What is a Digital Scholarly Edition?


As part of the Digital Scholarly Editing module in Maynooth University, students are required to lead a discussion on a pair of readings and write a follow-up blog. For my discussion, I looked at a chapter by Patrick Sahle entitled “What is a Scholarly Digital Edition” from the edited book, Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories and Practices; and a chapter by Elena Pierazzo entitled “Traditional and Emerging Editorial Models” from her book Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories, Models and Methods. 


To avoid any confusion on term usage, Sahle suggests, there is no difference between the term scholarly digital edition and digital scholarly edition (33), hence, for the purpose of this blog, I will use the term digital scholarly edition or digital edition.

On first impressions, it seems that both Sahle and Pierazzo are interested in arriving at an explanation to define a digital scholarly edition, albeit through different approaches. However, as it unfolds, Sahle is intent on arriving at a definition, while Pierazzo has more concern for what a digital scholarly edition “does or is supposed to do” (39).

Pierazzo opens with an overview of the different traditional editorial models, noting that “editorial frameworks” are somewhat determined by the time-period, the discipline, and country of practice. She then proceeds to discuss the debates between different disciplines towards various editorial models such as documentary, critical and genetic editions (17-21). Subsequently, of interest for Pierazzo is whether traditional editorial methodologies can “be pursued digitally or does the digital medium necessarily provide a new theoretical framework?” (21). While leaving the question open in the interim, Pierazzo proceeds to point out that due to

“the impact of computational technologies in editing requires us to evaluate the editorial work from different points of view with respect to the traditional ones, where not only the editorial approach needs to be considered, but also the functionalities, the typologies, the goals and the targets of the digital product” (21).

This is followed by a discussion on the different model approaches for developing digital scholarly editions, such as phylogenetic and digital stemmatology, and thereafter looks at the different types of digital scholarly editions such as social editions and crowdsourced editions (23-31). Pierazzo then provides a deep analysis of other areas such as representations and functionalities. In the end, Pierazzo presents more questions than answers, but perhaps this is the point, and thus, she is more concerned with what a digital scholarly edition “does or is supposed to do” (39), than offering an immediate definition.

On the other hand, Sahle avoids discussing the age-old debates on scholarly editing, preferring to begin from an all-encompassing standpoint. He suggests the need to build upon the tradition of past scholarly work,  but adds that scholarly editing needs to be inclusive of all disciplines “to cover all cultural artefacts from the past that need critical examination in order to become useful sources for research in the humanities” (22-23). He starts with deliberating a definition for a scholarly edition, one which incorporates all editorial schools, all humanities disciplines, and covers “all textual genres and every kind of object” (Sahle 23). Favouring a definition that is “short and simple”, he proffers that a “scholarly edition is the critical representation of historic documents” (23, author’s italics).

In providing a definition for scholarly editions, Sahle contends that this definition is valid for print/digital editions as they “share the same subject and have the same goals … The difference is not so much between editions and digital editions, but between the various forms of editions” (26). Indeed, for Sahle, the definition for a scholarly edition can be expanded by way of using a “digital paradigm” to define a digital scholarly edition (26). However, Sahle is implicit that a digitised edition is not the same as a digital edition; rather it is “the conceptual framework that makes the thing—not the method of storage of the information either on paper or as bits and bytes” (27). Accordingly, Sahle defines digital scholarly editions as, “scholarly editions that are guided by a digital paradigm in their theory, method and practice” (28, author’s italics). Thereafter, he delves into the aspects of the digital paradigm via the use of multimedia, hyperlinks and is keen to convey the differences between a digital edition and digital archive. Conveying how a printed edition is bound by its cover, and so has a final end product, he notes that a digital edition is in constant motion, and thus “as a publication is a process rather than a product” (29, author’s italics). He adds that in principle it is “always open to change and amendments”, and in theory “it never closes down and never reaches a final state” (29-30). In the end, Sahle offers a model comprised of a series of question which aids him in deciding what can be deemed as a digital scholarly edition, based on his simple definition.

Having no former background or experience in digital scholarly editing, this was an interesting combination of readings. Pierazzo highlights the expansiveness of the field of scholarly editing, through its theories, methods, and debates before introducing the concept of digital scholarly editing as an extension of traditional scholarly editing, but with its own set of conundrums for applying theoretical and methodological frameworks. Thereafter, Pierazzo delves into a deeper discussion on the different model approaches and types of digital scholarly editions but ends with more questions than answers. On the other hand, Sahle is less concerned with what has gone before and moves forward with an all-encompassing outlook to provide a simple definition for a scholarly edition which can be expanded by way of using a “digital paradigm” to define a digital scholarly edition. However, he lacks justification for his remark on a digital edition as “a process rather than a product”,  as surely, it is both? Nonetheless, Sahle provides a cohesive discussion that can easily be grasped by a neophyte, and while suggesting there are some challenges in digital scholarly editing, there is a sense that everything will be overcome. On the other hand, Pierazzo’s discussion had the opposite effect, aside from it being difficult to read and grasp, it does, however, provide a student with a realisation that despite the great potentials and benefits of digital scholarly editions, there are many more debates to be had and a long way to go before we can be comfortable with a simple definition.


Pierazzo, Elena. “Traditional and Emerging Editorial Models.” Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories, Models and  Methods. Routledge, 2014, pp. 17-42. Open Access

Sahle, Patrick. “What is a Scholarly Digital Edition.” Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories and Practices, edited by Matthew James Driscoll and Elena Pierazzo. Open Book Publishers, 2016, pp. 19- 43. Open Access

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