Since the early days of the Web, I've been scanning and preparing
electronic texts, mostly but not
exclusively of eighteenth-century works.
The quality of E-texts available on the Internet varies
tremendously, from the meticulous Rossetti edition prepared by
Jerome McGann at Virginia (which will soon be the standard text),
through the nearly worthless copies of some works taken
anonymously and haphazardly from unnamed editions without textual
authority, sometimes missing entire chapters, and often riddled
Having done my share of preparing electronic texts, I sympathize
with those who've released bad ones: the obstacles are
considerable. Copyright laws, for instance, restrict the
availability of texts on the Net. Of course any copyrighted
original work (at the time of writing, that means almost
everything published after 1921) is excluded right away. But
even those who work in earlier periods can reproduce only
editions that have passed out of copyright, effectively
excluding most twentieth-century scholarly and critical editions
(Fredson Bowers, W. W. Greg, & Co. weren't let loose on texts
until after the copyright cut-off). This forces E-text editors
to work either from original texts, which are often difficult to
obtain and impossible to scan (and may require considerable
knowledge of textual criticism), or from out-of-copyright
nineteenth-century editions, which are often ill prepared.
Because of these problems, I always recommend caution and
skepticism in using almost any electronic text for serious
research. To my knowledge, no E-text has yet superseded a
hard-copy standard edition (although that will likely change
soon). But even an imperfect E-text can be useful for some
research purposes (when used in conjunction with a more reliable
text), and, perhaps more important, making thousands of texts
freely available promises to revolutionize pedagogy.
My motives for making these texts available vary widely. Some
texts answer only my own needs for teaching: I want to make
hard-to-find texts available cheaply to my students, without the
hassle of ordering expensive anthologies or dealing with
bulk-packs and reserve lists. These texts are sometimes
abridged, modernized, or otherwise modified to suit the needs of
my class, with little regard for others.
In other cases, though, I've tried to produce texts that may be
useful to others — often things that aren't easily available in
modern editions (such as Defoe's "Mrs. Veal" and D'Urfey's
songs), or that are available only in expensive anthologies (such
as Johnson's review of Soame Jenyns and his Life of
As the number of such texts grows (thanks to people such as Stuart
Curran and Michael Gamer at
Penn, who've made many previously rare Romantic texts widely
available), instructors will be able to choose their teaching
materials without regard for Books in Print at the
bookshop and cash in hand among their students. They can
put together custom anthologies, either by including pointers to
the originals on the Net, or by printing copies and distributing
them on paper, perhaps even with custom footnotes.
My own editorial practices have varied from text to text,
depending at least partly on the primary use I envision for each
one. In a few cases I've typed in texts directly from early
editions (as in the case of Johnson's poetry), putting my meager
knowledge of textual criticism to use — still, they're not
critical editions but diplomatic transcriptions. More often,
I've had to choose the best (or most important)
nineteenth-century text available — such as Sir Walter Scott's
Defoe, the 1825 Oxford Works of Samuel Johnson, or G. B.
Hill's Prayers and Meditations in Johnsonian
Miscellanies — which I sometimes reproduce verbatim,
and sometimes correct or emend (always with a notice of what I've
In any text I prepare, I try to follow these principles, and
encourage others to use them as a baseline for responsibly
prepared electronic editions:
All these principles can be reduced to a Golden Rule: provide
potential readers with as much information about the provenance
of the E-text as possible.
- Having some text is better than having no text:
I believe there's a place for E-texts that fall shy of the
rigorous standards demanded by a scholarly edition.
- Ditto for encoding schemes: a fully marked SGML text is
ideal, but (at least now) requires a great deal of effort from
both the editor and the reader. Preserve as much of the original
format as is convenient, but remember there's room for
well-prepared HTML and even plain ASCII texts.
- Choose the most authoritative text available, within the
restrictions imposed by copyright laws on the one hand and
scanning technology on the other.
- Always identify the source of the text as clearly as
- Spell out all editorial principles, whether they're as simple
as silently correcting inverted type and regularizing long
s to short, or as extensive as abridging and annotating
the text and modernizing accidentals throughout. Pay special
attention to features that aren't easily transmitted in the
coding scheme: are italics, small capitals, and diacriticals
- Always identify the editor or preparer of the electronic
text: if not the person who ran the scanner, the one who is
responsible for the final shape of the text.
- If this information doesn't appear on every file — such as
when the editorial information appears on an electronic table of
contents, which points in turn to individual items (stories,
poems, essays, &c.) — encourage others to create pointers to
this top file, and include a pointer from each individual item
back to the table of contents page.
- Errors are inevitable. Neither the prospect of financial
reward nor the recognition of tenure boards encourages us to
spend much time preparing electronic critical editions (a problem
that calls for a separate solution). Therefore always encourage,
and provide an easy way for, readers to notify you of problems —
a "mailto" button on a Web page, for instance, with an address
spelled out in full in the text itself.
Send comments and suggestions to Jack