Editing and the Digitization of Historical Artefacts

[In our department research seminar today, we had a discussion about editing. Each of us had a few minutes to set out our views on editing prior to a general discussion. Below gives a fuller account of my position.]

I think that the digitization of our cultural heritage places editing at the heart of the humanities. Although the editorial role can go unremarked or concealed, it remains a crucial part of every digitization project. Representative objects must be selected, decisions made about the extent to which they define the work, and a way found to represent both the absent object and the work it represents in digital form. As Jerome McGann argued a few years ago, scholars have a vital stake in the future of this material. They also have valuable experience in the methods, practice and politics of scholarly editing. For me, this means editing must be at the heart of all branches of the humanities, but not necessarily under this name.

The flexibility of digital media, including the computer’s capacity for simulation, means that it is possible to edit – and so interpret, reproduce and transmit – a much broader repertoire of cultural artefacts. It also means that these artefacts can be edited in a wider variety of ways. For instance, we can provide digital editions of buildings, paintings, ephemera, journalism, towns; and these can be presented as fairly fixed reproductions, with an emphasis on fidelity to the source objects, or as manipulable representations that can be interrogated, transformed or repurposed by the user. Editions might be (or include) databases, maps, timelines; they might offer their content as data that can be queried or exported; they might be representations of objects, or attempt to define or provide their content. Selection remains a crucial (and difficult) part of the editorial process and editing, as always, operates within an economy of loss and gain, yet the crucial point is that the different conditions under which digital technologies represent historical artefacts means that we can rethink what an edition might be. If we think a series of printed volumes is the best way to represent text, then these can be modelled in digital media; however, if there are better ways to represent the wide range of things we inherit from the past – and there are – then we have the tools to build them.

Editing in digital media forces us to recognize the assumptions that underpin print editions. Crucially, this includes the persistent myths that media are neutral; that content can be separated from form; that text alone can adequately capture what is important about the past; and that print is a privileged container for text. No editor is this naïve, of course, and editing projects are always dialogic, engaging with the properties of both source materials and the final edition. But, as many critics have noted, republishing texts in printed editions leaves many of these issues underexamined.

But I think there is a further dimension to this. The skills associated with editing are not just vital for the creators of digital content from historic objects, but also those who use digital resources to access material from the past. Of course, one of the things the web has done is collapse this distinction, allowing many more people to contribute to resources, becoming editors in their own right. In fact, many digital resources explicitly place the user in the position of editor, allowing him or her to select and configure their own material (within certain prescribed limits). But I think an understanding of editing is vital for anyone using digital resources to access historical material. All edited works represent a particular type of translation: one that makes explicit how it differs from its source materials. Not all digital versions of historical objects are accompanied by an editorial (or methodological) apparatus – in fact, very few are – and so the user must reconstruct the editorial process as best he or she can. This is important for two reasons: firstly, it can reveal what has been lost and what has been retained in the digital representation; secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it allows the user to imagine what might be done with the digital representation to learn about the past. Meaning is always created from practice. If we are to take full advantage of material in digital form then we need to recognize it as such, and not simply as a partial representation of something nondigital. By recovering the process of digitization, we can discover different ways in which the material might be used and, crucially, what this might mean for our understanding of the past.

The term ‘editing’ might not be capacious enough to encompass both the wide range of digital representations and the various skills required to make sense of them. At times, what I have called editing, whether carried out by the creators of digital resources or those who use them, might better be described as curation, process or methodology; equally, the skills necessary to make sense of digital representations of historical objects might be called critical analysis, experimentation, or simply digital literacy. I’ll let others worry about the terminology: what is clear is that we all need to become familiar with the methods and conventions that underpin editing if we are to take seriously the radical transformation of our cultural heritage that continues around us.