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Scholarly citation and the value of standard editions

March 15, 2012

Authored by Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies, University of Leicester

A personal library represents the intellectual history of its owner. The earliest volumes tend to be those bought as an undergraduate; in their margins there are scribbled notes that are now embarrassing. Another stratum of the library represents books bought for teaching and research; in my case, many of these came from second-hand bookshops. Other books represent a history of intentions, some never to be fulfilled, and still others are gifts or review copies. Encircled by these books, we write, sometimes dipping into books on our shelves, and sometimes reading online. In the case of articles in academic journals, I almost always read online. In the case of reference books, I am fortunate to have an OED and a range of Grove Dictionaries on my shelves, but often use the electronic versions instead, not simply because I am too lazy to stand up, but also because such works are easier to search electronically and are updated regularly.

If I have occasion to cite a poem or a play in something that I am writing, I revert to print, and rummage around in my library until I find a copy. In the case of Milton, I have the standard edition to hand, but that is often not the case with other authors, where I typically have only an old edition; even in the case of Shakespeare, where I have the Oxford Shakespeare series, my copies are usually the earliest editions rather than revised versions.

My habits of citation are not unusual, but nor are they acceptable to journal editors. I edited journals for OUP for some 25 years, and the citation habits of authors like myself were a constant irritant. Scholarly editing moves our understanding of texts on, and at its best stabilizes texts for a generation. To cite Thomas Middleton from an elderly text on one’s shelves may be convenient, but the scholarship in any such text has been overtaken and in some cases overwhelmed by Gary Taylor’s scholarly edition (OUP, 2007). As a journal editor, I therefore found myself barking at contributors to cite standard editions; when there was resistance from authors who regarded their essays as infallible, I argued that citing old and unreliable texts was insulting to colleagues who had taken the trouble to prepare scholarly editions. On occasion I met further resistance from authors who claimed that the standard editions were not in their libraries, and in at least one instance I corrected quotations from standard editions in my own university library.

Accurate quotation matters. Perhaps the best-known instance of why it matters is F. O. Matthiessen’s analysis of the image of the ‘soiled fish of the sea’ in Melville’s White-Jacket: Matthiessen declared that the ‘discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.’ Quite so, but what Melville wrote was ‘coiled’, not ‘soiled’, and far from producing the extraordinary image that Matthiessen was praising, Melville was simply describing eels; Matthiessen had failed to consult a scholarly edition.

The advent of OSEO promises to resolve the problem, and to ease the labours of essayists and journal editors by making scholarly editions available online. A quick search will give instant access to an authoritative edition, and developing a habit of consulting OSEO will strengthen the sinews of scholars as well as ensure that their fish are coiled rather than soiled or boiled.


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