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Why scholarly editions online?

August 15, 2012

Authored by: Sophie Goldsworthy, Editorial Director for Academic and Trade, and Project Director for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, Oxford University Press

If you work in the humanities, are a student or researcher working with primary sources, you’ll be well aware of the plethora of texts online. Search for the full text of any one of Shakespeare’s plays on Google and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of results. Browse popular classics on Amazon, and you’ll find hundreds available for free download to your device in 60 seconds or less. There’s simply no shortage of digital texts. But while we’re all spoilt for choice in terms of availability, finding an authoritative text, and one which you can feel confident in citing or using as a teaching text, has paradoxically never been more difficult. There is a shortage of agreed primary texts. And with more and more data available online, it has never been more important to help scholars and students navigate to trusted primary sources on which they can rely for their research, teaching, and learning.

Oxford, of course, has a long tradition of publishing scholarly editions—something which still sits at the very heart of the programme—and a range and reach unmatched by any other publisher. We swiftly settled on Shakespeare and his immediate contemporaries, antecedents, and successors as the logical place to start for online publication: a rich seam of content, from the letters of Thomas Hobbes, the poetry of John Donne, the Diary of John Evelyn, and many others, to the work of lesser-known writers such as Shackerley Marmion, hidden away in the second volume of Minor Poets of the Caroline Period for the last 106 years. The earliest edition in our launch content was published in 1901 (The Works of Thomas Kyd) and the most recent is Richard II, which neatly completed the Oxford Shakespeare series in 2011. So we will have a content range representing more than a century of publishing live on the site from launch.

When we first set out to imagine how these editions might look in a digital environment, we started by tearing up some books. Not literally, of course; round here that kind of thing remains frowned upon, even in these digital days. But what we wanted to get to was the disparate elements of each—the primary text, the critical apparatus, and the explanatory notes—and to work out how, by teasing the content of each edition apart, we could bring them back together in a more meaningful way for the reader. To this end, we talked to a lot of people before we even got started—to librarians, scholars, and graduate students—to make sure that we captured the needs of these pivotal groups as we started to scope the project out. Here we were helped immeasurably by our eminent editorial board, headed by Michael F. Suarez, S. J., who have been closely involved at each stage of the process, from discussions on how we might structure the content on the site to sign-off on the editions it will include.

We decided that we needed to organize the content on the site along two axes: editions and works. This dual approach is important. The Oxford English Texts, and other classic OUP editions, are known and used by many the world over, and our research underlined the need to preserve this link with print, not only for scholars and students who may want to use the online version of a particular edition, but also for librarians who are keen to curate digital content alongside their existing print holdings. And yet we also wanted to put the texts themselves front and centre; to ensure that whether or not you’ve ever seen an Oxford print edition, you can get straight to the texts that they contain.

As a result, we have constructed the site in both ways. You can use it to navigate to an edition familiar to you from its print incarnation, go to a particular page number, even download the PDF of that very page from the print edition; so you know you can cite a passage from OSEO with authority, and without having to go to the library to confirm the citation. But you can also see the author’s works in aggregate in OSEO, freed from their print context. Search for Christopher Marlowe, for example, and you’ll reach a complete list of his works in a single index, grouped by genre (verse and drama, in this instance), regardless of which of the five print volumes they appear in. You can then navigate your way to an individual play, poem, or letter, or get to a particular section of a work using traditional milestones (act, scene, line number), and so on.

Our use of XML also means that we’ve been able to break the editions apart, so that different elements can be treated separately. The notes are no longer hidden away at the back of the book—all that careful scholarship, so often simply not consulted because of the inconvenience of constantly having to flip to the final pages—but keep pace with the text itself. You can toggle different features on and off, giving you the option of pure text or full study modes, and you can tailor the different panels to suit the content you’re working on, adjusting the relative weight of notes and text on the page until you have a workable balance. Breaking the separate elements apart also means that you can distinguish between words in the work itself and the editorial paratext, an ability to discriminate which aids advanced search—you can limit your search to stage directions or the recipients of letters, or search within first lines or critical apparatus—all of which speeds your journey to a very focused content set which is genuinely of most use to you.

As a side benefit—a reaffirmation, if you like, of the way print and online are perfectly in step on the site—many of our older editions haven’t been in print for some time, but embarking on the data capture process for OSEO has made it possible for us to make them available again through on-demand printing. Many of these texts date back to the 1900s and yet are still considered either the definitive edition of a writer’s work or are valued as milestones in the history of textual editing, itself an object of study and interest. Thus reissuing these classic texts adds, perhaps in an unanticipated way, to the broader story of dissemination and accessibility which lies at the heart of what we are doing.

For those minded to embark on such major projects, OSEO reaffirms Oxford’s support for the continuing tradition of scholarly editing. Our investment in digital editions will increase their reach, securing their permanence in the online space and making them available to multiple users at the same time. There are real benefits brought by the size of the collection, the aggregation of content, intelligent cross-linking with other OUP content—facilitating genuine user journeys from and into related secondary criticism and reference materials—and the possibility of future links to external sites and other resources. The launch has been driven in large part by the backlist, but as we move towards the inclusion of more ‘born digital’ content we will construct guidelines for the structure and presentation of new scholarly editions which will support the navigation and tagging we need to feed them into the site. We hope, too, that OSEO will provide a facility for texts too small to exist independently, and help bring recent finds to a scholarly audience as swiftly as possible: for example, a scholar’s discovery of a new letter or text fragment, which could be edited and dropped straight into the site.

Over the past century and more, Oxford has invested in the development of an unrivalled programme of scholarly editions across the humanities. What Oxford Scholarly Editions Online now does is take these core, authoritative texts down from the library shelf, unlock their features to make them fully accessible to all kinds of users, and make them discoverable online.


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