Text Use

Our hopes for the electronic text are like a new utopian fantasy, in that they focus all of our most fervent dreams of instant, effortless access to worlds of discovery, and our desire to overcome the obstructions of brute matter: the electronic realm of the future is a world in which we discover that we can fly. In the face of such blandishments, we must ask what we really can do, what we really should plan on doing, with electronic text resources.

The most important functions of the electronic resource--and by this I mean anything from an edition of a single text to a large national corpus--are those which make it worth while spending the money and effort to create the resource in the first place. Particularly if the resource duplicates some existing print publication, the electronic version will need to allow for activities which are not only impossible using the print version, but also distinctly useful. These activities include, I think, at least the following:

  1. Instant navigation using the structural components of the text or collection. This is increasingly important the larger the collection.
  2. Simple word searches.
  3. Complex searches involving Boolean logic. With large collections and highly focused research goals this is indispensable.
  4. Variant views, where applicable. This is particularly important for historical sources, where emendation or regularization may be needed to facilitate searching or easy reading, but where the original readings are important for evidentiary purposes.
  5. Side-by-side or computational comparison of witnesses. This includes both a visual inspection of two or more witnesses, and a computer-generated listing of all differences (or all differences of a certain type) between them.
  6. Support for analysis, such as collocation studies, word frequency studies, word usage studies.

It is clear, I hope, that these activities are not supported by many of the things we refer to as "electronic texts": word processing files, plain untagged ASCII, or HTML. Items 1, 4, 5, and 6 in particular depend on the identification of structural components, speakers, foreign language use, and the like, using an encoding system such as Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). In addition to the practical realm of functionality, the electronic text inhabits an imaginative realm within which it must perform the task of selling itself, of justifying its existence. Thus the creator of an electronic resource needs to consider how the user feels about using it: what sort of imaginative relationship the user develops with it, and how that relationship fosters and furthers the educational goals (broadly construed) for which the resource was intended.

For pedagogical uses, an electronic text resource must first of all awaken and use the student's curiosity as the motive by which the text will be explored; the potential interactivity of the electronic text is thus an imaginary interlocutor whose implicit questions impel the student to move from idea to idea, from text to text. To the extent that the electronic text proposes interactivity and individual motivation as a displacement of an earlier, more top-down pedagogical structure, its designer has the responsibility to provoke and foster these responses by a creative use of the medium, not merely to assume that the user will always work to overcome obstacles of boredom or poor design.

For scholarly uses, including primary research, textual analysis, and editorial work, in assuming an already motivated user we also assume a user with a mission. For such a figure the successful electronic text resource must satisfy--and above all not frustrate--the habitual research drives which guide the user's engagement with the textual material. The data provided must above all be consistently prepared, so that the electronic text does not awaken suspicions that it is hiding things, or that there are crucial pieces of information which are unavailable. The textual material must also be prepared according to a well-theorized editorial method, taking into account both scholarly expectations and the current work being done on editorial theory for electronic texts. As the universe of the scholarly electronic text grows, and as scholars come to depend on electronic resources for their typical research, they will care more and more about uniformity and consistency between as well as within resources. For a truly efficient research environment, it will be essential that all resources offer a similar set of common tools, and that their data be prepared according to common expectations. The importance of standards for data preparation is thus clear; the consistent application of an encoding standard like the Text Encoding Initiative's Guidelines for Text Encoding and Interchange, for instance, would make it possible to get usefully comparable results from analysis performed on several different textbases, and would also make it possible to develop a set of common tools which the scholar could depend on using with all electronic texts.

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