What is an Electronic Edition?

The Nature of an Electronic Edition

In the electronic medium, the concept of the editor’s virtually propietary role becomes untenable. The primacy of the text is restored, and comment and analysis become the common business of the readership. A good electronic edition should empower the user, and by the same token expect more of the user than a print edition does. The electronic medium is inevitably a gamble, as print was for Gutenberg. But it potentially liberates both author and user provided the editor/encoder is prepared to use it as a tool for liberation rather than control, and the user is prepared to treat it as such.

Electronic vs. print?

Electronic editions enjoy a number of fairly obvious practical advantages over print: they are far cheaper to produce, they can be made accessible to a vastly wider audience, and the enormous power of electronic searching makes it possible for users to locate an incomparably greater range of information accurately and almost instantaneously.

The best constructed print index can only be a blunt instrument, prone to human error and oversight, and in any case only able to direct readers to whatever the indexer has decided they are likely to want to look for. In an electronic edition, two powerful and complementary types of searching can be made available.

By means of ‘content tagging’, the editor can ascribe values to words or phrases whose meaning may not be immediately obvious, so that a search for (say) ‘Athanasius’ willl locate not only all occurences of the name Athanasius but also all variant spellings of it, and instances where Athanasius is referred to as ‘he’, ‘this reverend father’, ‘that wicked man’ etc.

At least, it will if the editor gets the tagging right. Content tagging is, effectively, a highly sophisticated form of indexing, and hence as prone to error and oversight as print indexing. And it potentially permits the editor to mislead the user - intentionally or otherwise - far more seriously than a print index does. But users who prefer not to rely on the editor’s efficiency, honesty and good judgment remain free to search the text itself for whatever strings they think appropriate, and to draw their own conclusions about the significance of the results.

Another inestimable advantage of the electronic medium is that work can be released while still in progress, and can still continue to progress after it has been released. There is no need, as with print, to produce an entire new edition every time the work is corrected or updated. Nor is it necessary for a project’s work (or at least for a substantial, self-contained portion of it) to be completed before any of it can be made public.

On the other hand, there is a certain delight in the physicality of books, and often in their visual appearance, that virtual editions cannot replace. Most people find paper far preferrable to computer screens for sustained reading. Predictions that computers would herald ‘the death of the book’ show few if any signs of proving correct. And one of the many ways in which electronically generated text can be output is as print. There is no reason to see the two mediums as mutually exclusive or in competition with one another.


Perhaps the greatest concern for an electronic editor is whether the medium will prove as durable as manuscript and print. The very means by which electronic texts are created, stored, disseminated and accessed will probably change out of all recognition within a matter of decades. It is not even certain that such texts will remain forever electronic: there is no knowing what humanity’s preferred energy source will be in centuries to come, if there are any.

There is, consequently, a growing need for what might be called electronic archivists, whose task will be to upgrade the encoding applied to electronic texts to ensure that they continue to function within whatever new parameters evolve - much as the custodians of audio recordings have transferred their holdings from wax to vinyl to tape to compact disc. Provided the documentation (or ‘metadata’, i.e. data about data) of a given edition is meticulous and the markup consistent, it should be possible for such conversion to be largely automated - although, as in the case of digitally remastered audio recordings, it seems likely that something of a human touch will remain necessary to maintain the standard of even the most carefully designed edition.

There are already a number of electronic archives of this kind. The foremost British example is the Oxford Text Archive, with which all the electronic texts produced by the Newton Project are deposited for future safekeeping.

Readers’ choice

The liberation of the reader from editorial whims and hierarchies represents the fundamental difference between printed and electronic text. No matter how much honesty and transparency a print editor aspires to, the medium inevitably imposes a particular structure, a particular sequence, a particular layout and hence a particular set of priorities on any text. It becomes ‘his’ or ‘her’ edition - an attitude strikingly exemplified by the fact that in many library catalogues, the Works of Francis Bacon, for instance, appear not under B for Bacon but under S for Spedding, their nineteenth-century editor.

In the electronic medium, many ‘editorial’ decisions can be devolved to the user. It remains necessary, of course, for the editor to have considered in advance what decisions the user might wish to make, but within those parameters a huge number of choices can be left open.

To take a relatively simple example, a textual fragment such as ‘The writings of \The Temple of/ Ier.’ would present a print editor with a massive labour of typesetting and footnoting to provide the following information:

  • ‘The writings of’ has been deleted
  • ‘The Temple of’ has been added
  • ‘Ier.’ would now be spelled ‘Jer.’
  • ‘Ier.’ probably means ‘Ierusalem’ after the substitution of ‘The Temple of’ for ‘The writings of’
  • ‘Ierusalem’ would now be spelled ‘Jerusalem’
  • ‘Ier.’ may have meant either ‘Ierome’ or ‘Ieremiah’ before the substitution
  • ‘Ierome’ and ‘Ieremiah’ would now be spelled ‘Jerome’ and ‘Jeremiah’
  • A gloss explaining the significance of the Temple of Jerusalem
  • Glosses explaining the significance of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah and the Church Father Jerome and their writings

Given a well-tagged electronic rendition of this (admittedly fictitious but not implausible) text fragment, it can be left to the user’s discretion how much if any of this information he or she wishes to access. It can be presented simply as the amended, modernised, expanded version: ‘The Temple of Jerusalem’. The entire range of options listed above can be invoked by means of graphic layout and hyperlinks. Or any combination of the above can be selected according to taste.

For the editor of a print edition, the principal question is: What will be the most appealing and useful format in which to display this material to my readers? For the electronic editor, it is: How do I enable my reader to choose the format in which he or she will find this text most appealing and useful?

There is a school of thought that considers this a ‘dumbing-down’ of editorship, but in many respects it requires both editors and users to smarten up. It actually requires rather more consideration on the editor’s part of the various options which users might wish to be offered, and more consideration on the user’s part of which option suits him or her best for a particular purpose. Liberation entails responsibility, and if we are to move from a world in which patriarchal editors dispense suitably processed information to passively receptive readers, it is incumbent on the readers to expend some time and effort on learning how to exploit such information to their own best advantage. But it is also incumbent on editors to be alert to readers’ potential demands and to supply as many means as possible of meeting them.

© 2017 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

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