Rethinking Digital Editions: A Movable Archive of Readings

Title page of 1596 Quarto
Title page from The Raigne of King Edward III (1596) Copyright: The British Library Board, C.21.c.50, A2r

Books – in the form of tangible, material objects that collect in vertical and horizontal arrangements on my shelves and desks – are my most conspicuous possessions. In the context of my research, which looks at the publication of sixteenth and seventeenth-century history plays, and draws on bibliographic studies and the (affectionately dubbed) ‘New Boredom,’ my attachment to the printed text is perhaps understandable.

I relish the feel, texture, dimensions and physical presence of a printed book, and the ways in which my books contain little histories of my reading experiences. Pages are downturned in the corners and covered in markings and marginalia, recording my thoughts, ideas and tangential observations, many of which I have silently ‘updated’ to improve upon the inarticulate musings of my undergraduate days. Rather than replacing my worn editions, I am still drawn by these old, faded texts bearing layers of comments and providing a context for nostalgic reminiscences, as well as the occasional insight or grimace.

1596 Quarto Main Text
Working with the early texts: Scene 5 (my edition) from The Raigne of King Edward III (1596) Copyright: The British Library Board, C21.c.50, E1v-E2r

Given this attachment, as a researcher and reader, I rarely use digital editions of texts when there is a printed alternative available – and increasingly, I print out my typed notes, EEBO (Early English Books Online) texts, and JSTOR articles to regain a connection to the material and ‘permanent’ printed text. Shunning the evanescence of digital annotations, I favour my hastily scribbled, spontaneous and indelible markings that surround my notes and texts.

But since starting to work on a new digital edition of Edward III for Internet Shakespeare Editions, my experiences and views of digital texts are undergoing something of a revolution. Aside from providing easily ‘movable’ texts (worthy of consideration when dealing with the weighty Shakespeare canon and apocryphal plays), digital editions are adaptable, malleable and essentially unlimited in the resources and different versions they can offer. They encourage and reinforce the pursuit of layers of readings more smoothly – one of the aspects that most fascinates me within the field of book history and when looking back at my own reading histories. Unbounded by the practical restrictions of length and format, digital editions can easily present multiple versions of a text, and multiple interpretations of those texts within a variety of media, making it possible to appreciate a wide range of variants and responses.

For me, preparing a digital edition places in juxtaposition the experiences of working with a selection of rare books in their material forms and the processes of presenting my findings within a strikingly non-tangible, electronic medium of HTML tagging. I am currently preparing the modern-spelling edition of Edward III, and during this process, I use photo facsimiles from the earliest text of the play (dating from 1596) to compare variants from later play editions. I produce an annotated paper copy that (through a dense web of my own marginalia) records all the varying choices and conjectures from different editors and which I use to create the HTML version.

My desk
Comparing different editions of Edward III

This process involves working with about a dozen editions of Edward III spanning over four centuries, each providing slightly different ‘readings’ of the play through the editorial decisions they make. My desk in the Rare Books Reading Room of the British Library bears the evidence of these centuries of responses, as I methodically work through the earliest surviving texts of Edward III from 1596 and 1599, as well as later editions from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As I input my findings into an HTML format, ready for publication on the website, I make my own editing choices for the new edition, adding my readings to the little histories of converging and diverging responses I have uncovered in the previous editions.

HTML Docs
Creating the HTML documents for the online edition

Providing some respite from the dilemmas and difficulties of doctoral research, I have come to savour the methodological precision (and occasional pedantry) of creating a digital play edition, and conjoining the seemingly disparate processes of handling rare books and creating web-based resources.

I am fascinated by this transformation of empirical evidence from the physical books, including their watermarks, typography and mise en page, into a series of codes – but codes that will offer further immediate access to a range of texts and interpretations, from printed playbooks to subsequent films, photographs and recordings. Considering my affection for the microcosm of reading histories contained within my own personal library, I can see why I enjoy tracing the minutiae of differing responses to Edward III and using the digital format to create a resource that enables others to experience this multiplicity of interpretation.

Through this project, I have come to see digital editions as not just an alternative – and transportable – way of presenting information, but as a means of transforming texts and the ways in which they can be used and studied. Paralleling the wider position of digital humanities, which often seems, paradoxically, to be both ubiquitous and yet unacknowledged within early modern studies, working on Edward III has helped me to appreciate that, while I still relish the printed text, my research is bound to digital editions and is enhanced by them.

Follow the progress of the new Edward III edition on the Internet Shakespeare Editions website


Amy Lidster is a second-year PhD student in the English Department at King’s College London.  Her research examines the influence of repertory companies, stationers and patronage networks on the development and transmission of early modern history plays.  When not confined to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, she can be found (or not found) travelling, exploring museums, galleries and theatre spaces, and occasionally rambling @amy_lidster 

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