Literary Review of Ken Price’s Electronic Scholarly Editions

In Literary Review on February 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Having re-read Ken Price’s article in the Companion to Digital Literary Studies, I have to say I found the article quite accessible, despite a few technical problems which were more from a lack of understanding than a poorly conveyed argument. This was the second time I read the article, and I’d definitely recommend a second reading, as the first section of the article was pretty much lost on me the first time I read it, because it took me some time to get to grips with the idea of what an ‘electronic scholarly edition’ was. Though the article was for the most part easy to digest, there were a few sections I found difficult to comprehend.

The idea of an electronic editions uncertainty in the future baffled somewhat. Would it not be the case that an edition being electronic, by its very nature, would never lose relevance in the same way that printed editions have, due to the ease of editing and updating these resources? If I were to come along in 10 years time and prepare a scholarly discourse on the work of Walt Whitman, would Price not be able to solidify the certainty and lifespan of the Whitman Archive by adding my academic musings to the edition? Along similar lines, the idea of an electronic edition having stability also perplexed me, because surely one of the benefits of an electronic edition is it’s adaptability to changes in scholarly discourse surrounding a topic? Would it not be detrimental to the purpose of these archives if they were to never change from a certain point? Are they not similar to news websites, such as, which will never be a stable entity because its content is constantly changing and renewing (this is perhaps an extreme comparison as an electronic edition would never change with the same frequency as a news website, but the point still stands, I feel). I can appreciate the concept that the frequency of change and renewal of the electronic edition could cause problems in the form of citations and references, but it does seem a minor negative compared to the overwhelming benefits.

Price also writes about the way electronic archives can ‘blur’ the nature of a text, by presenting multiple editions and variations that may have existed across the lifespan of an author or a specific text. My argument here is that this would surely be a positive characteristic as these archives (following in the footsteps of their printed ancestors by amassing a wealth of documents/versions) can now serve as an editorial, or even an academic, assistant to a printed edition, rather than a source for a definitive text. Here I think of my own experience with the William Blake Archive, having studied his prophecies in a seminar last year. Working from a printed edition of the text (which would be a ‘scholarly edition’ as it chose one specific version of the illuminated text, rather than presenting them all) I was able to use the Blake Archive in conjunction with the text in order to expand the potential meanings and my own understandings of Blake’s poetry. It would have been a nightmare to use the Blake Archive as a text, because of its scope, but it was definitely a useful study and exploration tool. This links with the interesting point Price makes about the search for ‘Final Intentions’. Personally, I would feel such a project as the final intentions of an author would be best saved for a printed edition, because of its definitiveness, rather than something which constantly changes, such as the electronic archive.

To look at some of the more positive aspects of Price’s article which I agreed with, he makes an interesting case for the limitless possibilities of the electronic edition, whether it be through the potential for displaying images or the loss of the printed page boundaries. I also found the concept of the impossibility of neutrality in a scholarly edition interesting, even though I would have initially disagreed with the statement, but it does make sense that the information provided in an edition, whether it be selected documents or a huge coillection of everything possible, will always provide some sort of bias. The collaborative nature of electronic scholarly editions was another interesting point, and certainly something I would see as a positive development in academic discourse, as an edition compiled by many scholars will surely be more informed than just one solitary scholar.

Some parts of the article I did find a little inaccessible, such as the argument for XML and METS. This was more my own lack of the technical understanding of these concepts, but I did vaguely understand what Price was alluding to in his discourse of them, and the importance of the international standard of formatting and mark-up. I also had problems with Price’s claim that the Press Publishers could contribute to funding for electronic editions, as surely they would see this as something damaging their own medium. Would it not also raise such problems as lengthy peer-reviewing and compromise the open source mentality of these electronic editions? And with regards to the concept of neutrality in an edition, Horton’s quote that readers “expect writers to blaze trails for them” was very apt, seeing as even Price himself is blazing a trail for us, his readers, in his discourse of electronic scholarly editions.

This article can be found online, and is certainly worth a read.


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