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  • Television Is Not Radio with Pictures
  • Holly Cowan Shulman (bio)

The Three Essays that Follow Originally were given in abbreviated form in a session at the National Council on Public History meeting that took place in Ottawa, Canada, April 17-20, 2013. The title of the first essay gave the session its name. The authors are, or until recently were, editors of digital editions of notable 18th- and 19th-century writers of letters, diaries, or belles lettres, working at the University of Virginia and the University of South Carolina. The earliest of these editions is the Dolley Madison Papers Digital Edition. The essay on it is first. Following it is an essay on the papers of a mother and daughter, South Carolina planters Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry. The Pinckney/Horry papers built on the pioneering work of the Dolley Madison project. The third paper treats the digital edition of the writings of a man who was a generation younger than Horry: noted author and editor William Gilmore Simms. Like Pinckney and Horry, he was a Charlestonian, but with broad national connections. As his papers have an audience of literary scholars as well as historians, the digital edition of his works raises other questions about the uses of digital versus printed editions.

When we invent a new medium of communications, we tend to view it in terms of the forms with which we are already comfortable. The typewritten letter continued to express a dateline, a greeting, and a salutation. Early film, albeit hampered by the lack of sound, rendered drama and comedy as influenced by staged theater. Early television was influenced by film, live theater, and radio. Accordingly, the documentary editing community, at least in the field of history, tends to view digital editions as old wine in new bottles. Within this framework, the goal is to reproduce the book as closely as possible in a new medium.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to retain the format of a printed book is to mirror an already existing documentary letterpress series as it is republished on line. This was, for example, the goal behind the Papers of George Washington, which was the first of the founding fathers series to appear on line through Rotunda, the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press. If you take a close look, you will see that as you navigate content through the book’s index, every electronic page is closely keyed to the original book’s page, and that annotation is neither expanded, contracted, changed, nor reformatted.1 This is a terrific publication—as are all the founding fathers publications. So this observation is in no way meant to comment on its brilliance as a reference work. Rather, it is simply to say that the concept behind this kind of publication rests on an assumption that it should simulate a book as it had appeared in print. It is my belief, however, that each medium has its own internal structure, and each, in turn, can best express the old through newly imagined forms. Put metaphorically, television is not radio with pictures.

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It is against this background that I want to explain my ideas about how to create a born-digital documentary edition in the field of history. These ideas guided me as editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition.2 I am excluding most editions in the field of literature from my comments because the expectations of and uses for them differ, and I am a historian. The field of history, unlike contemporary literary studies, remains rooted in empiricism: in the discovery and narration of facts and events within the framework of chronology. On the whole, historians are less interested than are literary critics in the number of times certain words are used, the transition in the shape of paragraphs, or the idiosyncrasies of individual expression as measured by some computationally enabled calculation. Historians are more interested in a newly discovered letter, or the re-evaluation of the meaning of a letter, than in an analysis of literary form or reader-response theory, and thus historians frame their discourse differently. This has an impact on...


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