CeRch‘s second seminar on manuscript digitisation was an insightful and beautifully presented paper by Dr Leah Tether from Anglia Ruskin University. With a background in publishing and medieval French literature, Dr Tether introduced some of the issues concerning the production of a digital edition of a manuscript from a publisher’s point of view.
Leah discussed Gerard Genette‘s Theory of paratextual spaces (whereby mixing paratextual spaces hinders the examination and interpretation of the manuscript’s contents) by way of a critical analysis of the Christine de Pizan project, particularly their display of manuscript annotations and decorations. The term paratextual is used to refer to those layers of information connected to a text (peritexts: titles, covers, prefaces, chapter headings, editorial commentary etc.) and those which are placed outside the text (epitexts: interviews, letters, diaries, conversations, etc.).
A preliminary remark stressed how important it is that digital editions be useful and usable (which reminds me, an excellent read on the topic is Melissa Terras’ paper: Should we just send a copy? Digitisation, Use and Usefulness (2010) – freely available from the UCL repository). Tether believes that these two key aspects might represent less of a problem when scholars and publishers work together. While many scholarly-based projects have produced wonderful results, the scholar’s eye alone is not always sufficient when it comes to layout and interaction. Nor is that of a publisher when it comes to content. The ‘complementary’ relationship of publisher and academic almost mirrors the two facets of a digital edition, whereby the integration of the original object with its virtual representation offers the most complete viewing experience. There is no point in appealing aesthetics if the product doesn’t work. Viceversa, a stable, functional product does not attract if it doesn’t look good!
Genette points to different kinds of paratext accessories which attach themselves to the manuscript culture rather than the print. Scribes use headings, miniatures and punctuation to visually organise the script on the page; similarly, readers have a power over the text in that their annotations have the potential to be included in the next copy or edition of a manuscript. In truth, marginalia and medieval glosses can be considered a form of hypertext because both sit on the ‘margin’ of the text.
A digital manuscript edition isn’t merely a way of preserving and showing off the main content of a folio or a good facsimile. It has to include every aspect of the manuscript’s history, including its paratexts and all its intricacies. Still, a digital edition’s attempt to clearly display and guarantee reliable access to all the nuances of a document is often what makes it difficult to use, more difficult than the document itself (where manipulation is permitted, of course!). Nevertheless, they give readers a taste of scribal life.
Combination of peritext and epitext
The Christine de Pizan project not only perfectly underpins the issue of paratext display but, more importantly, it epitomises Genette’s theory of paratextual spaces. Christine de Pizan is an AHRC & BL funded project that aims to provide the reader with a comprehensive view of the editorial, decorative and production aspects of MS BL Harley 4431 . In particular, it attempts to coherently display the paratext by allowing the user to create his/her own reading space through the optional juxtaposition and manipulation of images, transcription and annotations. This is all very well in theory, but it entails an awfully complicated quest of the desired bit of text. Equally painful is the need to constantly readjust the image to the text as the former doesn’t synchronise with its textual counterpart. Another drawback is represented by the annotation pop-up windows which the user can only comprehensively view on a large screen (and whose editorial rationale is nowhere to be found). What makes one peritextual element more valuable than another? These pop-up boxes, in fact, only partially fulfil their initial intention as they only acknowledge the information instead of examining it. In some cases, peritext invades epitext (images are included in the transcription – figure on the left) – again, not clear why this was done. Finally, the level of zoom only provides two predefined views of the document.
However, it is important to stress that Christine de Pizan is only one of the many projects that raise these issues and, however cumbersome our experience may be, the digital edition has significantly contributed to our perception and understanding of the manuscript.
A more recent, excellent example of paratextual rendering is SharedCanvas, a data model which enables scholars to annotate a shared document using information from different repositories. In a nutshell, SharedCanvas works with layers of information in the form of pop-ups which the reader can freely strip away and manipulate. As these pop-up windows are appended to the folio, paratextual space is preserved, thus allowing the reader to experience the text as it was originally intended.
The Morgan Library M.804 demo shows some of the SharedCanvas features
A digital manuscript can itself be seen as a paratext of the original document: its frame and format have an impact on reader-reception, experience and understanding of the text. If you think about it, online and medieval reading are very similar, in that as our disorderly bouncing between hypertexts almost emulates the medieval practice of flicking through folia.
To conclude, Dr Tether emphasised how valuable a publisher’s contribution to scholarly digital editions can be: publishers, in fact , are also know as content-packagers for their vast experience with engaging reading spaces, different platforms and formats which they all pack-up in wonderful, seamless ways.
[learn_more caption="Learn more" state="close"] Click here for the event website. The Twitter hashtag for the CeRch seminar series is #cerchseminars[/learn_more]