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  • From Physical to Digital Textuality: Loss and Gain in Literary Projects
  • Peter Shillingsburg (bio)

Not all texts were written, edited, and produced for the same purpose. Nor are they all used in the same way; therefore, there is no set of rules that will apply to all digitizations of all texts. This essay focuses on so-called literary texts (poetry, drama, fiction, and familiar essays) treated as works of art rather than as cultural documents. The main reason to be so specific is that standards of accuracy and precision in uses of literary texts as art are different from the standards often in play for cultural documents or corpora of texts for linguistic analysis. Accuracy is good for all users, but some users dispense with it more readily than others. As has now often been said, “Any text might do, but no two texts of a work will do the same thing.” Hence, if what is to be done with a text depends on which text it is, on when and where it was created, and on who its authors, revisers, censors, or producers were, then there is no substitute for knowing precisely which text one is using and how it differs from other texts bearing the same title and purporting to be the same work. The standards for digitizing such texts are high—good enough isn’t.

Furthermore, not all literary works studied today were written and published digitally—most in fact were written with the anticipation of print production, or, if long enough ago, for preservation and use as manuscripts. What happens to textuality when such texts are digitized? Was their original physical form a significant indicator of meaning, purpose, or status of the text? Will digitization destroy clues to the work’s significance? What standard of accuracy and comprehensiveness matters? How should those who digitize texts address what is lost during the process?

Whether a digital textual project is a professional scholarly edition or a student project, makes no difference with regard to the facts with which one works or to the ideals for which one strives. Whether on stone, clay, papyrus, vellum, parchment, or paper, the surviving material texts are what we have. They are the primary materials; they constitute the evidence upon which all subsequent uses depend. One cannot go behind these basic physical objects in search of the answer to the question: “Where did this come from?” The physical stuff is where, for us, it comes from; it forms the basis for answers to the question: “And what happened to it on its way to its present form?” The question is important because no two copies of a text are identical and their variances can or should affect how we formulate statements like these: “The text means X” or “It shows that the [End Page 158] author thought Y” or “It reveals a delicate sensitivity that was senselessly trampled by the printer or the censor” or even “Printing techniques at the time did not allow for W.” Such statements cannot be made without direct analysis of the documentary record of textual history for the work one is reading and studying.

Students trying to research literary works usually find that a semester is not long enough and that oceans or continents separate them from primary documents. These difficulties do not justify the notion that it is okay to do primary research on derived materials of questionable accuracy and provenance. One still wants to know, “Where did that come from?” What level of so-called scholarship is okay with the fact that available copies are derivative and simply don’t bear the evidence that allows one to ask the question: “What happened to this text on its way to this form?” And just to be clear, all digital surrogates for the originals are derivative; they are not “the real thing.” And yet, there are good reasons to create surrogates, but no excuse for not knowing the consequences of the decisions made about how to construct the surrogates.

Digital or virtual representations, accessible in every library, including Podunk U itself, are desirable—so desirable, in fact, that naive enthusiasts with access to scanners and computers are everywhere...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2327-5898
Print ISSN
0007-8069
Pages
pp. 158-168
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-28
Open Access
No
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