Five years ago Oxford University Press initiated a project to transform the way old texts could be accessed, read and re-purposed online. Oxford Scholarly Editions Online finally launched last week and I caught up with the Project Director Sophie Goldsworthy.
For those of us who are completely new to OSEO can you explain what it is and who’s it for?
OSEO is a major new digital publishing resource from the Press, making our prestigious collection of scholarly editions available online for the first time. We launched with 171 editions of works written between 1485 and 1660 – some 12,000 individual works, equating to around 82,000 print pages – including Shakespeare’s plays, the poems of John Donne, and the letters of Thomas Hobbes, among many others. And the site is designed to open up research possibilities across the humanities by providing the tools for scholars and students to interrogate these texts in new ways.
How will this new resource change the way students access these materials?
It’s never been easier for a student to get their hands on a text, of course, with hundreds of thousands available through google, or popular classics available for nothing in ebook form. But it has, paradoxically, never been more difficult to find an authoritative text, and one which you can feel confident quoting from or referencing. By gathering Oxford’s editions together, and linking them into other OUP content, OSEO allows students to travel from the texts into related secondary criticism and reference materials and back again, moving easily to look up the OED definition of a particular word, say, or to check the text referred to in a journal article or monograph. And they can do this quickly and easily, and know that the texts they’re working with, and quoting from, are accurate.
Do you think it will transform the way scholars go about their research?
We hope so. Humanities research builds out from the texts, and digital texts can be put to a range of sophisticated uses above and beyond simply navigating to them and then reading them. Where OSEO has the potential to change research behaviour lies in the aggregation of data on such a scale, combined with intelligent cross-linking. The site opens up the broadest possible forms of comparative analysis, allowing scholars to trace patterns and connections in the data in new and meaningful ways, traveling through the complete works of a single author – or indeed every author on the site – at the click of a button. And because these are authoritative, stable scholarly editions, with apparatus which itself tracks the variance between these and other versions of the texts, bringing them all together online for the first time in this way has the potential to play a very significant role in the evolution of knowledge dissemination.
This project is very much about bringing old historical texts into the digital realm – can you explain a bit more about how you started to repurpose the texts and the technology behind doing so?
We talked to a lot of people before we got started, because we wanted to re-imagine these editions online in a meaningful way for the user. Our research underlined the need to preserve the link with the print editions, but we also wanted to help people get straight to the texts. So we constructed the site in two ways. You can navigate your way to a familiar page of a particular edition (and even download a PDF – every one of those 82,000 print pages is available in PDF form), meaning you can cite from OSEO with confidence. But you can also get straight to a list of each author’s works in aggregate, or move straight to a particular textual reference or quotation.
Our use of XML meant that we could treat the separate elements of the editions – primary text, critical apparatus, and explanatory notes – differently, which unlocks some great features. The notes keep pace with the text, and you can toggle different features on and off, and adjust the different content panels to suit your needs. The XML also drives a very focused advanced search facility, allowing tailored search within stage directions, first lines, or the recipients of letters, among other options. All of which speeds the user to the content genuinely of most use to them.
So far you’ve managed to get texts from 1485-1660 on the site – are there plans to keep adding content?
Absolutely. We had to start somewhere, and Shakespeare, his contemporaries, antecedents, and successors seemed like a logical beginning. But we have many hundreds of editions beyond these, so we plan to move forward in chronological steps up to the present, and then loop back round to classical and medieval material, until the site contains many hundreds of texts of all kinds, from poetry, drama, and fiction to letters, sermons, philosophical tracts, and more.
And finally what do you think Shakespeare would make of all this?
Well, Shakespeare was a natural innovator, coining words and phrases that have passed into common usage, and subverting classical dramatic devices. I think he’d be delighted that at long last we’re offering the tools to let people do their own research into whether Marlowe or Bacon really did write half of the plays attributed to him. He’d probably be arguing that his name should be in larger font than some of the others, too…