Digital Libraries of Scholarly Editions

  1. 1. George Buchanan

    School of Informatics - City University London

  2. 2. Kirsti Bohata

    Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales (CREW) - University of Swansea

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Digital libraries are a key technology for hosting
large-scale collections of electronic literature.
Since the first digital library (DL) systems
in the early 1990s, the sophistication of DL
software has continually developed. Today,
systems such as DSpace and Greenstone are
in use by institutions both large and small,
providing thousands of collections of online
material. However, there are limitations even to
“state-of-the-art” DLs when considering digital
Contemporaneously with the growth of DL
technology, digital scholarly editions of
significant texts and archival material have
emerged. In contrast to digital libraries, where
there are a number of readily available generic
software systems, critical editions are largely
reliant on bespoke systems, which emphasise
internal connections between multiple versions.
Whilst useful editions are online, and are
increasingly used in scholarly endeavour, digital
scholarly editions suffer from “siloing”: each
work becoming an island in the ocean of the web.
Like ‘physical’ libraries, digital libraries provide
consistent support for discovering, reading
and conserving documents in large collections.
For scholarly editions, these features present
a potential solution to “siloing”. Without
trusted digital repositories, preservation and
maintenance are endemic problems, and
providing consistent experiences and unified
workspaces across many sites (i.e. individual
texts) is proving highly challenging. However,
current DL systems lack critical features: they
have too simple a model of documents, and lack
scholarly apparatus.
Digital library systems can readily contain
electronic forms of “traditional” critical editions
in static forms where each work is a
separate and indivisible document. However,
search facilities cannot then reliably distinguish
between commentary and the primary content.
Using XML formats such as TEI can permit
this distinction to be made, but only with
extensive configuration. Furthermore, the
reading experience in such a DL is likely to
fall far below scholars’ requirements of digital
European initiatives, such as DARIAH, focus
on facilitating access to existing scholarly
editions, with longer-term aims of fostering
standards and interoperability of data. This
approach presumes that each existing site (and
hence, typically, edition) remains autonomous,
and remains a discrete entity, which is then
aggregated through a centralised service. It
also admits the absence of standardised, highly
functional storage and publication systems.
Furthermore, this approach has been attempted
in “federated” DLs, with only limited success.
In federated DLs, unless every member uses the
same software configured in the same manner,
the appearance of each library differs and –
worse – preservation remains in the hands of
individual sites, and cross-site services (e.g.
search) can only operate at a very rudimentary
There have been projects to develop generic
scholarly edition software, but success has
been limited. Shillingsburg [Buchanan 2006]
highlights a number of such systems up to the
mid-2000s. Few of these initiatives engaged
with computer science, and the software systems
have proved hard to maintain.
Digital library systems provide a potential route
for providing collections of digital scholarly
editions. However, they are not yet an answer.
When a digital edition supports discussion
between scholars, grounded on and linked
to the text, the standard DL infrastructure
requires extensive modification. Data structures
are required to capture and store scholarly
discourse, relate each item of discourse in
detail to part of a complex document structure,
and provide this through a seamless and
consistent user interface. Multiple structures
and complex document relationships fit uneasily
within current DL software [Buchanan
et al.

et al.
2008]. For instance, most
DL software requires or assumes that any
collection of documents is homogenous in terms
of the interior structure of each document. This
simply cannot be true of a collection including
– say – diaries, journals, letters and novels.
We need software that provides DL collection
support with the ability to provide for complex
document structure.
1. Current Work
The goal of our research is to develop software
that transcends the current limitations of DL
systems in supporting digital scholarly editions
for the humanities. Our intention is that in
turn organisations and publishers who seek
to provide series of critical material can build
upon software that is scalable, systematically
engineered and sustainable. This software will
also support the necessary complexity of critical
editions and possess a rich apparatus to support
contemporary digital practices, not simply
digitised forms of practice from the print era.
Whilst no single system is likely to provide all
the requirements of all possible circumstances,
our aim is to create software that can provide
the technical core of any collection of critical
editions, with a minimum of effort. Adapting the
system for a specific need may require extensive
work, but only for more unusual circumstances.
This would bring us to a point comparable to the
support that current DLs give for simpler texts
and scholarly practices. For users of scholarly
editions – i.e. the research community – the
presence of a common infrastructure and the
increased ease of working across sites will very
likely increase research activity across multiple
2. Context and Motivation
This project has identified Wales as presenting
an interesting case study. It is a distinct
cultural entity with an abundance of valuable
written cultural material and a sizable scholarly
community researching the cultural life and
output of the nation. Reflecting the bilingual
linguistic identity of the nation, there are
extensive archives and printed matter in
national, university, local government and
private hands in both Welsh and English (as
well as other languages). Wales suffers from
a poor physical infrastructure, and this has
motivated the provision of digital access to
cultural material, from the early days of the
National Library of Wales’s digitisation projects
(e.g. ‘Campaign’ 1999) to the present.
While the National Library of Wales has done
outstanding pioneering work in digitisation of
its collections and remains an asset in our
selection of Wales as a ‘case study’, their remit
does not extend to the interpretation of their
collections. Despite considerable demand from
scholars in Wales and beyond for digital critical
editions of Welsh material (in both languages)
no one project has access to the technical
expertise to create software that embodies the
requirements of the scholarly community. The
motivation of our project is to build a common
infrastructure that both enables each project
to produce high-quality scholarly work, and
provides for consistent access and preservation
of that work.
3. Understanding User Needs
To undertake this work requires not only
technical expertise, but also a systematic study
of the requirements of scholarly practice in
the digital age. To date, we have reviewed the
existing literature, and gained an initial set of
requirements from a retrospective analysis of
data from the recent User Centred Interactive
Search (UCIS) project at University College
London [Rimmer
et al.
The UCIS project revealed that many technical
difficulties emerged when configuring DL
systems, even with relatively simple digital
humanities material. Humanists do not
necessarily search for material that directly
corresponds to the “book” or “document” level
of a particular library. Items may be sought
that constitute part of a single document
(e.g. a poem in a collection of poetry),
and conversely larger works may be realised
in several separate “documents”. Search and
browse facilities typically work only at one
level, typically consonant with either a book
or article. However, collections are frequently
heterogeneous and multi-layered. In the case
of critical editions, the complexity of document
structure and users’ tasks is even greater.
A second problem is that humanists often
require different variants of one work. Though
library infrastructures can relate these together,

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None