Seminar with Federico Meschini

Federico Meschini (De Montfort University, Leicester) visits the Wittgenstein Archives in the period 16.4.-15.5.2009. In this context, a seminar is organized:

"Should an electronic edition walk, swim or shake its tail feathers?"

Tuesday, 12 May 2009, 13.00-14.30, Wittgenstein Archives, AKSIS (since 2009 "Uni Digital"), Allégt. 27, meeting room, 1st floor:

The scholarly activity of creating a critical edition of a literary work is an extremely complex process, composed of many steps, each involving different features and therefore requiring different skills. For instance Wilhelm Ott described eight different steps, each one corresponding to a particular software module in the TuSTEP system, starting with the collection of witnesses and ending with the edition publication, passing through intermediate phases such as collation, constitution of copy-text, compilation of apparatuses and indexes creation (Ott, 1992) . But it would be very naïve to suppose that the current paradigmatic and epistemological shift from print to electronic medium in producing scholarly editions would be without consequences for textual editing as recently pointed out by Peter Shillingsburg (Shillingsburg, 2006). Whereas the printed publication is the last and final step in Ott’s workflow, in the digital world this same phase is no longer an end, but allowing for further, and potentially endless processing.

The actual crux is the analysis, definition and understanding of these consequences, which, to be as possible comprehensive and effective as possible should be carried out both on an intellectual and a practical level. The more tangible effects are focused at the two extremes of the scholarly process, which from being the most mechanical steps now acquire a new dimension and importance: on the one hand the transcription of the textual artefacts, which at present is a structural and semantic encoding, and, on the other, the dissemination modalities, which address how the edition is initially assembled and subsequently published. While much theoretical discussion has focused on text encoding, the same is not true, with some notable exceptions, for the other extreme: the actual creation of the edition. An implicit complexity seems to be inseparable from any thinking or talking about electronic scholarly editions. It’s not by chance therefore that Susan Hockey in Electronic Texts in the Humanities wrote that “Much confusion seems to surround the topic of electronic editions” (Hockey, 2000). This is due to the fact that the digital edition is a dynamic and mutable object in itself: its nature as an electronic text which, like spoken language, allows it to be processed in a reflexive way, and therefore being augmented with new features and uses. But there is more than this. The extreme complexity of critical digital editions is generated by an aspect almost always neglected but at the same time quite fundamental: the multidimensionality of this strange animal, commonly known as ‘electronic edition’. Both Jerome McGann (McGann, 2004) and Claus Huitfeldt (Huitfeldt, 1994) underline how the object ‘text’ has more than one dimension: why can the same principle not be applied to the environment which contains, preserves and allows the interactions with this object?

A first method of describing this complexity can be found in ‘A framework for information system architecture’ by J. A. Zachman (Zachman, 1987) where the author theorizes a possible formal structure for investigating the architecture of information systems. This structure is an interpretational matrix where the different perspectives, tied to the different user roles of the system, are joined by the different descriptions of the information system, each one referring to a particular model: functional, informational, technological, etc. The primacy conclusion is that an information system is represented by a whole set of architectural representations, each one with a particular nature, and communication between these different levels is a key issue. Scholarly editions can be considered as a specialized subset of information systems, if not very refined ‘knowledge systems’ at all, the main difference being that they respond to specific needs of humanities research and not to generic business needs. Therefore Zachman’s proposal can also be applied to good effects in this particular field.

A further step in trying to formalize digital editions is by means of specialized frameworks expressly created for the digital library world. Even though electronic editions and digital libraries are two different paradigms, like men in Shakespeare’s Tempest they share the stuff that ‘dreams are made on’. The two frameworks are the 5S (Gonçalves et al., 2004) and DELOS (Candela et al., 2007). The 5S model is based on set theory and linear algebra, and using five primitive concepts (Stream, Structures, Scenarios, Spaces and Societies) it builds upon these a series of definition, thus being able to define what a digital library is without ambiguity. On the other hand the DELOS approach shares many similarities with the CIDOC-CRM ontology (Crofts et al., 2007), being based on an object-relationship model. With the help of these two models, I will analyze the differences between digital libraries and electronic editions.

Starting from an empirical analysis of concrete cases, some basic principles will be presented using a polarity approach. An actual limitation in an edition will be used as the starting point to develop an opposite principle which will be used to overcome it. These principles are the following: incompatibility vs. semantic umbrella/glue; sonic screwdriver vs. lego-block; blob vs. crystal snow; incompleteness vs. extensibility.

Finally the relationship between the latest innovations in electronic (web) publishing and scholarly editions will be examined. Using the “swimming” metaphor, Charles Michael Sperberg-McQueen pointed out the main difference between printed and electronic editions: while the former are embedded with some kind of implicit knowledge, the latter can contain the same knowledge expressed in formal languages, being moreover endowed with some active features (Sperberg-McQueen, 2002). This same difference between facts on one side and features on the other can be mapped to the current paradigms of Semantic Web and Web 2.0. An electronic edition is therefore an ideal place of interaction between these two different aspects of the WorldWideWeb, which are usually considered in opposition to each other.

Federico Meschini is PhD student at the Centre for Textual Studies, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.