Australian Scholarly Editions Centre Projects (ASEC)

The following is the text of a paper published in the Journal Computers and Text (Oxford); no. 8 (December 1994), pp.5-7

The Academy Editions of Australian Literature
Paul Eggert
Australian Scholarly Editions Centre
School of English
University College ADFA

The Academy Editions project commenced in 1992, funded by the Australian Academy of the Humanities. The project is the first series of full-scale critical editions of major works of Australian literature. The Colonial Texts Series, which also comes from ADFA (the Australian Defence Force Academy) and began in 1986, deals with little known, historically significant or unjustly neglected works of prose fiction from the colonial period.

So far we have published three CTS titles: Ada Cambridge's A Woman's Friendship, Mary Vidal's Bengala, and N. Walter Swan's Luke Mivers' Harvest. Catherine Martin's The Silent Sea is in production at the moment. While the first three titles had relatively simple textual situations, the Martin is a full-scale critical edition which plots the differences between the novel's differently revised presentations for newspaper audiences in Adelaide and Melbourne and for readers of the Bentley first edition, while recovering as its reading text the lost proofs from which the three historical printings radiated. The CTS volumes have very reliable texts and are extensively annotated. The University of New South Wales Press is the publisher.

The Colonial Texts Series is restricted to works of prose fiction of the colonial period (to 1901). The Academy Editions project is not. In this series we are editing the complete poems of Charles Harpur and Mary Gilmore, short stories of Henry Lawson, a selection of plays for the commercial stage from 1834 to the 1920s, Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life, Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery under Arms, Catherine Martin's An Australian Girl and Henry Handel Richardson's Maurice Guest. We also took the decision, encouraged by the Academy, to consider for inclusion important autobiographical diaries and journals whether published or not. We have decided to prepare a very lightly edited but fully annotated edition of the journal of Annie Baxter Dawbin for the years 1858-68, previously unpublished except for some fragments. That volume and a critical edition of Henry Kingsley's The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn are scheduled to appear in November 1995. The Academy Editions publisher is the University of Queensland Press.

Apart from the hazards of editorial mutilation or abridgment (common for successful works of Australian literature repackaged for home and colonial distribution in London), literary works can also have been subject before or after first publication to complex and extended bouts of authorial revision. Harpur's poetry shows this; so do Lawson's stories and His Natural Life. Literary works are not available to us in the present as unmediated Verbal Icons nor, if we are playing fair, as passive exemplars of theoretical positions. The works had and have various historical lives which, if documented in a critical edition, can richly reveal the work's meanings and open up in the present its significances both for its author, publisher and early audiences.

The case for full-scale critical editions which would document these histories for the proposed works is strong. The Academy Editions of Australian Literature are therefore aimed at clarifying the often confusing (or unknown) textual histories, establishing reliable reading texts, and then providing notation of textual variance, and historical and other explanations of whatever in the texts is no longer clear to the modern reader. The student editions will contain a literary critical introduction, a digest of the original research underlying the critical editions, together with the newly established reading text or texts and a selection of the explanatory and textual notes.

All extant manuscript and other pre-publication material is described in the critical editions, as well as any serialisations and the early publications in book form. These have been collated as a preliminary to the editing process, and their variant readings are recorded in the textual apparatus. In addition, because especially important categories of variants appear also at the foot of the reading page, we hope to be able to draw the reader into an awareness of the work not just a single text but as multiply texted. What is abundantly clear however is that traditional expectations of the physical book militate against the reader's considering the text of a literary work as other than singular and to be read linearly, not radially - although that is the way we read, say, encyclopaedias and dictionaries.

However the new generation of electronic publishing does open up the opportunity to construct editions which actively encourage multiple and radial or, as it is coming to be known, hypertextual reading. The capacity of the CD-Rom or on-line environment to include facsimiled and transcribed versions of all states of a text would obviate the pressure on the reading text finally and once-and-for-all to represent the work. Getting the versions, open in two or more windows on screen, to synchronously scroll would be even better. The case of His Natural Life needs no arguing in this regard: one thing the book cannot do is contain the much longer original version published in the Australian Journal version (1870-72) and the radically revised George Robertson first edition published in Melbourne in 1874, nor even, in their entirety, the Robertson version and the London Bentley edition of 1875 which was extensively copy-edited for the new audience. With poetry, the desirability of representing, say, all ten versions of Harpur's 'The Creek of the Four Graves' rather than consigning most of them to a forbiddingly complicated apparatus is appealing. And with plays, the capacity of providing annotations in words, visuals and sound, and even video-clips of actual productions, all hypertextually linked, clearly must be explored.

The electronic edition offers, then, the opportunity to reinvigorate literary criticism by broadening the object of attention. It should provide the capacity to relate versions to particular audiences; to alloe readers to think of a literary work as a field of alternative textual wordings; and, by means of its new power of displaying and linking explanatory notation, to go some way towards reinserting the work into the discourses from which it arose - not as a species of miraculous birth of course, but textually agented.

An Academy Electronic Editions Committee has been meeting for eighteen months. Separate funding is going to be required, but at least we have a model of what we want to do. We are committed for the time being to CD-Rom. Variable standards of presentation and the mostly unrefereed content of material published on the WorldWideWeb point to its unsuitability at present and in the near future for publication of electronic critical editions. Given all the work that goes into their preparation, they deserve to be taken seriously. Appearance under the imprimatur of a university press is a recognisable token of this. In this regard, the CD-Rom is the natural successor to the book: it is a physical product that can be distributed and reviewed and for which the payment or waiving of royalties and reproduction fees can be readily negotiated.

Steps in developing electronic editions

Most of the editorial clarification of the text will have been done in preparing the conventional editions. However the electronic editions require extensive work on the technology of presentation. The areas which need to be specially developed are:

  1. A retrieval and display system to allow the reader to use the text in the ways outlined. It must be flexible enough to display both the lengthy text of novels, and multiple versions of verse. There is at present no program or system we know of which permits all the operations we require, although the very expensive program Dynatext comes closest. Whatever off-the-shelf program or programs are chosen, they will have to be supplemented with additional modules and newly programmed functions.
  2. Preparation of the texts for electronic storage and display. This involves:
    • tagging the text using the international standard, SGML-TEI, to indicate its inherent structure and display parameters;
    • cross-referencing it so that corresponding parts of the various versions can be brought to the screen simultaneously;
    • flagging words or phrases that have an additional note attached to them;
    • preparing digitised page images of each version (including any extant manuscript versions) that appeared in the author's lifetime; and
    • tagging the page images for simultaneous display.
  3. Assembling and preparing the ancillary material. The electronic edition will include significantly more illustrative and background material than the conventional edition. This has to be collected, assessed and coded for inclusion.

The accompanying diagram of our proposed electronic editions is self-explanatory. However the acronym, PART, needs explanation. PART means Primary Access Reading Text. We envisage this as the first-time user's first port of call; it corresponds to the reading text established by the editor in the book form. In the Academy Editions series that text will usually be a very lightly corrected form of a historical version of the work, though the design would hold also for a reading text established according to final authorial intentions. More experienced users of the electronic edition will not need to read that edited version since all the others will be available and able to be synchronously scrolled by virtue of the embedded hypertextual links. The capacity of MacCase to bridge between versions at points of textual variation will probably be of use here. (MacCase is our development of Peter Shillingsburg's CASE program - Computer Assisted Scholarly Editing.)

(This article draws on a paper given to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature in July 1994 at ADFA in Canberra and on work done by Chris Tiffin, University of Queensland.)