"Reconsidering and revising the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions' Guidelines for Scholarly Editions"


John Unsworth

University of Virginia


part of the panel on "New Directions for Digital Textuality" at the 2001 Conference of the Society for Textual Scholarship

Graduate Center of the City University of New York

Auditorium, Concourse Level.

8:30-11:30 a.m., Thursday, April 19, 2001




This presentation will discuss, and call for comment on, the principles and motivations behind the recent resolution of the MLA's Committee on Scholarly Editions to revise (completely) its guidelines for scholarly editions.  It will also invite your participation in that revision.


As any STS member will know, the Modern Language Association's Committee on Scholarly Editions has its origins in the Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA), established by the Modern Language Association in 1963 to coordinate, evaluate, and fund editorial work in the United States.  From its foundation, the CEAA was closely associated with Fredson Bowers and with the Greg-Bowers theory of editing, often called the copy-text theory.  As members will also know, the Center and its practices were the subjects of controversy at the time (see for example Edmund Wilson, "The Fruits of the MLA,"  in The Devils and Canon Barham: Ten Essays on Poets, Novelists and Monsters, London: Macmillan, 1973).  The CEAA was succeeded in 1976 by the Committee on Scholarly Editions, a change in name that Thomas Tanselle described as indicating a

broadening of ... scope . . . .  [N]o longer limited to editions of American authors, it now provides simply a ‘Center for Scholarly Editions’—editions of any kind of material from any time and place—and it has shown itself to be concerned with promoting greater contact between editors in different fields" 

--from "The Editing of Historical Documents" Studies in Bibliography (31 [1978], 1-56).

Another significant change accompanied the change in name: the CSE dropped the funding and coordinating functions of the CEAA: its sole purpose is to offer advice and evaluation to editors of scholarly editions.


In my original proposal for this panel, at this point in the argument, I said:

This broadening of periods, languages, and editorial circumstances challenged the copy-text theory's hegemony within the CSE, since (as many editors have noted) the copy-text theory is not equally appropriate or applicable to all types of material in all periods and all states, much less to all theoretical orientations or editorial purposes.  

I had asked the Chair of the CSE, Bob Hirst, to review the proposal for accuracy, and in response to that sentence he wrote me, saying:

You seem to imply that all this change is coming from outside the hunkered down group of copy-text editors! . . . it has been chiefly copy-text editors over the decades who have insisted on refining and changing the application of copy-text theory.  After all, Tom Tanselle is the only editor I know who's actually published an essay advocating "Editing without a Copy-Text." And long before that, Bowers published his essay on "Radiating Texts," that is, texts for which the very idea of a copy-text was inapplicable.  So from my point of view, the hegemony of copy-text theory (both inside and outside CSE) is mainly in the eye of the beholder, as opposed to the everyday practitioner. Practitioners have always sought to broaden or change everything from the "final intention" goal to (in Tanselle's case) the very idea that any one text should be automatically preferred in cases of doubt.

So, perhaps it is overstating the case to say that the CSE has been dominated by the copy-text theory of editing, but from my perspective, as a committee member these last five years, I do think that the broadening of focus, from a more limited concern with editions of Anglo-American texts, largely of the 19th and 20th centuries, to editions of texts in other languages and periods, has called into question many assumptions about what constitutes scholarly editing—assumptions inherited from the CEAA by the CSE.  The question of developing guidelines for electronic editions further challenged those assumptions—with respect to copy-text, because the electronic edition’s ability to represent and coordinate multiple states of a text in electronic form undermined some of the practical need for copy-text, even if it didn't necessarily overthrow the goal of recovering authorial intention that is fundamental to copy-text editing. 


The CSE's attempt to produce guidelines for electronic scholarly editions began in Peter Shillingsburg's "General Principles for Electronic Scholarly Editions" (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/MLA/principles.html).  This document was distributed at the MLA meeting in Toronto, December 1993.  With the advent of electronic scholarly editions, the CSE felt it was necessary to extend and adapt their general principles to scholarly editions in this new medium, so Shillingsburg’s document subsequently became the basis of a set of guidelines principally authored by Charles Faulhaber, called "Guidelines for Electronic Scholarly Editions.”  These draft guidelines underwent a number of revisions in CSE meetings and were eventually accepted, as a draft, and posted on the Web, where they are still available at the Berkeley sunsite [http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/MLA/guidelines.html].


Faulhaber’s draft guidelines were essentially a stand-alone set of recommendations for editors of electronic scholarly editions, and as such, they duplicated some of the material included in the guidelines for (print) editions, and they were more or less modeled on those guidelines.  The draft guidelines for electronic scholarly editions were submitted to a group of practicing editors of electronic scholarly editions, and experts in the technical design and delivery of such editions, for review and comment—basically, these individuals were asked to think about applying these guidelines to their own work, and they were asked to comment on how applicable or inapplicable, helpful or unhelpful, relevant or irrelevant the guidelines were, from their points of view.


This group included Morris Eaves (now a member of the CSE, and an experienced editor of Blake in print (with the Blake Trust) and in electronic media (with the Blake Archive)), Hoyt Duggan (editor of an electronic edition of Piers Plowman, with the University of Michigan Press and the Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts), Lou Burnard (European Editor of the Text Encoding Initiative, or TEI, and an experienced consultant on many different electronic editing projects), Daniel Pitti (principal editor of the Encoded Archival Descriptions DTD, widely used in developing finding aids for archival collections and project manager at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities), Bethany Nowviskie (graduate student at the University of Virginia and then project manager for Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive, and herself an editor of Swinburne): the group was convened by me (not any sort of editor, except a journal editor, but advisor, with Daniel Pitti, to a number of electronic editing projects and chair of the TEI Consortium).


The recommendations of this group are available on the Web   [at

http://www.iath.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/vettors.recommendations.html], but I’m going to summarize them here.  The most important of those recommendations was the first, namely that there should not be separate guidelines for electronic and print scholarly editions, but rather (and here I’m quoting, with a little synthesis, from the document produced out of that meeting):


That in place of the current guidelines for print and for electronic editions, the CSE should develop a single, three-tiered document.


Tier 1 (common principles):

This opening section should be the briefest and least frequently revised section of the guidelines.  It should offer no medium-specific advice and no advice that applies only to editions of certain kinds of material or editions in certain editorial traditions.  It should speak only to very general principles: For example, it might advise the editor to specify the relationship between original source material and your representation of it.  If the input is a sample rather than the whole of the available information, the principle of selection should be stated. In general, the idea of this section is to prompt editors to consider and make explicit their methodology.


All scholarly editions probably require, then:

§              establishing a reliable text and stating the grounds on which reliability is being established (including perhaps, but not necessarily, authenticity)

§              stating the relationship between edition and source material,

§              documenting the principle of selection or sampling,

§              documenting the edition’s method of representation (e.g., “presentation of text” in a print edition, encoding practices and/or stylesheets in an electronic edition)

Thomas Tanselle’s recent essay on “primary documents” is a convenient statement of these ideas (Tanselle, G. Thomas.  “Statement on the Significance of Primary Records,"

Profession 95 (an annual MLA journal), p. 27-28).


Tier 2 (editorial best practices):

The second tier should consist of best practices within specific traditions of editing, and those practices should, in each of their particulars and examples, be coherent with the “necessary characteristics.”  This document could be revised more frequently, and should include checklists developed within these specific traditions.  [….]   This section would be particularly challenging to compose, and in fact would likely need to be commissioned in parts from different scholarly communities (and revised every ten or twenty years).  Commissioning reports from these perspectives would, on the other hand, be the most valuable part of this exercise for the CSE itself. 


The document ultimately produced could and probably should say that there are disagreements about what constitutes a scholarly edition, here’s where they are, here’s what they’re about.  And in view of that, the purpose of the guidelines is to help editors make explicit their methods and their aims.   It might be appropriate at this tier, also, to specify principles not applicable across traditions or media (for example, the principle that once published, the electronic edition should never be changed, or should changed only under certain circumstances, etc.).


Tier 3 (technical best practices):

The third tier would be a technical best practices manual, giving examples that are relevant today.  This document would, necessarily, be revised on a regular basis.  This document should include one or more technical checklists (for example, the current checklist issued to vettors of editions for the CSE, which addresses relevant technical matters in reviewing the process of producing a print edition—or a parallel checklist addressing issues in production of an electronic edition, e.g., if the edition claims to be TEI conformant, does it in fact meet the requirements of a TEI-conformant edition?  If it is in SGML, does it parse according to a DTD?  If it is XML, is it well formed? etc.).  Interesting questions will arise in this section—for example, what is the edition?  Does “the edition” include the functionalities of things like retrieval software, user interface, etc.?  Are look and feel an integral part of the edition? 


As a result of those recommendations, the CSE is undertaking a wholesale revision of its guidelines for both print and electronic editions, combining them in the structure recommended above, and commissioning experts outside the committee to produce descriptions of "best practices within specific traditions of editing."  In fact, I would like to invite editors who are here today to propose providing the CSE with brief essays describing the methodology and best practices within existing well-defined schools of textual editing.


I should add that offering to provide a brief essay of this sort does not necessarily indicate that you consider yourself an unqualified adherent or a paragon of the editorial methodology in question.  The purpose of these essays is to provide guidance to novice editors, entering the field or perhaps starting a new project, and trying to decide which methodology best suits the purposes of the project and the nature of the materials—or perhaps to provide guidance to publishers, reviewers, and other interested but non-expert parties who need to understand the significance and the value of a particular editorial method. 


By contrast, the purpose of the first tier of these guidelines would be to allow both experienced and novice editors to identify basic values and principles that are shared across divergent methods and materials.  The purpose of the third tier of guidelines would be to provide guidance for practicing editors, publishers, and vettors of editions, as to the particulars that are important to understand and observe in producing scholarly editions in various media. 


As will be obvious from what I’ve told you so far, I’m a relatively recent member of the Committee on Scholarly Editing and a relative outsider to another CSE, the community of scholarly editors: I have, however, come to understand some of the history and some of the tensions that have characterized the relationship between these two CSEs.  I hope that the revision that’s proposed to the guidelines for scholarly editions, electronic and otherwise, can accomplish two things:

  1. Provide useful guidance to editors at different stages of their careers, and to those tasked with evaluating scholarly editions, either for the MLA, or for tenure and review committees, or for publishers. 
  2. Document and make explicit some of the tacit knowledge of practicing editors, in both print and electronic media, especially so that those who are considering or attempting a first editing project can do so with some understanding of the terrain they’re entering. 

I’ll close by saying that this second purpose seems particularly important at this historical moment, both for scholarly editing and for younger scholars working in electronic media.  Institutional uncertainty about how to value work done in electronic media arises, in part—and perhaps in large part—from not having a methodology with which to associate, or according to which to evaluate, that work.  Younger scholars who are—well or poorly—editing texts in electronic form and putting those texts up on the Web, would benefit from having at least a few methodological choices outlined for them, to choose among.  And as vigorous and congenial as this gathering and the community it represents may be, scholarly editing and textual studies would benefit by announcing the relevance of your expertise to a rising generation of scholars and teachers for whom the first attraction might be the medium of dissemination rather than the method by which materials are prepared for dissemination.  You need new blood, and they need some way of distinguishing—for themselves and for those who evaluate them—between scholarship and, well, everything else on the Web.