Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Digital Text Tested

The challenges of maintaining digital records have energized discussions among archivists, librarians, museum curators, historians, and other scholars for the past generation. Peter L. Shillingsburg’s From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), ISBN-13 978-0-521-86498-5, is another useful contribution to the growing scholarly literature on digital representation and maintenance, this one from the world of literary studies and documentary editing.

Shillingsburg, an English professor and experienced editor of standard literary texts, places his book in the genre of those whose aim is to help understand the shift from print to digital that so many have tried to document, applaud, or criticize, reminding us that we are “but 15-20 years into an era whose counterpart introduced a 500-year reign” (p. 4). Shillingsburg commences by ruminating on the meaning of manuscripts, books, and texts, pausing to give praise to the “great job that librarians, collectors, and archivists have done to preserve the physical materials of textuality” (p. 23). The author also considers the continuing advantages printed books still have over digital texts, seeking to see where the roles of the differing presentations of texts might be taking us, society and scholars alike.

Shillingsburg draws on “script act theory,” considering the act of creating texts, but also “Every sort of act conducted in relation to written and printed texts, including every act of reproduction and every act of reading” (p. 40). The author argues for the utility of this theoretical framework: “For a study of literary works for which the genesis, production, and reception of the work become relevant aspects, script act theory provides a theoretical framework for representing the work as a series of related historical events, each leaving its record in manuscripts, proofs, books, revisions, reprintings, and translations” (p. 50). Shillingsburg’s book is, then, an interesting example of the value of theory for considering a text, whether it is book or document, and it suggests how having a larger working sense of the creation and use of a literary text can inform our own present understanding of the shift from print to digital. Shillingsburg reflects, briefly, on the fact that electronic book has meaning because we have a perception of a printed work by which to compare it, with an interesting observation about how we might need to annotate an earlier writer’s allusion to books because we have lost our own sense of them.

There is a lot of discussion about the problems posed by the lack of standardization found in literary studies and textual criticism as well as that offered by the use of varying types of software and hardware. Some of these challenges sound very similar to what others such as librarians and archivists have been commenting on, such as Shillingsburg’s comment that “creating an electronic edition is not a one-person; it requires skills rarely if ever found in any one person” (p. 94). Another example of such a statement is the author’s observation that “academic institutions and funding agencies as well as the small world of scholarly editors have all failed as yet to come up with a full-scale solution to the complex problem of funding, training, development, maintenance, and distribution of large scholarly projects” (p. 104). Such comments ought to resonate among librarians and archivists who have faced similar problems for a long time in converting their traditional materials to new digital formats and processes. Shillingsburg indicates that we must be flexible, forgetting a standardized one-all solution, but rather needing to hold to a goal for a “score of stand-alone and fully compatible tools able to be used with a growing number of knowledge sites built around individual literary works. No one is likely to produce a comprehensive software solution, but together we can form a community of interchangeable modules in a flexible, expandable structure of software and edition constructions” (p. 113).

The use of the Web for disseminating literary texts also ought to generate many issues, such as questions about the provenance and accuracy of the texts. Shillingsburg is not very sanguine about what he sees: “The unsophisticated replication of texts on the Internet, like the proliferation of relatively cheap paper texts, reflects a widespread assumption: that a literary text consists only of letters and punctuation and will mean the same thing wherever and however it appears. That false assumption also underlies the construction of classroom anthologies. . . . But communication theory and critical reflection suggest that each bibliographical event, like each verbal utterance, is significantly affected by its constituting context and medium. As students of texts, we care about provenance, contexts, histories, bibliography, and the accuracy of texts because all these affect how we read and how we understand the text” (p. 140). These are issues archivists care about as well. As Shillingsburg provides a sense of the need for close analysis of texts, so archivists must have the ability to conduct close readings of the documents in their care, understanding how they have been created and how they came to be in an archives. From Gutenberg to Google will help archivists to reflect on such matters, reminding them of some of the debates and discussions they have indulged in concerning electronic records management.