This past week in Charlottesville, I had the opportunity to attend two events hosted by the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE). The first of these was “camp edit,” or the Institute for Editing Historical Documents. In a week of seminars we covered a range of editing and publishing topics, from transcription, document search, and annotation to project management, modes of publication, and fundraising. I was glad to find this year’s program emphasized questions raised by digital technologies in addition to its core curriculum of transcription, annotation, proofing, indexing, project management, and publication. A session on digital tools for editing led by Andy Jewell, of the Willa Cather Archive and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was supplemented by conversations linking traditional scholarly editing topics to some of Andy’s experiences in the digital realm at UNL and before that with the Whitman Archive.
Some topics from the old core curriculum appeared less relevant to our work at the Blake Archive at first, but I found many underlying principles could inform our own practices, even where the means may be quite different. For example, during the session on indexing led by William Ferraro of the George Washington papers, I wasn’t sure that I would gain much practical knowledge as an assistant to a digital project without a traditional book index. As the seminar continued, however, I found myself thinking of indexing less as a way to direct users to specific pages in a book and more as a practice in the kind of constrained vocabulary description and document linking that power the searching, browsing, and sorting within a digital edition. We may have more options for how we structure those connections in a digital edition, but there is no less of a premium on transparency, usefulness, and efficiency for users in the way we structure relationships between objects and content.
Having previous to my ADE experience spent little time around historical editions, I never quite got used to all the talk of “documents” at camp edit or in the ADE meeting that followed it. At the Blake Archive we usually only say “documents” to refer to the documentation we generate in the process of editing “works” and “objects”. This difference in speaking had me thinking about the questions I wanted to address in my own presentation to the ADE regarding how the manuscripts and letters projects in the Blake Archive have brought about some interesting changes in the way that editorial definitions based on the earlier illuminated books and visual designs have been applied and rationalized. I gleaned from the enthusiastic reception of an earlier presenter’s questioning of the durability of digital editions (she said she’d migrate to a digital edition when someone could show her how to read an electronic text without electricity, bringing to my mind the Olympic ads for NBC’s upcoming post-apocalyptic “Revolution”) that my intended discussion of some of the peculiarities of our XML tag set for manuscript transcriptions might not be the most compelling choice for the group assembled. In my presentation about the letters in our edition not in Blake’s hand, titled “Complicated Correspondence: Editing the Letters William Blake Did Not Write,” I expanded on some of the less overtly technical repercussions of earlier precedents set in the Blake Archive to the work we’re doing now on new types of objects and works. My argument was that the usages of “works”, “copies,” and “objects,” even when used as literally and diplomatically as they have been in the Blake Archive, become another layer of technology mediating users’ access to content. As much a technology as the codex or digital machines used to flip or navigate pages, these terms require continual re-inspection as they are applied to new ends.
Along these lines, I am excited to hear our editors are planning to push more of the documentation for the Archive onto the public site in the near future. Hopefully such a move will encourage us to keep our editorial machinery well oiled, in addition to providing a resource for other editorial projects.