A term often bandied about in DH circles, which you may have heard, is “versioning,” and I want to use today’s post to discuss what this concept means. Versioning refers to a digital reinvention of a traditional intellectual practice: the creation of scholarly editions. Literary scholarship has long produced textual editions in which a version of a text is prepared especially for students and scholars, and these editions offer tools for analyzing literary production as process. As the recent statement of purpose for the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Scholarly Editions describes, “An edition is thus also a model, in the sense that it serves as an analytic surrogate for the textual landscape it describes, one that can be manipulated and queried to yield insight into its details.” Manipulability infuses scholarly editions with analytic capacities, allowing “users” to interact with the text. Versioning is a particular type of this interactive scholarly edition, layering different drafts of novels or poetry and publishing them in the same volume so as to allow side-by-side comparison.
But the MLA committee’s definition of “edition”–the language of “models” and “analytic surrogates”–also suggests the power of digital mediation for versioning. The creation of digital versions has revolutionized the process of creating versioning editions by improving the interface. Whereas a reader who compares print versions flips through a book or relies on fragments juxtaposed side-by-side on each individual page, a digital versioning edition allows users to scroll up and down through a base text, clicking on links to reveal key differences with other editions or drafts. In other words, rather than encountering versions in diachronic form, in which they are stacked according to the physical confines of the print book, a digital version produces a more synchronic text, in which versions coexist in the same space as “palimpsests in which no layer is silenced,” as Beth Rigel Daugherty phrases it (103) Digital versioning allows readers to experiment and explore a text in a dynamic reconfiguration of the form’s capabilities.
A recent interdisciplinary graduate student project at the University of Oregon demonstrates the possibilities for such digital versioning. Developed in a Knight Library seminar led by John Russell on T.E.I. markup–which establishes universal guidelines for using tags to code the way computers read text–Emily McGinn, Amy Leggette, Matthew Hannah, and Paul Bellew created a digital version of Virginia Woolf’s canonical short story “The Mark on the Wall” edited during her lifetime. Unlike a print document, this digital edition layers six editions–spanning the years 1917-1944 and appearing in New York and London–in an interactive format wherein no edition is weighted more important than the others. Users can select a text by which to compare the other five and explore the variations among them. Differences of spelling or punctuation appear in green whereas more substantial differences appear in red. When selected, a note appears in a separate text box, which shows the variations in other versions and includes a brief comment concerning the source of the alterations. Published in Scholarly Editing: The Annual for the Association of Documentary Editing (2014), this edition revealed several lengthy portions of text that appear in earlier published versions of the story but disappear in later editions.
Both print and digital versioning provide rich opportunities for theoretically reconceptualizing cultural production as multiplicity, suggesting dynamic possibilities for literary and cultural analysis. An upcoming daylong conference at Loyola University in Chicago entitled “Versions, Versioning, and Versionality” offers models for considering the theoretical implications of versioning. Featuring talks by such literary scholars as Michael Anesko (Penn State), Robin Schulze (University of Delaware), Joseph Janangelo (Loyola University Chicago), and Suzanne Gossett (Loyola University Chicago), this event offers starting points for thinking through multiplicity as cultural production. Versioning offers a productive and exciting development in digital humanities and raises important questions regarding the creation of literary objects.
1. “Considering the Scholarly Edition in the Digital Age: A White Paper of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Scholarly Editions,” Committee on Scholarly Editions. https://scholarlyeditions.commons.mla.org. 11 Oct. 2015, Web.
2. Beth Rigel Daugherty, “‘A Corridor Leading from Mrs. Dalloway to a New Book’: Transforming Stories, Bending Genres,” in Trespassing Boundaries: Virginia Woolf’s Short Fiction, edited by Kathryn N. Benzel and Ruth Hoberman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 103.
3. Emily McGinn, Amy Leggette, Matthew Hannah, and Paul Bellew, “Comparing Marks: A Versioning Edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Mark on the Wall,'” Scholarly Editing: The Annual for the Association of Documentary Editing 35 (2014). 11 Oct. 2015, Web.