A Rationale of Editing

I originally titled this post “Why digital editing?” – a title which I discarded for two reasons. The first is that while this blogpost focuses on a number of reasons why digital editing is important, there are many more. The second is that none of these reasons are specifically bound to digital editing, although there are obvious reasons why in this case a digital edition is preferable.

I spent most of January transcribing and editing a particular collection of Newtonian manuscripts, whose physical status can only be described as ‘precarious’. The paper is worn, damaged, and sometimes even transparent. On many pages the ink has faded, or it has slowly spread, creating blotted words, sentences, even entire paragraphs. Had we left these for much longer, many parts would have become unreadable (at least for human eyes), therefore effectively blocking access to part of Newton’s genius.

To show you what we’re talking about, here’s some pictures:

Damaged edge with words missing, blotting, text from verso permeating
Heavily damaged edges, transparent page, blotted text

Although these are low-quality images, it’s quite clear that even with a much better resolution the reader will have immense trouble deciphering these pages. And there are worse parts…

By creating a high-quality digital image of this page, accompanied by a professional transcription of the still visible and now almost invisible text, we will be able to maintain and partially regain access to its content. Editors familiar with the text can even attempt to make an educated guess at the missing words.

Which brings me to a second reason why we need editions of these manuscripts. Assuming the reader is able to read the entire text, will he or she understand it? The text is in early modern English, with its peculiar vocabulary and erratic spelling, which not everyone can easily grasp. Newton was very fond of ligatures like ye, wch and wth, and other abbreviations, ye usage of wch makes it often diffct to read ye txt (if y’know wha’ I mean…). Most readers could use some help there, for instance by showing the expanded words when hovering over the abbreviations.

The tables in the picture above are also not self-explanatory, and so are many other textual, contextual and meta-textual features. By providing guidance the editor can further enlarge the reader’s understanding of the manuscript.

Preservation, reading enhancement, understanding: three important reasons why editing manuscripts is invaluable. Ideally, these and other features should all be embedded in a single environment, which goes way beyond contemporary digital editions. Keep an eye on this blog and the Newton Project website, more is to come…


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