The Albert Woodman Diary: Editing a text for the general public

This is final blog post of this module, the end product of which will be a Digital Scholarly Edition of Albert Woodman’s two diaries from the First World War. As such, rather than focus on a specific topic I thought it appropriate to explain some of the design and encoding decisions made (so far) in the process of constructing the edition. The first decision taken in the edition’s conception was the choice of target audience for the edition. Given the hundred-year anniversary of the First World War, as well as the Easter Rising, we considered the diary of an Irish signaller serving in the British army to be of widespread interest.

It has been said — in numerous ways and by numerous experts in the field of scholarly editing[1] — that the market for print versions of scholarly editions consists principally, if not entirely, of editors themselves. In the same way that the general public do not need to read reams of medical journals, relying instead on their doctor to offer appropriate treatment, most users of scholarly editions are not terribly interested in the process behind its creation. What we desire from a doctor is the correct prescription, and from a textual scholar the “correct” text. It is for this reason that so-called ‘reading editions’ exist: the text of the edition is no less valid — and dependent on the same work of validation — yet the actual validation, the process by which the text is validated, is not presented as it is not useful to the reader.

This generalisation is true as far as it goes, but fails to see the whole picture in numerous ways. Firstly, it fails to consider the fact that the scholarly/reading edition dichotomy in print does not necessarily apply to the digital realm, where scholarly apparatus can be included by default and ignored or turned off, without the material detriment in print (i.e. doubling the size of the volume). Digital editions allow the presentation of TEI-encoded text, which, in the absence of anything else, including explicit representation in an interface, can serve as a manifestation of the textual scholarship underlying the edition. Facsimiles and side-by-side views with transcribed texts give a greater material context. A more ‘normalised’ text facilitates reading. And, of course, these views can — if the edition is designed this way — changed according to the user.

The second is that, as I will suggest in this post, some forms of apparatus are actually necessary for a general audience, though not necessarily the detailed textual notes. Part of this is due to the fact that we are dealing with unique historical documents, rather than ‘works’ of literature that might invoke a greater degree of textual criticism. Unless we created a diplomatic edition (which, as I have suggested above, would be of less interest to a wider audience), a much greater proportion of the scholarly apparatus of the edition would be focused on historical context. In fact, what we came to realise in the production of Woodman’s Diary is that the more general an audience, the more contextualisation is required. Of course, we hope the edition to be of use as a primary source to historians studying the period; it seems logical, though, that a specialist in the period will require less contextualising information than a general reader.

Taking the above considerations into account, the Woodman project decided to favour ‘external’ contextualisation over textual or diplomatic features. One of the ‘views’ of the text chosen was therefore of an edited text, incorporating clickable links to more contextual information (mapping named entities to biographical or geographical information, and annotations of terms whose specific context made understanding difficult to a general audience). It was also decided to present a side-by-side view of the facsimile and transcription of each diary page. This latter choice was, I would argue, not so much for the purposes of allowing greater interrogation at a textual level (though this is undoubtedly a possibility), but, especially for a wider audience, of providing additional contextualisation by giving some notion of the physical characteristics of the diary.[2]

The question for an editor becomes, then, what should the text of the edition be, and what should be annotated? Or, in this case, what concessions to the audience need to be made? In general, we favoured very much leaving the presented text ‘un-normalised’, particularly when dealing with what Greg terms “accidentals” (spelling, word division, some punctuation) that impacts on the presentation rather than the meaning of content. This is was a difficult decision to make: especially if we truly regard these features as accidental rather than based on some form of authorial intent, it would surely have made much greater sense, for a modern, general audience, to modernise and correct spellings and some punctuation. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the absence of an apostrophe in virtually every contraction (e.g. “havent”). It is very hard to declare this an intentional feature of the text, and thus it would seem logical for it to be corrected. Of course, from the opposite perspective, it could be argued that such corrections are excessively normative (perhaps even conveying a sense of cultural or educational condescension on the part of the editor).

I do not think either view is conclusive, and as such our rationale was to consider both the nature of the text we are trying to present and the intended audience. Our approach was therefore to emphasise explanation over correction. In this we are, as I argued earlier, helped by the dynamic nature of digital editions, which allow an explanation to be hidden and not infringe on the reading process, but also to be merely a click away. Abbreviations therefore are encoded using the TEI <choice> element, giving the text ‘as written’ and the expansion as an optional ‘explanation’. The determining factor in editing, annotating and explaining the text was whether a given aspect would be comprehensible. Thus “havent” was deemed to be understandable, whilst military acronyms, we felt, needed (a lot) more explanation.

In general, our argument for ‘not editing’ the text too heavily was the nature of the text itself. We were not dealing with a text that was intended to be edited or published, or indeed, read by more than a few people. Also, we are talking about a war diary, written daily in extreme circumstances. “Accidentals” therefore feel less like presentational nuances but actual artefacts of composition that are, consequently, a vital part of contextualising the text to a general audience, rather than something that should be editorially glossed over.[3]


[1] Elena Pierazzo particularly made this point in the DiXiT Camp in Borås.

[2] I would suggest pictures of the diary alongside the text give a sense of the materiality of the text without resorting to specialist descriptions of the “comprises an octavo notebook” sort, which is of greater value to textual scholars and bibliographers.

[3] As a parting shot, to undermine my conclusion, I feel in hindsight that we may have been excessive in transcribing punctuation, particularly where it seems Woodman may have let his pen come to rest in a point at the end of each line. This does not seem to be punctuation, whether correct, incorrect, or subsequently altered, with any intent at all — indeed, it is not punctuation but a dot, and thus may be considered truly accidental.


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