I agree with much of what you have to say here I think we—the editors of web content—have yet to find the best way to display multimedia content and I think work that incorporates text, video, images, and sound can be some of the most frustrating. Ads are another problem as the clutter up a site, or worse pop up, or even worse, are included in the content of a blog post. Projects like Scalar, however, are really raising the bar to what interactive mulitimedia online content can be.
As the editor of an online open source publication project, I’m very aware of the balance between usability and readability. We (MediaCommons) invite many different contributors to the site who bring with them different levels of experience in publishing and publishing with technology. Every layer of work we add to that process is an collaborator that we might lose. Since some of our contributors may only post to the site once (though that seems to rarely be the case) we cannot expect them to be trained in our interface. So, while digital publishing should continue to improve, do you think that there is a justification in taking a hit at readability for the opportunity for more voices to be heard in online publication?
You make a very good point here, and one I admittedly never thought of. One of the things I've been increasingly interested in studying is how hyperlinking is settling into our digital culture. There was a rash of great scholarship on hyperlinks from the late 70's to the early 90's, and then not much. A lot of people poo-poo Ted Nelson's project Xanadu, but it seems that his project may have been a solution for pages going down. The reality though, is that Xanadu didn't take off, and won't. I am quite interested in looking at the direction that hyperlinking is going, if anyone else is interested in having further conversation about this.
The fact that the NEH Project and ETD privilege text is not shocking, but has me asking questions about the structures of these sites. MediaCommons itself is a completely digital publication that also privileges print. There are several reasons for this, but I think that overall our ability to maintain and structure multimedia sites remains problematic and I think many sites are still trying to figure this out, both in private and academic ventures. I am also considering what a primarily visual/interactive dissertation would resemble.
It has come up several times throughout various surveys, but how do we change the environment? Doing the risky thing as Katleen Fitzpatrick has described it, demands that the PhD have a supportive board, institution, and department to head into. Does the PhD limit his or her job market if he or she publishes in primarily digital formats? Or are we about to hit a point where that won't be the case (We have had several contributors mention that they have counted digital scholarship towards their tenure packets)? Finally, how do we begin to train PhD students in best practices for digital dissertation publication?
There are some interesting ideas at play here but the one thing that stands out to me more than others is how caught up in the moment everything seems to be when talking about digital. While it is true that technology is changing at a pace so fast that it makes it difficult to keep up with we still need to slow down and think about some of the issues that all these changes present to us. Your example about works cited is a great place to start. In a world where web journals and blogs are becoming increasingly more crucial to our research and writing what do we do when those sites go down? If one of your articles hinges on arguements from a online journal and that site gets shut down it makes it much harder to go back and reference those articles down the road. Online spaces are still very volatile and we need to consider how to make these things last in the long term and not just the current moment.
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Doug, you have obviously brought up some of the biggest questions in digital publishing. Of them the one I am most interested in is the question of infrastructure, specifically in how we make the information we have accessible and how we show connections along years worth of content? If your publication isn't something that would be archived through traditional databases, and/or traditional, stable publication volumes, then how do you create a way for individuals to search it through the interface itself? I obviously don't expect you to have the answers to these questions of structure and usabiity, but they are on my mind.
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On your first point, I will concede I wrote poorly in response to Shelley. I do not believe the value of a critical edition is to lay down some sort of single meaning/interpretation for the reader. Nonetheless, editors do have to make a series of choices regarding what sort of information/ approach they are taking, meaning that they are inherently limiting the construction of the text in some way (and whether they overtly or subtly guide the reader's interpretation is always something to consider when looking at a variety of editing styles - some times, perhaps we can argue always, the editor becomes a de facto author when inserting himself "too much" into the the text). In our case, we chose a sociological approach, highlighting historical context, publishing history, and genre issues in our notes, for instance. Other editors might have highlighted other concepts, dropping out what we chose to linger over. Returning to the idea that the angst thus arises from multiple editors, I would say, sure, at least in this experience for this product, as at times it was an "anything goes"issue: people annotated concepts in a wide variety of ways, which was completely at odds with the footnote theory we adapted (in which footnotes only function to clarify for the modern reader, offering as little interruption from the editor as possible, while easing the reading experience). Is that sort of product valuable? Depends on what you're looking for at the time; the initial product did not reflect our carefully argued and selected goal.
The second point you raise I want to approach delicately, as I carefully tried not to take a position in terms of the expert/novice debate (even the defining of such is always up for grabs, depending on context). The traditionalist in me went "eek!" when you compared a crowd-sourced critical edition to Wikipedia - not because I don't see the parallels, but because I remain resistant to seeing them in the same light (I know, I know, people will howl me down now for not placing Wiki in the same place as other texts yet). Laura is bang on when she writes, "Personally, I do think that collective knowledge produced by such a project as Megan describes has the potential to generate a great deal of knowledge, not to mention resources for scholars who want access to lesser known texts that book publishers would be leery to take on the financial burden of producing." That is a huge plus! But as she also points out, in the end, it seems peer review is the solution. I return to the earlier post, in which peer review was helpful, but in at least this instance, and I can think of others, it mattered very much which "peers" were doing the reviewing. Laura asks, and I agree it's important, "But more to the point, how do we even define 'expert'"? At the same time, I think it's fairly clear that there are those with training and experience that are often called in to bring some clarity to any large scale editing project. She is right though in terms of time, effort, and research; the students from the course marched post-haste through some impressively difficult work and certainly emerged knowing far more about the content and text than the average reader. They certainly earned the credit the professor gave to them. They are experts, of sorts (that's a purposefully hedged label there; I was one of the students and would not sell myself as an "expert" editor).
Finally, Laura rejects the idea that such vetting erases the collaborative process; I'll respond by saying in my opinion the answer is yes and no. In our case, we were fortunate to be given credit as co-editors (this is not so for all projects, or even viable in some); but large swathes of work was deleted or rewritten, so that the style became more uniform. Is this a bad thing? I don't have an answer for that, because as a (even at my fairly young age, I'm an old-school) reader, I am trained to expect uniformity from my editorial interventions. But if, perhaps, you were hoping for markers from a multitude of voices and concerns, then maybe such standardizing would not be your taste.
Thanks, Laura and Shelley! You have got me running over thoughts from months ago, which is very helpful!
Megan and Shelley-
In reading this thread I'm struck by the sense that we are discussing 3 different issues: meaning, authority and usabilty.
First meaning- when I consider of the purpose of a critical edition of any text produced outside of this historical moment I question the sense that the editor's job is to help me find a singular meaning. In other words, trying to capture a reader's "original experience" (or experiences) is still often a layered and even conflicted project. When Shelley asks "isn't that intellectual work the point?" I would agree wholeheartedly. The editor's job is to give me the tools to understand these layers and see these contradictions through various annotations, supplementary materials and notes about emendations. I think the angst we are then addressing in the context of an online multi-participant editing project has more to do with whether a document produced in such a way affords the same authority in providing that reliable content.
So secondly-authority, credibility or ethos— whatever we call it—Megan writes, " If the digital space allows for a democratization of the editing process, inviting “non-expert” participants, who may not be editors but may have (or might not have) expertise in content, to work alongside expert editors, is the product still a critical edition?" It seems to me we debate this question in a multitude of contexts and the question is ultimately not that different from debating the reliability of cites like Wikipedia. The tension between collective knowledge and expert knowledge in digital formats is not going away anytime soon. Personally, I do think that collective knowledge produced by such a project as Megan describes has the potential to generate a great deal of knowledge, not to mention resources for scholars who want access to lesser known texts that book publishers would be leery to take on the financial burden of producing. Perhaps the answer here can be found in the same place academics have always turned—peer review. Does such vetting erase the collaborative process? I doubt it. Even in the case Megan describes, the "non-experts" were supervised by an expert professor, thus providing a certain amount of credibility by default. But more to the point, how do we even define "expert"? Certainly all the students involved in this project invested time and labor that the vast majority of us have not. In this sense they are all experts and have every right to present your work as such.
Finally usability- in addressing the question "who wants to work that hard?" that depends on the kind of work we are talking about. If it's the intellectual work mentioned above, we all should. But navigating a high volume of information requires a certain amount of design to make the exercise tolerable. Megan writes, "In a short time, the class produced a multi-faceted document with a wealth of contextual information and publication details; in some ways, it suffered from information overload." Ultimately any text will need some amount of uniformity to is organization to make sense and be usable to its audience. But in my view to do so does not erase the collaborative effort of the work, it simply makes it accessible and useful. In the end, isn't that the whole point?
And you are right in that, again, for me, there is still some desire to reflect or at least illustrate the "original" experience of the text, i.e. how it was "intended" (yes that is a long, sticky convo, esp with the likelihood of multiple authors) to be received - the "single meaning" of the text, if you will. When making our arguments for how to edit these texts, I strongly opposed a mere reproduction of the texts, each in their entirety, without any combination, pushing instead for the hybrid form (putting the texts in a structural conversation to highlight their intertexual relationship for the reader). So while we created a version of the text that has never existed before, we tried to illustrate evolving sociological concerns. Ironically, to my mind, the hybrid version would do a better job arguing for that evolution of the "original" meanings between Hell Upon Earth and Memoirs of John Hall than two essentially unedited reproductions, just placed side by side.
My response has rambled and I'm still thinking, so thank you, Shelley.