Fryderyk Chopin's manuscript of the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1

Emerging new digital editions at Cambridge are effecting a sea-change in the nature of the scholarly edition, radicalising access to vital source materials and opening up new possibilities for research.

What we’re really talking about here is a parallel between the way the mind seeks and forms connections between ideas – some straightforward, some subtle – and the way the internet works by facilitating connections

John Rink

Much work in the humanities could not be done without scholarly editions, and producing such editions consumes vast amounts of time and energy. Apocryphal stories abound about academics whose editorial labours have consumed their careers.

“Scholarly editing has traditionally been about coming up with a stable, pristine text,” explained Dr Jason Scott-Warren, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Material Texts in the Faculty of English. “The greater the cultural significance of a work, the more important it becomes to identify distortions and to correct those distortions, so as to produce a single, perfected version for modern readers.”

Where conventional editing seeks to reconcile conflicting versions for the reader, digital editing, unconstrained by the spatial limitations of the printed page, is about “giving readers access to the material in all its multiplicity,” he continued. “It offers the prospect of ‘un-editing’.”

New digital projects at Cambridge are making what Scott-Warren refers to as the true “mess of history” available in ways hitherto impossible, and are creating opportunities to explore the past lives of texts in ways previously unimaginable.

The medieval and early modern ‘commonplace book’ exemplifies the multiplicity of the raw materials that inform our literary histories. These domestic journals – scrapbooks, essentially, dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries – form the basis of Scriptorium, a digital archive produced by the Faculty of English with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. These volumes bring together disparate texts, such as household accounts, sonnets, prayers and jokes, in unexpected and illuminating ways. “In this rich mulch of materials,” said Scott-Warren, “we might find the scaffold speeches of convicted traitors juxtaposed with contemporary political satires, or medical instructions mingled with proverbs and drinking songs. We begin to understand some of the interactions between genres, and to sense the import of a text in its moment.”

It is the connections across the texts as much as the messages they individually convey that enable Scriptorium’s users to shine a light onto the past. The same principles of deep and lateral connectivity characterise the array of digital editions emerging at Cambridge today, materials ranging from cardinal religious texts to foundational scientific treatises; from the music of Fryderyk Chopin to the plays of Arthur Schnitzler. These new editions feature analytical tools as well as annotations and contextual information that enable users to draw connections between – and so forge new paths of enquiry through – disparate parts of our cultural heritage.

The Cambridge Digital Library, a powerful platform being developed by Cambridge University Library (with funding from the Polonsky Foundation), is further enriching its digital editions by re-presenting their content in innovative ways that transcend boundaries between archive and edition, between traditional roles (librarian, editor, publisher, reader) and between institutions.

A new digital edition of the Board of Longitude archive, for instance, charting the development of science and technology in the 18th century, will incorporate objects – telescopes, clocks, chronometers – from the National Maritime Museum along with abstracts, biographies and essays from experts in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

The University Library is amalgamating its online Newton Papers with the fruits of the University of Sussex’s Newton edition and is beginning to link its own Darwin Correspondence edition with the digital archive. It is also employing text-mining techniques to enrich the descriptions of its Genizah collection of 190,000 medieval manuscript fragments documenting the lives of Mediterranean Jews, Arabs and Christians. This will enable the mapping of new relationships between the documents.

“Our next step,” said Digital Library Manager Grant Young, “is to empower readers themselves to annotate, tag, converse with and challenge each other – and us. It’s about leveraging information that will augment the content and establish new connections, building in feedback mechanisms, interactivity and a recommendation facility.”

Where the edition has traditionally been regarded as tantamount to a bible, now the reader can access materials that show that the Bible is, in fact, an edition. Young’s team, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, has recently released the first major edition in over 100 years of the 5th-century Codez Bezae Cantabrigiensis, one of the handful of manuscripts used to establish the text of the New Testament.

This plurality and the potential eclecticism that results – with fully personalised editions standing at one extreme – can be unsettling. “Perhaps print provides the stability that is necessary for intellectual life to proceed, so that we will need to work out compromises between print and digital media,” suggested Scott-Warren. Through a Digital Humanities Network launched in 2011 by the University, academics, librarians and technicians are looking critically at digital editions in production, and exploring their implications for editorial theory.

The potential empowerment, however, in accessing what Scott-Warren described as “the instability that lies beneath the surface of the text” is clearly apparent in a project devoted to the flux at the heart of the creative process: the Online Chopin Variorum Edition (OCVE), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Chopin’s music is subject to the variations that occur when transmitting any text in musical notation or performances, but further variants arise from his own, perpetual revisions of his works. Not only is it impossible to determine a neat chronology across his versions: it is not valid to assume that Chopin was refining his work towards a point of perfection. Each version may be understood as definitive in its moment.

The OCVE enables users to compare and annotate passages across sources ranging from Chopin’s manuscripts to revised impressions of the first editions. We can trace, for example, where an altered chord inflects the music with new meaning; or how the absence of a pedal release sign at the end of a piece, interpreted by many modern editors as an omission, can in fact be an instruction to keep the pedal down after the final cadence and allow the music to fade into silence, beyond the limits of the double bar-line.

While this project makes conventional editing far more straightforward, “the really exciting thing about the digital future,” said Professor John Rink, Director of the OCVE, “is the creation of a new understanding of what an edition is, and what it can do. For a user of the OCVE to trace the creative evolution of an idea across sources results in an understanding that potentially is an edition, in and of itself.”

Moreover, the form of an edition in the digital environment is fluid. Chopin’s variants emerge from his experience of performing his music. The integration into these digital editions of material arising in performances, and of actual recordings of performances, is now being explored at Cambridge, along with the use of tools such as time-based mapping and visualisation.

“The edition itself will become a living entity,” said Young – reflecting what Rink described as “the notion of contingency and re-creation at the heart of any work.”

“What we’re really talking about here,” Rink continued, “is a parallel between the way the mind seeks and forms connections between ideas – some straightforward, some subtle – and the way the internet works by facilitating connections. In these emerging new editions a perpetual, kaleidoscopic process is enacted and opened out by virtue of new technologies. This is about nothing less than releasing and then harnessing the human imagination in ways that exploit its infinite creative potential.”

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