Editorial Methodology and the Electronic Text

Julia Flanders, Textbase Editor
Women Writers Project, Brown University

October, 1996

The Argument

The work we do with electronic texts--practical and theoretical, primarily textual or primarily electronic--takes place and shape within a nexus of topics and fields of inquiry, none of which can be understood in isolation from the others. In particular, scholarly editing and publishing have increasingly come to involve a close engagement with the electronic world, specifically text encoding and computer technology. This engagement, in turn, has given rise to new discussions of issues which were always a propos: questions of how the edition or textbase will be used, and how it must be prepared in order to enable that use. Editorial theory must increasingly take account of the practical and theoretical effects of the electronic medium upon scholarship; the computer can no longer be regarded simply as a tool which assists us in doing what we already do, but must be understood as a medium in the true sense: an integral part of our systems of communication, with the potential for profound influence on our habits of thought and work. At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge the inertia of those habits, and the temptations of the known: any hopes of radical change in institutions or customs can only be realized by active engagement with methodological and theoretical issues, not by passive reliance on technological advances.

The group of explorations to which this Argument leads offers interlinked positions on several of the topics mentioned here, and attempts to express both their interdependence and their individual coherence. As a concrete example of a text encoding project, I offer the case of the Brown University Women Writers Project (WWP), a project whose work brings together several crucial points of focus: editorial method, pedagogical and scholarly use, and the application of Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and the Text Encoding Initiative Guidelines for Text Encoding and Interchange (TEI), the advocacy of which is a repeated refrain throughout this presentation.

Some additional sites and projects which are relevant to the issues discussed here are: