CHWP A.5 Bear, "'The Lady of May' and the Rhetoric of Electronic Text"

"The Lady of May" in Electronic Form

Lithography gives a blacker, more uniform letter, and is the technology of choice for conversion by scanning; Figure 3 yields a more legible image than Figure 2, and would produce fewer errors for OCR (Optical Character Recognition) scanning. Lithographic printing arrived in time to facilitate the wholesale conversion of canonical works into electronic texts and enable the use of new computer technology in humanities research. But just as technology has made conversion possible without the labour of retyping, so that new editions could be prepared whenever new scholarship became available, the very text pages that would most reliably support such conversion are frequently unavailable for this use, because they are still under copyright (Benedict 1995). Nineteenth century editions are very unlikely to give copyright problems, and for this reason are frequently found among the conversions that have appeared on the Web. If you wish to work from editions earlier than the nineteenth century, OCR becomes less efficient due to the older typefaces, irregularities in printing and stains on pages, and so forth. It may be necessary to type. This is the method which was used in converting "The Lady of May".

Figure 4 shows the first of my efforts to introduce "The Lady of May" to the computer age. This electronic text edition [2] derives from the 1605 edition of the Arcadia (Sidney 1605: 570-576). Long s has been modernized, largely because it is unavailable for ASCII anyway, and catchwords and marginalia have been removed. Sixteenth/seventeenth century usage of i for j and of u and v has been retained, along with the original spelling. A few errors have been emended within brackets. Many italics, such as those used for proper names, have been omitted. Endnotes are indicated within braces. These are editorial decisions that are relatively little influenced by the medium at this point, because this is not a hypertext edition, nor is it in one of the formats determined by the visual iconography of desktop publishing, such as TEX or Postscript. This edition is Michael Hart's "pure vanilla ASCII", the basic character set devised originally for the 8-bit computers of the 1960s and 1970s. Aesthetically speaking, it is a bit of a step backward. Depending on the monitor available (mine had yellow characters on a black background) the viewer would see generally eighty columns by twenty-four lines of a fixed width font resembling Courier. Visually, the text of Figure 4 is not at all as attractive as the print editions of the previous three hundred and ninety-five years. Yet it represents a significant advance. Anyone can now take up a floppy disk containing the file storing the edition, "may.txt", and do a wide variety of things with it. Even the simplest word processors can do word counts, character counts, and what are called "string searches", in which a set of characters can be located successively in each of the contexts in which it occurs. This was the primary use envisioned by the creator of the original etext, Roberto Busa, working in the 1950s on St. Thomas Aquinas (Raben 1991: 343). Concordancing and linguistic software can do even more, and the file can also be converted into practically any format that has been or is yet to be invented, including typesetting for paper book production.

"May.txt" was not typed from the edition of 1860, as that edition seemed to me to have taken too many liberties with the text. Nor was it typed from the edition of 1598; [3] the 1605 edition was available on microfilm, and I worked directly from photocopies taken from that microfilm. It was impossible for me to produce a truly scholarly edition, as I had no resources for comparing early editions, let alone copy-texts, on my own; others had done this, and will continue to do this, better than I. I felt, however, that I had two new contributions to make: that I could competently produce a contemporary introduction to the text, exploring rhetorical issues raised by the work of the new historicists, and that I could produce an electronic edition which, while it might never be the best text, would be one of the first Early Modern English works to appear in the new medium, useful to students all over the world who might not otherwise have access to it in paper form. I believe those aims were achieved, as I have received electronic mail from students (and scholars) in many countries who seem glad to have had access to this and some twenty-four other texts that I have similarly produced (Bear 1996).

Not everyone is happy to see texts like "may.txt" appear on the Internet. Periodically, a thread of heated discussion erupts in online seminars such as HUMANIST or SHAKSPER as to whether such texts are useful editions. The gist of the objections is that effort should be expended primarily on work produced in circumstances like those of peer review in academic journals, such as on authorized editions for which they themselves will do the authorizing, the primary use of which will be for scholarly analysis. Even granting this authority, however, will not prevent the appearance of publications aimed at being read.

"May.txt" actually is constructed a bit like an MLA-style term paper, with a general title, note on the text, introduction, text, notes, and bibliography, in sequential order. As it is an electronic text, it is searchable, downloadable, printable, and readable, but its readability (with the exception of its being readable by speech software for the vision impaired) is its weakness. Scrolls were replaced by codex books, beginning about AD 400, at least in part because scrolls were accessible only sequentially. Codex books permit random access, so that a reader may readily consult a particular passage (Manguel 1996: 127). Computers permit even better access to the information in a text than does the traditional indexing and pagination of the codex book, but many, many users have not yet developed the skill in using search software. The tendency is to "scroll" down through the text, a behaviour that is a throwback to the rolled book, and one of the primary causes of the perception that electronic texts are not convenient. Also, the 24 rows by 80 columns format lacks aesthetic beauty, which has always been a consideration in the engagement of the reader with the text. It must be made more accessible, and more attractive, if it is to gain acceptance in the reading community.

The advent of the World Wide Web presented new iconic possibilities for those who seek to produce reading and teaching editions. This was not immediately so (McLaurin 1991). HTML was originally devised with only one graphic design model in mind, that of the text outline with nested levels of headers, which is the model most familiar to the creators of software manuals. An outline is easily converted into a concept map and vice versa, as it is a hierarchical and sequential linking of concepts. Thus, a visual flowchart of elements could be reduced to a pre-organized verbal model for teaching new users to master a program. This is a powerful paradigm for information transmission among the hard and social sciences, as the iconic page that appears on-screen conveys an impression of a single culture united in a belief in causation. But not all "information providers" share the rhetorical project of the sciences, and their design goals will accordingly differ. Users were not satisfied with a Web consisting of an infinity of links between black-on-gray outlines. Images, which the author of HTML envisioned would be mostly photographs and charts exchanged among scientists across the variety of computing platforms in use, began immediately to be used as design and even typographic elements. Sensing an opportunity, Netscape Corporation in 1994 leaped ahead of the committees that had been entrusted with the development of HTML protocols, and introduced codes for, among other things, centring of text and font sizing (Netscape 1994). Web page designers seized upon the unauthorized codes immediately, and unauthorized texts of classic works began, within months, to clothe themselves in the graphic elements of traditional book arts, acquiring the rhetoric of those arts without, so to speak, having to pay the hitherto-required dues thereof. [4] Combined with the hypertextual powers of HTML, the new design elements created a workable tool for re-presenting texts in an entertaining and informative telecommunications environment that rapidly gained popularity (Ockerbloom 1996).

Figure 5 shows how my text of "The Lady of May" responded to the early design opportunities of HTML. A list of links, or a kind of interactive table of contents, whisks the reader to the text-matter of choice: introduction or main matter or notes or bibliography. Notation no longer merely refers to notes, but puts the note on-screen. A click of the back button returns the reader to the context in which the notation appeared. Typographic design is now possible, and the ritualistic richness of the Elizabethan title is restored in full. The earliest version of this file accepted the default background colour of the browser (usually gray); it now specifies white (hexadecimal #ffffff), as do many other books in cyberspace (for example, Project Bartleby 1996). Margins also have been restored, in imitation of the white space around the text that had been dictated by printing technology in the days of hand-operated presses.

As HTML has evolved, more and more formatting control has gone to the information provider, with mixed results. Many, new to the idea of access to publication design, have based their documents on print advertising and television commercials, the design of which reflect massive research into capturing attention (and money). Pages have gaudy graphics, with blinking text, animated GIFs (Graphic Interface Format), tiled background images, banners, Java ant-races, and clashing text colours, often masking the absence of significant content. At the other extreme are government documents containing millions of characters of content, with no more structure than nested headers for chapter, section, and paragraph, all on the same gray background. Those working with classic texts, however, tend to be aware of the rhetorical power of traditional book design, and their ideas on the use of HTML to translate this power to the Web appear to be convergent. [5]

Traditional page design is still authoritative because of its familiarity. The reader, reassured as to the points of arrival and departure, is free to concentrate on the matter being communicated. There are, however, other traditional models besides those we have considered up to this point, and some of these might be worth examining as we consider the future of electronic text. Elements of HTML not previously available will make it possible for notes and glosses to pop up on-screen when their key, or referent, is clicked (as for a hypertext link). It is already possible to foreshadow this technique by using frames -- more than one window opened by the browser at one time. Figure 6 (Sidney 1996) shows one way in which traditional design and frames can be brought together to create a teaching edition, with an interactive sidebar. In Figure 6, we are at the point of arrival. Both the page title and the HTML header proclaim that centuries-old title of the piece not found in the original, orienting the modern reader upon arrival. The paragraphs following the header explain how to use the notes, introduction, and bibliography, and make available a non-frames version of the text, for older browsers and LYNX. I have retained white as the background colour of the main matter, along with the brown and green links, but the Notes window has (at least on the monitors I've checked) a tan/ivory background and a (very) dark blue text colour, to distinguish it easily from the main matter.

Much of the information once found at the head of the file, including text source and acknowledgments, I have moved into the note that appears when the text is first accessed. Other links previously found near the top have been moved to the bottom of the file in the main (left) window, as newly arriving readers are apt to click on these if they see them first, leaving the frames environment abruptly and becoming disoriented. [6] The aim here is to make a variety of reading and study strategies available to the reader without unduly distracting from the narrative continuity of the text, an aim that echoes that of the modern pedagogical codex textbook.

Figure 6 serves as our point of departure from this present narrative, presenting an edition of "The Lady of May" separated by four centuries of technology and editorship from the first edition, yet retaining an iconic likeness that is not accidental. The rhetorics of arrival, of presence within a text, and of departure still follow an ancient law: that of conservation of energy. In social behaviour, such conservation is known by the name of tradition, and we are may do well to carry our traditions with us when seeking out new lands.

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[2] It was initially produced in 1993 for Dr. Lyell Asher (U of Oregon).

[3] This is partly because I was initially unaware of its existence and, once aware, found it unavailable to me at the time.

[4] I am aware that there is no inherent virtue in samizdat publishing of classic literature; my own first outing, probably still available in a few places as "ballads.txt", was a disaster of poor proofreading, and I was rightly taken to task in a number of postings to scholarly lists for releasing it in such condition. With freedom comes responsibility, and the publisher must rise to the occasion or leave well enough alone, I believe.

[5] While I do not have space here to demonstrate this assertion exhaustively, I suggest that the reader examine a few texts accessible from the Online Books Page (Ockerbloom 1996); the Columbia U's Project Bartleby 1996 offers a particularly fine instance. Or see an egregiously obvious instance: Milton against a background of a right-hand book page, with the actual gutter at far left (Milton 1991).

[6] These changes were suggested by beta testers of the file, who responded to a request for participation posted on three Internet discussion groups (also known, somewhat inaccurately, as listservs): RENAIS-L, SPENSER-L, and HUMANIST.