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  • The Changing Production and Consumption of Historical and Literary Texts:The View from the Simms Initiatives
  • David Moltke-Hansen (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.

One knows intuitively that reading or working with a printed text is different from reading or working with a digital one. Yet the extent of the divergence is often hidden. Ingrained reading habits carry over from one environment to the other. The chief reason for one to read or draw on these texts in the first place— their historicity or literariness—is part of what informs these habits. This preoccupation with the nature of the text, however, should not blind one to the full impact on reading practices of the underlying differences between paper and digital text presentations and consumption. Most readers who reflect at all on this divergence are still sorting out the implications. Even so, it is clear that the consequences for historical and literary scholarship are potentially of dramatic, paradigm-shifting significance.1

This conclusion is being drawn in many places out of many projects. The Digital History Group of HASTAC—the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory—is one of the growing number of centers of discussion., in Canada, is another. Even the public media have picked up on the issue. The May 21, 2013 New York Times column by David Brooks begins: “About two years ago, the folks at Google released a database of 5.2 million books”; the piece then goes on to consider the computer-assisted ability to “type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different epochs.” Brooks concludes: “gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” Obviously, he is discussing a very different kind of reading from what has been scholars’ bread and butter since the emergence of academic historical and literary studies late in the 19th century. It is this new kind of use of texts that also portends a tectonic shift in scholarship.

Among the many interesting and ongoing test cases for these issues are the Simms Initiatives of the University of South Carolina Libraries. The Initiatives currently are making the writings of William Gilmore Simms—arguably the American South’s preeminent, mid-19th-century man of letters—available simultaneously in both print and digital formats. Thereby, in effect, the Simms project is providing a site or laboratory through which to reconsider key aspects of how reading, other forms of textual consumption, and textual production have changed since the 19th century. It is doing so by juxtaposing two different kinds of both textuality and ways of working with texts.

Despite the technological impetus, the reasons for the changes are not only technological. Other developments are playing their parts. Consider: once upon a time, history’s audiences in the West were small; so was the volume of history writing. In Britain, it was not until the mid-18th century that Samuel Johnson and others, such as Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and David Hume...


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