Editing Modernism in Canada


May 23, 2011

Diary of a Digital Edition: Part Four

It’s been quite awhile since my last update on the Wilkinson project, largely because a lot of the work I’ve been doing on it has been of the brainstorming, conceptualizing, and theorizing type, and not necessarily of the doing type. Why I didn’t think of that work as bloggable, I’m not sure, but it’s probably something to do with the tendency of many academics to want to share polished work, or concrete work, or complete work—conference papers, articles, books—but not drafts, or notes, or musings. However, the thinking work I’ve been doing over the winter has made me much more able to see the edition as a finished project, and I’ll share with you where that’s gotten me.

Much of this deep-thinking work happened as I wrote an article to submit to the publications associated with last fall’s Conference on Editorial problems, and as I worked on my EMiC PhD stipend application. While my paper at the CEP was about the edition of The Mountain and the Valley that I was acting as research assistant on, I decided to submit a paper on the Wilkinson edition for publication. While the article is more generally concerned with the challenges of putting together small-scale editions like mine, and the conditions necessary for making them a feasible alternative to similarly-scaled print editions, I spent a lot of time thinking about why we would want to encourage the creation of digital editions rather than or in addition to print ones. I love real books as much as the next person, and while I’m relatively tech-savvy, I had originally planned to put together a print edition for EMiC, not a digital one. Why the switch?

Aside from the obvious and pragmatic reasons—a fantastic print edition of Wilkinson’s complete poems already exists, and I couldn’t get permission to do the edition I had earlier planned on—I have one overriding reason for taking on (perhaps foolishly, considering my current workload) the project: because creating a digital Wilkinson edition will let me share Anne Wilkinson’s poetry in all of its uncanny glory, in an accessible and user friendly form, with anyone who wants to read it, anyone who wants to analyse it, anyone who wants to place it in its larger contexts of Canadian modernism, women’s writing, and international metaphysical and mythopoeic poetry. And it can do those things significantly better than any print edition, because it’s free, image-based, infinitely expandable, and can cross-link poems within the collection and across other archives to make explicit the links between Wilkinson’s work and that of others.

Knowing what a digital edition can do naturally leads to thinking about how to design the edition so that it can do these things in the best way we currently know how. As my primary goal for the project is to make Wilkinson’s poetry fully accessible, I then decided that creating an image-based edition was the way to go. Images are easy to view and understand, and capture all sorts of bibliographic information that transcriptions don’t; it will also show people what material exists in her physical archive at the Fisher library, which will hopefully encourage more people to consider both her published and archival work in their research.

Now came a harder decision—how should I organize the hundreds (or thousands—I haven’t counted yet, as it’s a bit scary to consider) of facsimiles that represent all of the variant versions of Wilkinson’s poems? I turned to Dean’s article “Editing Archives ] Archiving Editions” and found a model that made total sense to me—a collection that was an all-encompassing repository of extant and future editions. As Dean argues,

Instead of superseding current critical editions—whether in print or online—or privileging one version or editorial practice over others,…digital archives could potentially enfold any number of critical and non-critical editions into an indexed network in which each edition is experienced as a socialized text—that is, social objects embedded in an apparatus that bears witness to the history of the edition’s production, transmission, and reception. (202-3)

Dean terms a digital archive that enacts this enfolding of editions an “archive of editions” (199), and this is the model I’ve chosen for the Wilkinson project. If my ultimate goal is to make Wilkinson’s work fully accessible, including all of it in a context that allows readers to understand its history of composition, transmission, and reception is essential. This model will allow me to do just that.

But what will it look like? Even I don’t know yet, but here’s how I think of it. Please keep in mind that these imaginings don’t have a lot to do with practicalities of markup and web design, or with the realities of completing this project and a dissertation simultaneously. I might be able to accomplish all of these things, or I might only be able to accomplish a tiny fraction of what I want to. However, I’m thinking big for the moment, and I’ll revise my expectations of myself and the project as it progresses:

Imagine a bookshelf. On the bookshelf, there are five books—Wilkinson’s two published collections, and the three collected/complete editions that were published posthumously, edited by A.J.M. Smith (1968), Joan Coldwell (1990), and Dean Irvine (2003). You “pick up” (click on) her second collection, The Hangman Ties the Holly, and can examine the book’s covers (as high-res images) before opening the book and beginning to read. When you get to the Table of Contents, you have two choices—you can keep reading through, as you would a physical book, or you can click on the hyperlink that takes you to a specific poem. Either way, we have now arrived at a page that contains a poem.

At first glance, this looks like it is simply an image of a page from a book, and you can read it as printed. However, as you mouse over or click on the text, textual and descriptive annotations embedded in the image reveal additional information: explanatory notes, cross-links to other Wilkinson poems (and eventually, to her journals, letters, juvenilia, and prose writing), cross-links to related texts that have a digital presence (this feature will become richer as the writings of more modern Canadian writers are digitized), and textual notes that indicate parts of the poem that exist in variant states.

This is where things get interesting. Somewhere around the page you’re currently reading will be links or thumbnails that represent the images (or recordings) of all of the variant versions of the poem you’re currently reading—from other editions, from periodicals, from typescripts and manuscripts, from her journals, from letters, from anthologies, and from radio or musical performances. I’m not sure how this will work yet, but as a big part of understanding how her texts evolve over time is being able to compare them, you will be able to select and compare two (or possibly more) variant versions of the poem, in facsimile or transcribed form. John L. Bryant, whose fluid text theory I find very intriguing, advocates for the narrativization of textual variation—setting up editions/archives so that they tell the story of how the work changes over time. While I have some concerns about the amount of editorial intervention that narrativization involves—the story can only be told from my perspective, and readers can only trust that I’m telling a “true” story about how the text changes—I do want my edition to allow readers to easily see and understand how the variant versions of Wilkinson’s poems relate to each other and how they change over time in relation to each other. How the edition will do this is something that I still have to do some thinking about.

While this “organization by edition” will encompass many of Wilkinson’s poems, there are a number of published poems that appear only in periodical form, and a number of unpublished poems that only appear in manuscript form. I’m not sure yet how I will organize these; I may decide that The Tamarack Review and Contemporary Verse, among other periodicals Wilkinson published poems in, will have their own “books” on the “shelf” that contain the poems she published in that periodical, and I could certainly do something similar with her copy books. There are obvious issues with this idea, the major one being that periodicals are not books and representing them as such is highly problematic, but again, this is something I need to think further about, and talk to all of you about.

There will also be information coded in TEI that may not necessarily be visible to the casual reader but that will make the Wilkinson collection a rich site for search and analysis—information about the bibliographic features of the texts, formal features of the poems, language use, names and dates, etc. etc. etc. It’s those etc.s that I’m also going to have to do more thinking about—I can’t code everything, even though I might want to (and on an “everything is important” level I do, although on a “I”m on the verge of developing carpal tunnel syndrome” I certainly don’t), and I need to decide what to code based on what’s useful to my project, and what’s useful to the repository more generally when we get to the point of doing cross-collection analysis.

So that’s where I’m at right now; the scanning is done (for the moment–there is more material in the Wilkinson archive at Fisher that I haven’t scanned, but as I don’t have immediate plans to include it in the digital collection, it can wait), the files are almost completely renamed (which is a much more onerous and time-consuming task than I would have thought), and so I’m mostly having fun teaching myself how to use the IMT and waiting to head to Victoria and start the Digital Editions class to figure out where to go from here. I can’t wait!


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