Patching Part Three: Standards

(the original post with the title Brave New Canon dates back Sept. 30th, 2011 – I am reading an interesting paper by Geoffrey Rockwell that addresses these issues as well in MLA Journals)

In a paper published in Digital Humanities Quarterly dating back to 2009 (“The Productive Unease of 21st-century Digital Scholarship”), Julia Flanders points out a series of problems our digital edition has to face and, more importantly, reflect upon.

One interesting point is the fact that digital editions and digitization projects give corpora a new importance. Texts that were sofar considered secondary are just as easily available as any other literature. Also, documents that were not easily accessible (mostly for preservation reasons) are now online like other more robust media.

Not so long ago, handwritten material – which  is most of the time unique -, had to be tracked down to the small archive where it is preserved and an adventurous journey had to be organized for you to be able to see and read it. You would reach the archive exhausted and utterly excited, see that it is only opened 3 days a week for 2 hours, stand by the door the very minute it opens, grab your pencil (inkpens being strictly forbidden) and feverishly start transcribing, hoping to be able to decipher each and every letter, spot, stain during the few days of your stay. Once home, you would then start thinking about the content of your transcriptions.

Nowadays, you can search online catalogs after keywords (such as the very complete German kalliope catalogue), see where the documents you are interested in are preserved, fill in an application for digitizations and have those sent home, when they are not online already.

This modifies, as Julia Flanders points out, the relationship between canonical and non-canonical literature. It is true, too, that the digital canon that is arising under our very eyes seems structured by rules that are widely independent from the traditional history of literature.

For scholars used to work on unpublished, handwritten material, it also modifies the relationship to the archives and the objects of scholar desire you can find there. In one click, you can leave behind the closed world of the egoistic discovery (you know what I mean: the manuscript you cannot really believe you actually found, and you are so happy about you almost cry or laugh by yourself in your archive room) and make it known to the whole world.

This affects deeply our relationship to archivists as well. Because they have had, more than us scholars still, to go through a radical evolution of their role as a go-between, from the rooms of a small archive visited only by crazy scholars to a world-exposed position – with probably much more crazy non-scholars.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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