Editing Modernism in Canada


June 8, 2013

DHSI2013: Susan Schreibman and the Versioning Machine

Early(ish) Saturday morning, the Versioning and Collation DHSI workshop had the opportunity to participate in a somewhat impromptu session with Dr. Susan Schreibman — the Long Room Hub Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities in the Department of English at Trinity College Dublin and self-proclaimed representative of the “TEI police” — on her work developing the Versioning Machine.

Susan calls the Versioning Machine “a piece of software in a box designed for non-programmers.” On a most basic level, the software is meant to create editions online: users create single TEI documents which the Versioning Machine (using XSLT) separates into several other documents, or versions. No installations are required because transformations are on the client side of the application.

The Versioning Machine is very much a collaborative effort built by generations of literary scholars, designers, and developers. Admittedly, “the Versioning Machine” is a bit of a misnomer, because it isn’t really a “machine” — humans do the work, and the software displays the multiple versions of the text.

In developing this program, Susan and her team were and continue to be very concerned with the ethics of versions. What do we privilege? What constitutes an “authoritative” version or edition? Therefore, a chief advantage of the Versioning Machine is that it does not require users to appoint a base text, which means that users do not have to privilege one text over another. In this way, the software offers literary scholars an alternative to the variorum, as well as the opportunity to step back from the more traditional model which privileges the latest published version over earlier versions (for example, how we have viewed and taught the work of Yeats).

The future of the Versioning Machine is bright. For this coming year, Susan has secured funding for a postdoc who will be charged with further developing the software. At this point, however, Susan does not know what the Versioning Machine will look like after this postdoc. Daniel Carter from the Modernist Versions Project spent this past year working on the Versioning Machine, but he ultimately ended up versioning the software. Although the back end of Daniel’s version looks very different from the current version of the Versioning Machine, the front end is still very similar.

One of Susan’s main concerns in developing the Versioning Machine — both in the past and in future design — is the question of how to create “digital stuff that lasts.” It is no longer advisable to design with the two “p” words — perpetuity and proprietary — in mind; instead, Susan intends to create durable data that will last through future migrations. The TEI community, for example, has lasted because of its anticipation of what people will use based on what they are currently using; Susan envisions that kind of durability for the Versioning Machine.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.