay. ‘ePhilology: When the Books Talk to Their Readers’ makes the point that we maintain the previous practices associated with the print culture such as publishing journals and writing definitive editions but we don’t take into account that these practices were developed to take advantage and compensate for the weaknesses of the print culture. This is a culture that was until recently enough, exclusive to the academic or upper-class world.  The problems, according to Crane, Bamman and Jones are that publications become static, cannot be adapted to different users and the ideas are embedded in a specialised language.

The problem of static texts is a difficult issue. It draws a fine line between the need to constantly update texts and maintaining the original form as long as possible. One of the biggest concerns people have about the marriage between literary and digital culture is that preserving anything online gives it an indefinite lifespan which the printed text is almost certain to outlast. We can’t guarantee how long something can survive in the digital world but this demand for longevity seems to clash with our expectations of the constantly modern digital text. We want the text to last indefinitely but we also want the text to be updated continuously and we are disappointed when we find texts or articles online that are out-of-date.

But the biggest issue facing a potential user is the exclusivity of the printed text. Classical texts or works based on them tend to be difficult to find and expensive. The dwindling study of the classics in second and third-level education only increases its exclusivity. It would be all too easy to blame circumstances and frown upon the new generation’s lack of interest in the area. Anyone might be interested but not anyone can have access to the texts related to the study. A lecturer may recommend primary sources required for study but the editions they recommend are costly and not readily available. Valuable or rare books are usually stored in the special collections department of the library which has restrictive opening hours and very strict rules regarding how you handle the book. This inaccessibility of texts extends to nearly every library which will safeguard their own collections of valuable books. Academic websites or catalogues usually operate on a subscription service with fees too high for anyone but an academic or specialist to invest in.

Most classicists agree that the only way to safeguard and further the study of classics is through the use of digital resources. However Crane, Bamman and Jones are keen to stress that the current framework we have is only the foundation for digital studies in the classics and the humanities and we are not sure what form this new study will take.  They list six advantages that digital resources can bring;

1. They can be delivered to any point in the world.

2. They can be fundamentally hypertextual, supporting comprehensive links between assertions and evidence.

3. They dynamically combine small, well-defined units of information to serve particular people at particular times.

4. They learn on their own and use as many automated processes as possible.

5. They learn from their human readers and can make effective use of contributions.

6. They automatically adapt themselves to the general background are current purposes of their users.

Many of these features are important in overcoming the exclusivity and elitism associated with academic studies. If these resources can be accessed by anyone in the world at any time, then an interest in the area can be cultivated by anyone, not only those with privileged access. But these features are not only concerned with making the material accessible, they make it easier to comprehend. The volume of information available about any given discipline can be overwhelming, particularly to a user who is interested in a specific area. Smaller units of information allow a user to delve into exactly what they are looking for and the use of hypertext with links allows their study to broaden when the need arises.

But for all this promising potential, there is distrust of the digital world. Open access sites like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and Librivox are called into question for their reliability. Academic texts are scrutinised several times by a committee before they can be published but there are fewer restrictions placed on open-access websites, allowing anyone with an interest but not necessarily a thorough knowledge to contribute.

Seemingly, the only solution to this problem is a collaboration between academics and open-access sites. This shouldn’t be difficult for the study of the classics when many of the primary sources are old enough to dwell within the public domain. Texts should also be preserved in a format that is open, adaptable to different networks, systems and can withstand developments in technology. The language for this format should be freely available and understood by machines and humans. Following the model set forward by the TEI and increasing the academically approved material available online, then the classics should be available to anyone who is interested in the area. It is this renewed interest that will ensure that the classics remain at the heart of our culture and guarantee its survival through the digital age.

Works cited.

Crane, G, Bamman D, and Jones, A. “ePhilology: When the Books Talk to Their Readers” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.


Mitchell, T.N, “The Classics in the Age of Innovation and Technology”, Classics Ireland 1 (1994). Web. April 4, 2013.

Leaving Cert Analysis, 2012. Careerportal.ie,2012. Web. April 4, 2013.

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.

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