Shakespeare and the Digital World

shakespeare and the digital worldAnd now, a plug. Last month saw the publication by Cambridge University Press of Shakespeare and the Digital World, Redefining Scholarship and Practice, edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan, to which I have contributed one of the seventeen individual chapters. I’ve not had time yet to read most of the essays, but looking at the book as a whole my first thought was that Shakespeare is being given a book all to himself (as so often).  The way we do almost everything is being changed in the digital world, so what makes him a special case? Fortunately in their excellent introduction Carson and Kirwan begin by addressing this issue, suggesting that “The sheer volume of material that is published online or in print that refers to Shakespeare makes it a verifiable and distinct cultural entity of considerable weight [that]…positions it as a leader for other areas of the humanities.”  The editors also consider, when looking at the other element of the title “digital”, that in the area of Shakespeare studies, perhaps more than others, there is a battle going on between “strong established practice and innovation”.

One factor, then, is the amount of material, and this certainly led academics to bring the organisational power of the computer to Shakespeare studies. I’m a librarian rather than an academic, and one of the first computer projects I was aware of was a reference book, Marvin Spevack’s 1973 Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare,  listing alphabetically each word used by Shakespeare, giving the line in which it appears and a reference to where it occurs in the words. The Shakespeare concordance was by no means a new idea, but the computer made it reliable: for most people the printed concordance has now been replaced by a searchable online edition. One of Shakespeare’s other advantages for those wishing to undertake digital projects is that not only have Shakespeare’s original folios and quartos never been subject to copyright, many editions of his work, early critical studies, artistic and musical interpretations, are out of copyright. This frees up swathes of material work that isn’t available for more modern authors.

In my career as a librarian I worked on several projects that involved the digitisation of analogue material including artwork and photographs from the Shakespeare Centre Library. As it happens some of these were led by two of the contributors to Shakespeare and the Digital World. Christie Carson’s King Lear CD-ROM project and her later online Designing Shakespeare project used large numbers of images from the performance collections.  Meanwhile Peter Holland had worked on a commercial online site featuring material including designs and playbills documenting the history of Shakespeare’s plays. My own contribution to the book relates my experiences moving from being a “gamekeeper”, managing the commercial and intellectual exploitation of the collections, to a “poacher”, an independent blogger wanting, often, to discuss Shakespeare in the context of materials in collections. Organisations have to overcome difficult issues, but in the two years since I wrote my chapter several have opened up access to large image collections, including the British Library and Getty Images. It’s being realised that opening up offers potential benefits in increasing visibility for both the collection and the organisation as a whole. For both organisations it’s only a partial opening of the door: each retains its commercial licensing operations. Jonathan Jones has written a provocative article about this process,  and here’s an article on Getty Images.

Carson and Kirwan’s introduction on the physical nature of the book as opposed to the website leads Erin Sullivan, one of the contributors, into a discussion on her own experience transforming the website A Year of Shakespeare into the book of the same name. Converting a website into a book is a fairly unusual concept in its own right, and in her 7 July post on her Digital Shakespeares blog, Technology and the book,  she makes interesting observations about the difference between browsing the book in its linear order rather than the more random organisation of a website.

She has been given the responsibility of ensuring that the website is archived, and I have been interested to read about her experiences. Archiving a book, she notes, is easy, because once it’s published the content is unchangeable. But books take ages to get into print. The book Shakespeare and the Digital World has taken two years to publish, during which time there was a real possibility that articles would become out of date. A website would have published articles as soon as they were written and been updated as new developments occurred. But as she comments, “The website … was faster and more responsive in its publication, but has been quicker to deteriorate”. Information professionals will probably not be surprised to read that in order to ensure that the website was properly archived “our archiving process has, perhaps paradoxically, involved printing out all of the website’s contents into a hard copy, and saving as much non-textual material as possible to CDs. In the process of doing so we’ve been surprised by how many of the website’s links, plug-ins, and videos have been broken or died in the 18 months since I stopped maintaining it regularly.” At the Society of Archivists conference in 2005 one speaker suggested digital files were a time-bomb, with problems of redundant formats and file corruption meaning that files had to be regularly recopied and updated to current formats. It was a sobering thought then, and remains so now, that the cost of archiving digital files makes buying physical books look cheap.

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