Scholarly Editing in the Age of Digital Reproduction

April 30, 2007

Probably the best thing about Columbia is it’s location in New York City, New York. This is at best a fractured relationship: Columbia students rarely explore the city in the same manner as their NYU brethren; neighborhood groups hate Columbia; everything costs too much in Morningside Heights; tertiary New York papers muckrake for hints of anti-Semitism; there’s no good way to get to the Upper East Side, the city’s mythical center, from campus; etc. One of the things the University doesn’t nearly exploit enough is the amazing assortment of professional talent around the city. The city is teeming with experts who should be giving courses, yet only the Law and Business school truly take advantage of their location as a raft in a sea of qualified sailors and bring in these outsiders to guide us through choppy depths.

I say this because one of the best classes I took at Columbia (accompanied by charmingly befuddled commenter Isaac) was “Intro to Scholarly Editing,” taught by the legendary G. Thomas Tanselle. Tanselle was a sometime professor at Columbia but his main gig was (still is?) with the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Although the class was not at all what I was expecting, I really enjoyed it, and it was certainly one of the best classes that I took at Columbia. Looking back, I realize how important it was for me to take. I’m now at a point of my studies where some of my questions can really only be answered the hard way, can really only be answered by digging through manuscripts. Sadly, I now seem willing to answer these questions, whereas before I probably would have come up with some sort of deconstructionist rubric that would have allowed me to ignore the whole thing. Ah, Salad Days.

I’m actually still amazed by the fact that we have the materials for scholarly editions of many modern authors. People still print out drafts and make handwritten notes. Some authors still correspond with other authors. I bring this up because I don’t know if this will continue. How many modern authors will still keep their papers, or, more importantly, how many will still write on paper?

The place of newer media for (in) scholarly editions is also unclear to me. Do blogs have the same import for understanding a writer as journals once had? Are people as willing to express their ideas in this digital format, is that information as reliable? If someone wanted to do a critical edition of Dash Hammerskjold’s “Kn0ts 2: Wherein They Take Revenge!” would that certain someone have to pour over the Yesterday’s Salad archives in order to see the development of my thoughts? Wouldn’t that give a less coherent picture?

The need for reliable texts hasn’t diminished, but I fear we’re in danger of losing the ability to find the textual authority. We’re at a point where the nature of text and reading is changing, the nature of experience is changing. It’s an awfully exciting time for a Jeremiad.

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