The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 11 (May 2008)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain & Linda Malcor

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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babelisms—Absent Beowulf


Resisting The Tyranny of the Screen, or, Must a Digital Edition be Electronic?

Daniel Paul O'Donnell
University of Lethbridge

© 2008 by Daniel Paul O'Donnell. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2008 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  Most discussions of digital editing begin with a core assumption: that digital and print practice are (or should be) fundamentally different or even opposed to each other. Authors vary in the extent to which they believe these oppositions and differences have manifested themselves in practice—Jerome McGann, for example, celebrates the alterity of the digital in his famous essay, "Rationale of HyperText" (McGann 1995/1997); Peter Robinson laments the relative lack of practical difference between print and digital editions in his recent Zeitschrift fur Computerphilologie article (Robinson 2003). What both scholars share—with each other and indeed most and perhaps all digital theorists—however, is the premise that "digital" should in theory at least be different from "print".

§2.  The origins of this assumption are clear enough—and not entirely wrong. Screen-based digital editions can and often do do a number of things that are difficult or even impossible to do in print: they can be interactive, fluid, and incorporate elements—such as sound, video, and colour photographs—difficult or impossible to include in print codices. Screen based digital texts can also operate in a dimension—time—that cannot be accommodated in print. And of course the digital revolution of the last thirty years or so has changed the way we understand texts and other types of culture: I think most of us now think of and compose our own texts in a far less linear fashion than we or our predecessors did as little as thirty or forty years ago.

§3.  Another source of this assumption is historical analogy. Driven largely by media theorists like McLuhan and Ong, digital theorists tend to see the transition from "print" to "digital" in epochal terms: as equivalent to the development and spread of moveable-type printing in Europe in the fifteenth century, or the movement from oral to literate modes of communication. Those who believe that digital texts currently are not different enough from print console themselves by pointing out how long it took before early printers began to stop imitating manuscript style and develop specifically print-based conventions. Those who believe that the digital world has changed the way we see and understand texts tend to point to the transition from oral to literate communication as a main point of comparison.

§4.  Here too, the theorists are not entirely wrong. Screen-based digital editions are only beginning to take the smallest of baby steps in the direction of developing uniquely screen-based rhetorical and organisational conventions. As Robinson pointed out, most editions still look very much like their print-based predecessors and use many of the same conventions (2003). And as he pointed out in a companion piece in the inaugural issue of Digital Medievalist (2005), electronic presses are a long way from showing authors the support and expertise necessary to develop meaningful, discipline-wide house style: user interfaces still vary immensely from edition to edition, and we are only beginning to see the smallest signs of the beginning of a true electronic style. If we follow the analogy from the transition from manuscript to print, then every digital edition produced to date has been part of our incunabula: digital texts are still far too quirky and idiosyncratic to be considered part of a fully developed medium.

§5.  If we consider digital texts in the epochal context of the transition from orality to literacy, we can probably also agree that digital media are affecting the way we see texts and understand what we do as scholars. People with word-processors do tend to write differently from those who use a typewriter. And we are also beginning to see different types of scholarship: the creation of databases and text archives has become much more mainstream and widely practiced form of scholarship since the widespread adoption of computers in the humanities. Without getting all Parry-and-Lordy about it, I think it probably is safe to say that some kind of transition is going on in the way we work as scholars in the information age.

§6.  The interesting thing, however, is the ways in which the theorists are wrong—or to put it more charitably, the ways in which their emphasis on the opposition of print and digital can lead us astray. For while it is quite true that digital culture differs from pre-digital culture in many ways, and while it is also quite true to say that the screen offers possibilities and rhetorical challenges not encountered in print media, the idea that "print" and "digital" represent opposing poles of a fundamental dichotomy is false and indeed harmful to the further development of digital editing as a scholarly means of communication.

§7.  Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that it is not the use of print that makes pre-digital culture different from digital: the real origin of the difference lies in the fact that digital culture uses computers. Print is a communications technology rather than, primarily, a tool for composition and thinking about data. While the development of print did cause undeniable changes in the development of scholarship, politics, history, and culture, these changes came about as a by-product of rather than a direct result from the use of moveable type.

§8.  Computers, on the other hand, are primarily a technology for composition and thinking about data. We can use computers to communicate, of course. And it is true, I believe, that the explosion of information brought on by the development of the world wide web is likely to change scholarship, politics, history, and culture in ways analogous to the changes introduced by the development of print. But the computer, unlike the printing press, is an intellectual tool and platform rather than a specific medium of communication. The exciting thing about computers is that they can be used to organise, manipulate, and transmit information in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes: we can use them to build databases, catalogue books, create, transmit, and display video or sound recordings, make telephone calls, send emails and chat... or write texts that we can send to publishers to be turned into printed books.

§9.  In other words, the main problem with the assumption that "print" and "digital" are fundamentally different is that it involves a category error. While there are fundamental differences between digital and pre-digital culture, these differences are not caused by the medium of communication. Indeed the coming of the computer age, has, if anything, increased our reliance on the printed word. I suspect that more books are printed now than at any other time in history. And it is certainly the case that we go through more office paper.

§10.  The assumption that "print" and "digital" are fundamentally opposed to each other has its origins in our definition of "digital". In common use, the word "digital" is used to refer to three different things:

  1. A display format (i.e. "screen")
  2. A processing and organisational technology (i.e. markup languages, database software, etc.)
  3. A way of understanding texts and culture encouraged by the use of computers (i.e. cyber-culture)

As I have just argued, these senses—and especially the first versus the second and third—are really quite distinct. The really significant distinction between digital and pre-digital culture lies in the use we make of computers to organise and manipulate data (Sense 2), and the way this ability to manipulate data has changed our way of understanding textual culture (Sense 3). The fact that the results of this manipulation and processing can be shown on a screen (Sense 1) is almost accidental. Screens are only one means of expressing digital output: other media I have seen recently include include voice synthesizers and loudspeakers (a disabled-accessible pedestrian crossing at the western entrance of the University of Western Michigan), dental ceramics (crowns produced by my dentist using a computer-driven 3-D mill), and paper (a print out I used to deliver a lecture at the International Congress on Medieval Studies).

§11.  There are two significant things about these examples: the first is that each allows the designer to select the most appropriate output format or formats for communicating digitally created, stored and manipulated information. Loudspeakers and a voice synthesizer are the most appropriate media for the crossing at the western gate of Western Michigan University because the target audience for this information—visually handicapped pedestrians—don't have much use for screens. Dental ceramics is the most appropriate output medium for my dentist's computer when he is making crowns because his target audience, the person with his or her mouth open in the dentist chair, are best served if the results of his 3-D reconstruction are presented in a durable format that can be glued in his or her mouth. And paper is the most appropriate format for a lecture because one often uses a computer for showing slides and because paper is easier to use during the talk itself.

§12.  The second significant thing, however, is that each example also allows for the use of multiple output formats: the signals at the western entrance to Western Michigan University also have screens that indicate the same information in graphic form for the benefit of sighted pedestrians; my dentist drafted my crown using a computer screen before sending it to the mill; and when I write a talk, I tend to do most of my editing on the screen before sending the paper to a printer. The genius of the information age—and the thing that truly sets the digital apart from the pre-digital—is this ability to communicate information in multiple media, finding the exactly the right format for the target audience and function, and repurposing and reformatting as necessary. The problem with the pre-digital era was not that it was an age of print, but rather that it was an age of only print.

§13.  I raise all this because I believe we sell ourselves short when we speak of "digital editions" as something that must appear on a screen. Certain things, it is true, are probably best presented dynamically on screen. While it is possible to represent interactivity using paper, for example—my first experience with a networked computer was playing Star Trek at a DEC terminal printer in the 1970s—the screen is now clearly a much better choice for most interactive elements in contemporary digital editions.

§14.  But the screen comes with its own limitations and, as a result, is not necessarily the best presentation format for all types of information communicated by a critical edition. I have argued elsewhere that the intellectual sophistication of traditional print-based textual apparatus is often misunderstood by digital editors and theorists (O'Donnell Forthcoming). But even leaving aside places in which print tradition has developed techniques that are hard to beat even on the screen, the fact remains that print is simply better than print at presenting certain kinds of material for certain kinds of uses: the communication of long and complex narratives and arguments, for example, or material intended for ready reference.

§15.  The extent to which this is true was driven home to me while I was preparing my recent electronic edition of Cædmon's Hymn for publication (O'Donnell 2005). The edition was originally conceived of as a stand-alone CD-ROM and, as a result, has all the features we normally associate with editions presented in that medium: it contains multiple texts, an archive of witnesses, full colour facsimiles, and multiple and interactive sets of apparatus. Cædmon's Hymn is also a major Old English poem, however, with a long scholarly tradition and large bibliography: my edition begins, therefore, with a relatively large introduction treating the poem in a variety of literary, historical, and linguistic contexts.

§16.  When we circulated an early drafts of the edition, however, we quickly discovered an interesting problem: readers who received the text of the introduction as a file for display on the screen tended to do a much poorer job of reading the text than readers who received printouts of the same files. Their comments often suggested they had missed crucial aspects of the argument picked up by readers of the printed out text. One reader, in fact, missed an entire chapter and then criticised the project for not including information on the topic it covered. This performance difference was not a function of the quality of the readers—we sent the text (whether in print or CD-ROM) to equally distinguished (and overworked and overcommitted senior scholars). Rather, as Jakob Nielsen points out in Designing Web Usability, his (printed) book on web page design and organisation (Nielsen 1999), the problem arose as a function of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the different media in presenting complex arguments: if the screen is better at interactivity, paper is the better medium for sustained study, long narratives, and detailed arguments.

§17.  As a result of this experiment, my editors at the Society of Early English and Norse Electronic Texts and Boydell and Brewer and I decided to try an experiment: rather than produce the edition as a stand alone CD-ROM, we would instead package it as a book and a CD-ROM combination: purchasers of my edition would get both a book containing the introduction, notes, and core texts and a CD-ROM that contained the same material as the print text but added additional features such as colour facsimiles and an interactive textual apparatus. This required some modification of the text for the print side of things—we couldn't afford to print full colour facsimiles, and we were forced to choose a single display of the text and apparatus from the numerous options available on the CD-ROM for inclusion in the print. But we decided that we would gain much in usability. And since the ability to repurpose data is a particular strength of digitally produced material, we decided we could probably produce camera ready copy quite easily from our original SGML files.

§18.  As far as I can tell, the experiment seems to have been a success. Now that the first printed book in the Society for Early English and Norse electronic text series is available, I have spoken to several apparently satisfied readers, many of whom seem to who have read the book quite closely without actually putting the CD-ROM into their computer. Indeed so far, I have met nobody who has used the CD-ROM as their primary reading text. Some have looked at the facsimiles, and some have even tried out the interactive textual apparatus, but almost everybody seems to have preferred the print text for their day-to-day reading, citation, and study.

§19.  This should not be surprising to us, and it certainly should not be seen as an example of my edition's failure as a digital text. The information that was not easily reproduced in print—manuscript facsimiles, detailed and interactive textual apparatus and collations, alternate views of individual texts and witnesses—are typically the type of thing that very few of us need to consult very much in our daily lives as scholars; and when we do, we tend to value the ability to search for or navigate directly to the relevant information. The things that do reproduce well in print format, on the other hand—complex arguments, standard texts, lists of significant variants—are exactly the type of thing that most users need to use most of the time. Few of us want to waste time booting a computer and placing a CD-ROM in the tray in order to check a date or remind ourselves of the contents of a particular passage in the text.

§20.  Indeed I find myself using my own digital edition in much the same way as my readers report they do. In particular, I find myself using the print-based and screen-based texts in different and complementary ways: I often use the electronic text for searches, or to quickly navigate to a specific text or reading using the hyperlinked indices and table of contents. But I turn to the printed book when I need to show something to my students or colleagues. When I need to use a specific passage in lectures or articles, on the other hand, I find myself often working in the opposite fashion: turning to the text of the poem I want in the printed book and then crossing to the electronic version to consult the interactive apparatus or facsimiles available only on the electronic version, or to cut and paste from the text into my article or lecture.

§21.  Because I have copies of the CD-ROM on all my computers I probably use the electronic text of my edition more than most users, some of whom may end up making relatively little use of the screen-based version. But even if this is true, it does not make my edition any less digital. Like pedestrians waiting for the light at the Western gate of Western Michigan University, or my dentist as he makes a crown for my second back molar, users of my digital edition simply will be using the output format that most suits their immediate needs. For scholars who need to know something about Cædmon's Hymn but don't need to know the paleographic details of individual manuscripts or the complete range of textual variants for any one witness, print is by far the most appropriate output medium for my digital edition: it is easy to boot, portable, has no problems with batteries, and can be read even in strong sunlight. For those who do need to know more about the manuscripts or textual variants, or who need to be able to find specific wordings in order to disagree, however, the screen based text is probably the more useful.

§22.  The screen is a powerful tool. Computers have become far easier to use since the screen-based monitor became standard, and the flexibility of the screen makes it easy for us to build texts that are far more flexible, fluid, and interactive than was ever possible in print. But the screen is not the computer, and in comparing digital and pre-digital practice we need to be careful not to confuse the part with the whole. The real difference the Digital Humanities is making in our editorial and scholarly practice lies not in the medium of communication but the ability to reuse and reformat content for use with different output media as these are appropriate to the needs of the end user. In this sense print, and perhaps even parchment (e.g. Verheyen 2004; Facsimile Editions), can be appropriate media for the digital editor.

Works Cited

Facsimile Editions. 2007. Megillat Esther. Web page.  [Back]

McGann, Jerome. 1995/1997. The rationale of hypertext. In Electronic text: investigations in method and theory. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Clarendon. 19-46. First published on-line:  [Back]

Nielsen, Jakob. 1999. Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. Indianapolis: New Riders.  [Back]

O'Donnell, Daniel Paul. Forthcoming. Back to the future: What digital editors can learn from print editorial practice. In Computing the Edition: papers given at the Thirty-third Annual Conference on Editorial Problems, University of Toronto, November 1997(Toronto: UTP, 2007). On-line preprint  [Back]

———. 2005. Cædmon's Hymn: A Multimedia Study, Edition and Archive. SEENET A.7. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.  [Back]

Robinson, Peter. 2003. Where we are with electronic scholarly editions, and where we want to be. Jahrbuch für Computerphilologie 5: 123-143.  [Back]

———. 2005. Current issues in making digital editions of medieval texts—or, do electronic scholarly editions have a future? Digital Medievalist 1.1 (Spring 2005).  [Back]

Verheyen, Peter 2004. "Re: [BKARTS] Digital printing on leather." Contribution to the Bookarts mailing list. 10 December.  [Back]