ReScript: the Collaborative Editing of Historical Texts Online

ReScript project image

The editing of historical texts

The editing and circulation of historical texts has been a part of cultural activity in many societies and parts of the world, as a means both to preserve and interpret the past. In Europe, for example, the Renaissance saw the editing and republication of many of the works of ancient writers, and this was given further impetus by the transition from manuscript to printed texts, which greatly expanded the potential audience. By the nineteenth century there existed a range of tools and approaches to scholarly editing, including the use of footnotes, annotations and commentaries, and these were taken up with enthusiasm by local/amateur editors, as well as by scholars working in universities and in archives. These techniques can be seen in major publication programmes, such as the Rolls Series, whose 255 volumes covering 99 individual works on British History appeared from the 1850s onwards. More recently, university presses and other publishers have also developed series of edited texts, such as Oxford Medieval Texts, or the Loeb editions of ancient Greek and Roman texts.

However, while editing schemes and standards vary between authors and publishers, the nature of this scholarly activity has changed relatively little over the centuries, mainly because of the limitations of print-based modes of production. In the digital era some progress has been made by the humanities: within the editorial world, for instance, there has been consideration of the use of workspaces although its realisation is still some way off. Similarly, there are tools available which, to some degree, automate the processes of text collation and comparison. Yet the actual processes and methods of text editing have remained essentially the same. Digital editing promises to change all this, and in doing so help scholars to rethink their relationship with the texts themselves. Editing may be collaborative, either between individual scholars or with the involvement of the wider community. It can take place virtually and remotely. The text may change over time, with novel insights and interpretations being used to create new versions to compare with the old. Publication methods may become more varied and flexible. Texts may be edited within online research environments, creating dialogues/links between them and other source materials. There is the potential to transform what we conceive to be an ‘edition’, but in order to achieve this, new academic tools have to be developed, and scholars need to be both involved in their creation and supported in their use.

The project

ReScript is an 18-month project which will scope, build and test a prototype editing facility. To inform the development of the editing platform and tools, a survey of current user behaviour and needs will be undertaken. A number of user groups will be convened, involving researchers at all stages of their careers, followed by a series of telephone and face-to-face interviews with key opinion formers. A targeted survey will also be posted online, open for a period of months. All documentation relating to this scoping study will be published at an early stage, in order to inform other initiatives in this area. Findings will also be presented and discussed at a workshop organised in month six of the project.

The initial specification and build of the editing facility will be undertaken by the experienced British History Online team, drawing both on the findings of the scoping study and the evidence of the successful annotations feature already developed for BHO. From initial discussion with researchers in the IHR and the History of Parliament Trust, and in the School of Advanced Study more widely, it is anticipated that the online editing environment will be required to support several types of presentation and output, from the highly formalised traditional print publication to a more fluid digital edition, supporting layers of personalisation and customisation for humanities users.

The texts

The prototype will be tested using four different texts, representative of the main approaches to historical editing, in order to ensure that it is sufficiently flexible to cope with the range of editorial activity undertaken by historians. Three of those identified (Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and the St. Botolph Aldgate Parish Clerk’s Memorandum Books) already have editorial teams in place. The fourth, Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses, does not, but is an ideal candidate for a crowd-sourced edition, allowing a comparison between formal and informal editorial structures online:

  • The History of the Rebellion written by the English statesman Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, between 1646 and 1669 demonstrates many of the complexities involved in editions of important historical texts. This massive work (around 1.5 million words) is in fact a composite of two main texts and many smaller ones. One of these was written in 1646–8, immediately after the events it describes; the other was written in the late 1660s, following his exile, and the two were spliced together by Clarendon shortly before his death. Although re-edited and published in 1702–4 as a famous publishing project, there is much that is unsatisfactory and confusing about the end result, and considerable effort has been spent trying to understand the differences between parts of the History written in the 1640s and those written in the 1660s and what they tell us about the changes in Clarendon, and in politics, ever since. Moreover, composed by a man as closely engaged with literature and religion as he was with politics, understanding the contexts and the nuances of the text requires people with expertise in a number of different areas. An ideal edition of the History needs to be capable of manipulation so that the reader can read separately the original text of 1646–8; the text composed in 1668–9; Clarendon’s own edited text; and the text as published in 1702–4. This can only in practice be done electronically. The edition also needs to be capable of being worked on collaboratively by numerous different scholars with appropriate expertise.
  • The problems presented by the work known now as Aubrey’s Brief Lives are not dissimilar. John Aubrey was a late seventeenth-century antiquarian who compiled anecdotes and life details about historical figures and contemporaries. Some of this work was given to his Oxford contemporary Anthony Wood for inclusion in his compilation of biographical information, the Athenae Oxonienses, but Aubrey’s own work went beyond this and the engaging result was edited in 1898 by Andrew Clark. Clark’s edition shows the complexity of this text, composed of slips of paper which may be cross-referenced between a number of different articles. Editing it is an ideal digital project, as it would enable the information to be readily rearranged in the way that Aubrey might have done. It is also a text which sprawls so broadly across the world of seventeenth-century English society that it needs many people with recondite knowledge (the Church; Wiltshire gentry; heraldry; seventeenth-century science; law and much else) in order fully to elucidate the meaning of the text.
  • The St. Botolph Aldgate Parish Clerk's Memorandum Books (PCMs), generated within the parish vestry by three consecutive parish clerks in the period late 1586 to mid 1625, are a major source for historians of early modern London. They comprise a daily journal of life in the parish that involved the parish authorities, and form an unusually detailed account of a wide range of events. Subjects include records of vital events (baptisms, burials and marriages), vestry meetings, litigation involving the parish, the policing of morality within the parish, the provision of sermons and education, charitable activities of the parish and individuals, and so on. They have never been edited, and in total run to 2,584 folios, 73,706 lines of text, and 1,326,571 words. The scope and scale of the PCMs make them eminently suitable for collaborative editing online, and the IHR’s Centre for Metropolitan History has already produced a full transcript from which to work.
  • Joseph Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses: the Members of the University of Oxford, 15001886 was published between 1888 and 1892. It inevitably includes leading political and literary figures in British history, and places them in context alongside their less well-known peers. The entries, however, are sparse and the opportunities to expand them and to link to other resources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, creating a much enhanced text, are significant. The American Friends of the IHR have agreed to fund the digitisation of the Alumni Oxonienses so that it can be published through BHO and subsequently enhanced and ‘re-edited’.

For more information about the project, contact the IHR Digital team.