Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Companion to Digital Humanities, Ch. 18: Electronic Texts - Audiences and Purposes

A Companion to Digital Humanities
Ch. 18: Electronic Texts - Audiences and Purposes
Author: Perry Willett

Willett provides an overview of the history and key questions in the development and use of electronic text. Unfortunately, his attempt to provide such an overview suffers from the rapid development of technology in the decade since he wrote his article.

Willett's most useful comments address longer-range questions, such as the development and application of editorial standards and practices for electronic text. However, these useful comments are interspersed with woefully out of date descriptions of hypertext. This leaves the reader with no way to evaluate Willett's comments when it is less clear what effect the passage of time may have had on the topic at hand. For example, when he describes the current rush to publish electronic texts as "a land rush, as publishers, libraries, and individuals seek to publish significant collections," one must turn away from the Companion and toward more recently published sources to verify his statement. Later in the chapter, Willett mentions that 'recent' books (from 1997 and 2000) focus on the production of electronic texts, "leaving aside any discussion of their eventual use," because of the unresolved question about how the computer can "aid in literary criticism." While this may still be the case, one must question any statement about a field as dynamic as the digital humanities that relies on such outdated sources.

Willett's chapter does include an insightful discussion of the uneven distribution of the availability of works in electronic text format. This is another longer term problem that seems like it will continue to apply for years to come, at least in part because of one of the key reasons for the uneven distribution: copyright. Willett calls copyright "the hidden force behind most electronic text collections." As in many of the other chapters in the Companion, Willett seems to have identified a key obstacle faced by digital humanists that is unlikely to change any time soon: "The effect of copyright means that researchers and students interested in twentieth-century and contemporary writing are largely prevented from using electronic text." The issue of copyright looms large in many humanities disciplines, such as translation, but it does not seem to be an active topic of discussion - instead, it seems to be treated (as it probably is) as a fait accompli.

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