the eternal question: scholarly value of encoding

Greenberg Response to Stuart Lee
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 178.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College London
Date: Wed, 26 Aug 1998 10:24:57 +0000
Subject: Re: 12.0177 response to The Tagging Challenge
Stuart Lee wrote:
> Many thanks to those who replied to my challenge about tagging
> Owen’s ‘Futility’….so far!. . . I was particularly struck by Francoise’s recent posting
> which likened the creation of the text on the manuscript to a performance.
> . . .
> However, what is striking from the responses I’ve received is a reluctance
> to embrace any SGML encoding (to put it politely).
While reluctant to try my hand at encoding the Owen text, thank you for the challenge because it brings up a problem I’ve been wrestling with.
I’m searching the literature (various online searches, ACH/ALLC conference abstracts, and back issues of Computers and the Humanities) looking for. . .well, let’s be honest, looking for things to use in evangelizing efforts. (will soon be doing a series of talks for our faculty on electronic texts, TEI, etc. trying to recruit interested parties to give it a whirl)
Some of the scholarly benefits for encoding texts, particularly in ways that provide meta data and web-accessibility, are pretty obvious by now.
Accessibility issues like making rare materials available, making multiple versions available, bringing obscure works to light, making materials findable and searchable, and standards issues, have all been treated pretty thoroughly. Contributing to the emerging global brain is usually seen as a good thing. The benefits of collaboration, both in the creation of these projects and as a result of their creation, are also generally accepted as being positive. The jury is still out on how working with electronic texts impacts things like promotion and tenure,
although the question is at least acknowledged as legitimate.
There are also the teaching reasons: providing texts for your students to work with, helping your students learn the process involved in encoding because they’ll need to know for the future, etc.
These should probably be enough reasons for a reasonable person.
Sometimes I’m not reasonable.
Most of the text encoding projects I have encountered have been “big projects” dealing with how to put large collections online, often undertaken by libraries, humanities computing groups, or specially funded projects. That is, they have fit well with the accessibility, collaboration and teaching angles. It seems obvious that libraries and other groups should be providing these texts. But what of the individual scholar? and students? Is there a benefit beyond those mentioned in encoding a text? a “personal” benefit? At lunch the other day, while trying to convince a computing colleague that we should be pouring more resources into helping faculty and students learn about creating these texts, I said something like “there is value in encoding a text because you engage it in more meaningful ways than other forms of studying it. I’m glad he didn’t ask for clarification because I realized a moment later I certainly didn’t have any basis, beyond my own experience with texts, for assuming that to be true.
Is there a fundamental and important difference between the close work you do with a text when you encode it and the close work you do with a text in other ways? Or is it that encoding a text is just one of many ways to “get into” a text, and one that just happens to have all the added benefits of making it more accessible to others, or using it as a focal point for collaboration and teaching? Is there something intrinsically valuable about “encoding as performance art?” I would hope this group has some ideas on this, as many have worked on texts through a variety of computing models (yes, Stuart, I was at your “Break of Day in the Trenches” ACH/ALLC’93 presentation!).
According to Rogers (The Diffusion of Innovations) and Geohegan (What Ever Happened to Instructional Technology), technology leaders and early adopters need little encouragement to work with new technologies, but the majority of scholars need personally compelling reasons to disrupt their usual practices and use new technologies. What can I tell faculty and students to convince them that they themselves, not their libraries or publishers or computing staff, but they themselves should experience the “joys” of encoding? (Beyond saying “this is the way to get your favorite obscure works out in the public eye and make them available for posterity?”)
Or to put it another way, if I wanted to compile a bibliography on “how the TEI makes me a better scholar” and didn’t want to include the accessibility, collaboration and teaching issues, what could I put on the list? (I’ve got McGann/Rosetti and the Orlando Project)
– Hope
————, U of Vermont,
(and experiments temporarily at

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