Clotel: An Electronic Scholarly Edition

  1. 1. Matthew Gibson

    University of Virginia

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In the fall of 2001, Christopher Mulvey, Professor of English
at the University of Winchester, came to the Electronic Text
Center (Etext) at the University of Virginia Library to
collaborate on creating a scholarly electronic edition of William
Wells Brown's Clotel. In the spring of 2005, Adam Matthew
Publishers (UK) and the University of Virginia Electronic
Imprint (US) will jointly publish the product of this
collaboration: Clotel: An Electronic Scholarly Edition. This
collaborative opportunity proved intriguing for a number of
cultural, technical, and theoretical reasons.
The Technical Challenges of History
Of cultural and historical interest, Clotel was the first
African-American novel ever published and its content
proves particularly germane to the University of Virginia since
the institution's "father", Thomas Jefferson, is the father of
Clotel, the mulatto fugitive slave and heroine of Brown's novel.
In addition, the novel's publication history spans an incredibly
dynamic period of United States history (slavery, Civil War,
emancipation, and Reconstruction) and the substantive changes
among the four editions of the novel between 1853 and 1867
are certainly reflective of that political environment.
Technically, the Clotel Electronic Edition pushes the bar on
past electronic scholarship that the Electronic Text Center has
engaged specifically, as well as developments in the creation
of electronic scholarly editions generally. The innovative
visualizations that Clotel forced Etext to explore are due, in
large part, to the milieu of cultural events in which the novel
was published. The historical events, which directly affected
William Wells Brown as he went from a fugitive slave to a free
man, engendered a large number of substantive variations
between the different editions of Clotel. Because the editions
are so different from one another, because, in most cases, they
are different artistic "works", the task of aggregating them into
a single project for scholarly comparison, analysis, and
discovery provided a sizeable challenge.
Using Early American Fiction's1 first American edition of
William Wells Brown's novel, Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern
States (1864), as a starting point, Mulvey outsourced the
digitization of three more editions: the 1853 first edition
published in London, the 1860 version serialized in the Weekly
Anglo-African, and the 1867 second American edition. Mulvey's
idea was to take each of the editions, mark up regions of
contextual similarity, and then provide tools for the user to
approach the electronic edition in a number of ways without
necessarily privileging any one version. Utilizing the Text
Encoding Initiative (TEI) as the markup standard for the project,
Etext had to take Mulvey's ideal requirements and visually try
to understand how that markup should function in the context
of publication.
Emphasis upon visualizing the changes between the editions
was particularly important for Mulvey. He wanted to compare
the texts in different visual environments: one, for instance,
that was heavy on exposing emendation and another that
privileged the act of reading with optional tools for comparison.
A dominant conceptual view that he maintained actually came
from Microsoft. Having often used the "track" tool in Microsoft
Word to compare version changes in his own documents,
Mulvey wanted to develop a similar tool (or use a tool that
already existed) to emulate that functionality so that users could
see the changes that occur between each edition at any given
time. Privileging that act of uninterrupted reading but giving
the option for comparison, under Mulvey's direction Etext
placed the four "witness" versions of Clotel in a parallel reading
view in which a user could link to comparable passages in any
of the other three editions at any point in any version of the
text. The edition also gives users attendant "reading" copies of
each text along with links to annotations.
Theoretical Implications
Within the larger environment of scholarly publishing
and the framework of debate over its future, the Clotel
project brings to light several speculative issues that may offer
an option to that environment and the role that libraries could
have and are beginning to have in what has historically been
unfamiliar territory. While the Electronic Text Center has
always theoretically aligned itself as being an electronic
"publisher", it has never had the ancillary apparatuses of the
traditional publishing environment: it has no "publicity office"
and, more important, no real mechanism for peer review.
However, the stakeholders that the Clotel project has brought
together—an ambitious scholar, two scholarly presses (Adam
Matthew in the UK and the University of Virginia's Electronic
Imprint) and a digital library unit with expertise in content
creation—have made themselves into an ad-hoc publishing
force. While the crisis in scholarly publishing continues, a
collaboration of this sort which brings together these types of players with typically varying interests and priorities is certainly
a stab in a direction, albeit experimental and unknown.
Although the Electronic Text Center has been, for lack of a
better word, "publishing" content for well over a decade using
the web and other non-web electronic formats, its line-straddling
between library and publishing culture has never been as
apparent or important as it is now. One might posit that this
position is not one of happenchance or exception, but one
necessarily born by the realities, limits, and failures in the
domain of print culture.
1. Funded by two grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,
Early American Fiction (1789-1875) is a recently completed
collection of digitized early first American editions and primary
source materials. The on-line collection includes 886 volumes
from 136 different authors. There are 199 transcribed manuscript
items (525 pages of drafts, letters, and miscellaneous items) and
124 non-text items (photos, engravings, etc.) included in the
collection. See <
f/> . [Ed. note: Clotel is not among the online texts available for
external access. PL]

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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