Introduction: A Booth at the Fair

Michael Best
Co-ordinating Editor, Internet Shakespeare Editions

University of Victoria


Best, Michael. "Introduction: A Booth at the Fair". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 1.1-14 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/bestintr.htm>

  1. Six years ago, when electronic editions were little more than a gleam in the eyes of a few Humanities computing enthusiasts, EMLS published a special issue exploring some possibilities of the new medium[1]. The World Wide Web has grown in an astonishing manner since that early discussion of its potential, both in content and the technology of faster connections and more sophisticated browsers for the display of text and multimedia. The scholarly world is used to moving at a rather more sedate speed, evaluating and judging before adopting change. This current issue looks at ways in which a new generation of scholars is adapting to the medium, and adapting the medium to the scholarly endeavor of producing electronic editions that are at the same time of high quality and well adapted to the rapidly evolving world of the Internet. The title of the current issue is taken from a paper session at the meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in 2003. Two of the papers in this issue originated at that meeting; the remaining essays were initially presented at a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC, a month later.

  2. Compared to the circumspection of the contributors to the earlier issue, the contributors to this volume manifest a growing confidence. Alan Galey's assertion can be taken as expressing a consensus among this second wave of writers and critics on the medium: "My intent here is not to restate the argument for an affinity between Shakespearean content and electronic media, but, assuming that argument's validity, to explore its consequences in the practical terms of humanities computing and textual studies." In marked contrast to the earlier special issue, no less than four of the contributors to this collection are actively involved in creating electronic editions for the Internet Shakespeare Editions.

  3. The discussions range from essays that provide carefully considered theoretical frameworks for the editions to those that engage directly with the practicalities of working with electronic texts. Patrick Finn's essay establishes a claim for the continuing -- or rather increased -- importance of the editor in the wider and less domesticated space of the electronic edition as compared with print tradition, as he finds a necessary connection between the function of the editor and the practice of hospitality. Jennifer Forsyth's essay combines the theoretical with the practical in a related topic, as she discusses some of the experiences of an editor on a personal level, arguing that the modern predilection for editions in which the editor's passion is effaced behind a mask of objectivity does both editor and audience a disservice. In different ways, both Alan Galey and Sonia Massai raise questions about the fundamental nature of the text, and the way that the electronic edition deals with it. Galey looks at some of the challenges involved in generating the hidden code that editors choose to describe the text they are editing; he examines a number of technologies of reproducing original texts as well as the electronic, and explores the way the text produces what he calls "encoding cruxes." The essay that engages with the text on the most practical level is Massai's; she takes a number of examples from the play she is editing, Edward III, to explore some of the potential she sees in developing an edition that is rich in reference and that uses the capacity of the electronic medium to its fullest.

  4. The one essay in this collection that does not deal directly with electronic editions is the fascinating experiment carried out by Jonathan Hope and Michael Whitmore, as they employ computer tools of textual analysis designed for a quite different function to see how they "read" Shakespeare. If several of the other essays look at what we mean by "text," and how the electronic medium is potentially redefining the text, Hope and Whitmore look at reading, and show how the computer's powers of data crunching differ from our modes of perception. Their work is an important reminder of the desirability of integrating tools of textual analysis into a standard hypertext edition; they demonstrate that such tools can create some surprising moments of serendipitous discovery.

  5. The General Textual Editor of the Internet Shakespeare Editions, Eric Rasmussen, contributes an article on the quality of the texts as compared to print editions. He makes the pleasing discovery that the ISE is at least holding its own with recent print publications, and in some cases presenting texts that are notably more accurate than their print counterparts. His essay is a reminder of the need for those working on electronic texts to be especially conscious of scholarly accuracy, since the medium itself is generally associated with much more haphazard types of publication. In the 1998 issue, I commented:
    Editors for the Internet Shakespeare Editions (ISE) will have to be at least as thorough in their editorial practices as the editors for the Arden Shakespeare and its peers; since the electronic editions of Shakespeare on the Internet thus far are inaccurate and outdated, and since the medium allows anyone with access to a server to put anything on line and call it an edition, the ISE will have to set up visibly rigorous scholarly standards if the editions are to receive wide scholarly acceptance. [2]
  6. Despite the splendid example of EMLS, there is continuing evidence of the reluctance of traditional scholars to accord scholars working in the medium the respect they deserve. I was recently a member of a team funded by the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada to survey academics on their attitudes to the credibility of electronic publishing; the report, The Credibility of Electronic Publishing, has itself been published electronically.[3] What we discovered was not surprising, but somewhat paradoxical nonetheless: a high proportion of academics at all levels use the Internet for teaching and research, but very few engage themselves in the medium when it comes to their own scholarship. Overall, the report notes, somewhat dispiritingly:

    When it comes to the quality of electronic materials . . . it is clear that respondents still have concerns about the quality and credibility of electronic publications. . . . 86% felt that non-electronic outlets were more credible.[4]
  7. It does seem that there is a kind of guilt by association operating here. Because the Internet is host to sites which are anything but academic, the assumption is that anything that uses the same medium is tainted. It would be as logical to claim that all print works were somehow devalued because the print medium includes the National Enquirer, The News of the World, and the advertising on a box of breakfast cereal.

  8. At the same time, we must admit that not all change in the six years since the earlier issue of EMLS on the Internet Shakespeare Editions has been desirable. As our mailboxes become crowded by spam, the alarming possibility looms that we are seeing a re-enactment of the tragedy of the commons.[5] Pressure is mounting on governments to regulate the Internet, perhaps by instituting a "stamp" system of payment for emails; even the best spam filters allow junk through and intercept some legitimate mail; and servers slow down as the volume of unwanted messages rises. Those of us using the electronic commons for scholarly publication have reason to be concerned. The Net has, after all, a somewhat chequered history. It began as a military communications network, and now harbors what is at times an almost overwhelming hucksterism: hawkers and peddlers surround us as we navigate, all seemingly doing their best to pick our pockets. The Internet is not a cozy academic world like a University Library, where silence and respect prevail, and where even the oddest publication has been approved by someone for inclusion. At times it seems more like the Elizabethan Bartholomew Fair, with the respectable jammed alongside the tawdry, the sophisticated rubbing elbows with the sweaty multitude, and a vast crowd of the simply curious.

  9. It is nonetheless evident that some of the initial promise of the Internet, so heralded by the early theorists who wrote about hypertext--that it can democratize the nature of information--is being realized. In medicine, a patient curious to learn more about a disability or disease has immediate access to the kind of information that used to be confined to the ponderous covers of medical text-books, and in our own discipline, any student or curious reader of Shakespeare can read peer-reviewed critical articles online in EMLS and other academic online journals, or view and search the texts as published in the First Folio in accurate transcriptions, or view high-quality images of the Folio.[6]

  10. These kinds of electronic spaces seem to be far removed from the image of the bustling, huckstering Bartholomew Fair, but it seems that many scholars in the Humanities confuse them. Clearly, it is still necessary for those of us working in our corner of the e-Fair to make the case for the quality of electronic scholarship. The easy response is to point out that the medium is here whether we like it or not, and that our students are increasingly turning to it as their first resource when they look for information of just about any kind. But one could argue in response that it is important for scholars to resist change simply for the sake of change; we have become acutely conscious of the ironies inherent in Miranda's oft-quoted remark about her brave new world, and it is no less true that the brave new medium comes with its own rather long list of problems.

  11. One of the many ironies of Miranda's comment about the brave new world she sees is that it is in fact an old world, a tired old world of politicians who have squabbled for years over possessions not so much greater than the magic island that is the stage of The Tempest. I am reminded of a similar poetic statement of the wonder of discovery: the lines of Keats where he imagines "Stout Cortez" in his "wild surmise" viewing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Well, just as our response to the island in The Tempest has become problematic, the image of Cortez--or the more historically accurate Balboa--standing silently wondering on the peak in Darien is not such an uncomplicated image of wonder today. We have become more attuned to the greed that lay behind the impulse to explore, and the violence and exploitation that followed. But the image of the discoverer standing on the edge of a new ocean is an accurate, and potentially invigorating figure for scholars contemplating the new medium: the crucial difference is that this time the colonization is of a metaphoric or virtual space, with the result that, unlike the worlds of The Tempest and the Americas, there are no indigenes to displace.

  12. If the new electronic world seems at times to be overwhelmingly populated by the irritating megaphones of the dot.coms and their relentlessly animated banners, so much the more it is vital for us as Humanists to claim a portion of the territory to dedicate to the advancement of learning; to accept that the quill pen has been replaced by the keyboard, and to re-modulate our speech so that we have a voice in the new medium. The result of the questionnaires I quoted in the Report on The Credibility of Electronic Publishing earlier suggests rather uncomfortably that instead of taking up the challenge, many scholars in the Humanities are standing on the edge a new ocean of vast expanse, shivering and refusing to plunge in. Afraid to go surfing. Or, to revert to my earlier metaphor, afraid to experience the exhilaration of the Fair for fear of pickpockets and the kinds of unsavoury activities favoured by Ursula, the pig-woman, in Jonson's celebration of the Fair.[7] In this new space, we must not allow only the worst to be full of passionate intensity. Humanists must colonize the new space along with the rest of the teeming multitude that throngs the Internet Fair. The challenge is to do so in a way that both preserves in the new medium the best of the old, and at the same time begins to take advantage of its new rhetorical and semantic capacities.

  13. The continuing use of peer review for scholarship on the Internet is the most obvious example of traditional techniques for assuring quality migrating to the new medium. However, since the Report on Credibility indicates that peer review is not enough to establish parity between electronic and print scholarship,[8] it seems that we need to develop new tools for establishing the quality of Internet materials. The nature of hypertext linking may be partly at fault here: if I link directly to a page of an article on a web-site that only posts peer-reviewed materials, I may not be aware of this assurance of quality, since I may have bypassed the page where the processes of peer review for the site are noted. The flexibility of hypertext may actually be a disadvantage for those sites that provide both peer-reviewed materials and informal discussion of those materials--a common and effective design for an academic site, which takes advantage both of the structures of traditional scholarship and the informal expectations of the culture of the Internet. The site for the Internet Shakespeare Editions has a structure of this kind: the Library and the Theater have what I think of as "quality firewalls" around them: only peer-reviewed materials are posted there. There is also, however, the space I call the "Annex" where prepublication materials and informal discussion can be posted, and where free discussion of the kind suggested by Jennifer Forsyth could take place. But a distinction of this kind is not enough unless it is clearly posed on each individual page of a site, since a viewer may have come to it directly from a search engine. A quick survey of many high-quality academic Web sites reveals that surprisingly few of them indicate date of publication or revision or method of peer review -- information we take for granted in print publications. What we need is a convention whereby each individual page on a site where the materials have been peer-reviewed will have some kind of logo or statement concerning the process of review, with a link to a page that sets out the criteria -- yet this is a practice that is found rarely in our subject area. Internet users are in a hurry, and are unlikely to take the time to wander through the warren of the site to find the crucial page that establishes credibility.

  14. As we monitor the state of electronic Shakespeares, it is clear that a new generation of scholars both comfortable and familiar with the medium is claiming a booth at the electronic fair. The confidence articulated in these articles suggests very clearly that we will all enjoy the wares that they will be peddling and will return for more. We owe it to them to fly the flag of academic quality more visibly over the booth they occupy.



[1] Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 / Special Issue 2 (1998), The Internet Shakespeare: Opportunities in a New Medium. <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-3/03-3toc.html>.

[2] Michael Best, "Afterword: Dressing Old Words New." EMLS 3.3 / Special Issue 2 (January, 1998): 7.2. <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-3/bestshak.html>.

[3] Ray Siemens, Michael Best, Geoffrey Rockwell and others. The Credibility of Electronic Publishing (2001). <URL: http://web.mala.bc.ca/hssfc/Final/Credibility.htm>.

[4] Siemens, et al., Credibility, "Report on Responses to the Questionnaire." < URL: http://web.mala.bc.ca/hssfc/Final/QuestionnaireR.htm>.

[5] For a useful discussion of the issue, see "The Tragedy of the Commons," by Garrett Hardin, Science, 162 (1968):1243-1248. The article is available online at <URL: http://dieoff.com/page95.htm>. Visited 8 January 2004.

[6] Texts are searchable on the site of the ISE, and both the ISE and the Furness Shakespeare Library of the University of Pennsylvania have facsimiles of the First Folio online. For the ISE, see <URL: http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Annex/DraftTxt/> and < URL: http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/Texts/>; for the Furness facsimile, see the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, <URL: http://dewey.library.upenn.edu/sceti/furness/>. As the time of visiting (8 February, 2004) the site was undergoing some revision, and was not easy to navigate.

[7] Compare this timidity with the recent decision of MIT to make its courses and instructional resources freely available on the Internet. Again it seems that the community of science and technology is well ahead of the Humanities.

[8] See "Report on Responses to the Questionnaire" cited above in note 4.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
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