Ladies, mill girls and mapmakers: the launch of the Textual Editing Lab

First published on Imps in the Archive on 5 February 2019.

Letters from a rebellious Elizabethan lady, former Paisley mill girls and a 19th century London mapmaker were just few of the contexts for talks at the launch of the University of Glasgow Textual Editing Lab (TELab).

I’m a completely new to textual editing but I’m very excited about the Digital Encoding module I’ve just started with the Information Management and Preservation Masters course.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some insight into what textual editing actually encompasses, the types of texts people are working on and what they are doing with them.

I wasn’t disappointed! There were more than 20 projects on show. What follows is a very brief round-up.

The Declaration of Arbroath was the first text under the spotlight. Davit Broun explained that while the usual approach is stemmatic (I had to look it up!) and scholars try to reconstruct the original paper which was sent to Pope and is now lost, he is trying a new approach – looking at the Declaration as it was read by people in medieval Scotland. So he is comparing versions in Latin and English and identifying the ‘settled’ and the ‘unsettled text’; the unsettled being the variants.

William Burns described the editorial decisions made in transcribing oral history interviews – in his case a project with women mill workers in Paisley. Oral history transcripts are one medium trying to represent another, and in the process nuances like volume and tone can be lost, even though hesitations and meanderings may remain. Is it valid that editing for publication (for meaning) may then remove these aspects too?

Megan Coyer is editing James Hogg’s contributions – including a lot of short stories and poems – to Frasers Magazine in the 1830s.

Rachel Douglas is working with Haitian authors to preserve literary archives and producing a critical edition of CLR James’ play The Black Jacobins.

David McGuinness and Brianna Robertson-Kirkland explained the process in editing the music for Allan Ramsay’s pastoral comedy, The Gentle Shepherd, which is a nearly non-existent text. Eventually all the unearthed and deduced text/music will go into the database of early Scots music at

Michael Syrotinski considered translating as a form of critical editing; specifically he is working with the writings of French philosopher Barbara Cassin.

Matthew Creasy talked about working with Confessions of a Young Man by George Moore, a novel that moved through several iterations and at one point transmogrified into a pseudo-autobiography.

Faye Hammill discussed the challenges that are arising while editing writer Martha Ostenso for a series of books by Canadian women. She has uncovered that the landscape in her most famous novel was probably based on an American location and that her novels were possibly the product of a collaborative process with her husband, so what does that mean for editorial decisions?

Aonghas MacConnich described the Clan Mackenzie texts; the estates records of a 16th century clan chief. Editing challenges include transcribing the handwritten text in the original Scots and also in English, and deciding how much scaffolding is required for the reader.

Gerry McKeever discussed producing a selected works of Allan Cunningham – a literary figure in Scottish romanticism – and the demands of trying to encompass the range of his work. The project is funded by The British Academy.

Costas Panayotakis spoke about compiling fragments of Latin text, maxims and obscene comedies some of which are tucked away inside other Latin texts, and many of which have never been translated into English.

Matthias Widmer is revisiting the second edition of the translation of Homer by William Cowper, an edition that was rejected by Robert Southey when it came to republication. What did that mean for readers?

Jade Scott invited us to consider authorship and authority in the letters of Lady Anne Percy, Countess of Northumberland, who fled to Scotland after a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Her letters are written in English, Scots and in code. Some were written with male secretaries, while others are collaborations with fellow petitioners, so where is she in the corpus?

The work of Virginia Woolf seemed to be a rich seam, with no fewer than three projects focused on her work. Jane Goldman is currently working on the Edition of the Writings of Virginia Woolf for Cambridge University Press. Saskia McCracken is transcribing the handwritten draft of Flush, a bestselling imaginative biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. Which sounds delightful until you see the bits about breeding and race which didn’t make it to the printed version. And Josh Phillips reflected on temporality in transcribing the manuscript drafts of Virginia Woolf’s The Years, a process that has created uncertainty, but he wondered if perhaps that’s a good place to be.

Exploring the digital aspects

This was an exciting rollercoaster introduction to some of the issues that scholarly editors wrestle with. Additionally there were also several projects with digital aspects to them which I found particularly fascinating.

Luca Guariento shared insights into the compilation of the Curious Travellers website, which uses the late 18th century writings of Thomas Pennant who published accounts of tours of Scotland and Wales. He showed how the project (funded by the AHRC) focused on tagging  and collating information about the places, people, books and artworks referred to by Pennant. And we had a look at the back end of the site where, he created simple interfaces in order to enable non-technical specialists to contribute content and update the encoding without having to going near the XML file.

Jo Tucker –  one of the TELab co-directors – took us though some of her ideas on editing images rather than text. Image-based scholarship is becoming more prevalent due to the capacity for researchers to take their own images of documents and as access to high quality images increases. Images can support codicological and paleographical analyses and are important to communicating work, in papers and presentations. She showed examples of annotations on images to define text sections written by different scribes, to add dates and additional information, and the potential to group images by quire or even re-organise ‘pages’.  We can use digital tools such as the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) but how do we publish scholarly editions using the capacities of these kinds of tools? And what does it mean for the way in which people encounter texts?

Matt Sangster described editing in text, image and space for the Romantic London website. The basis of the site is Richard Horwood’s 1790s plans of London in which he attempts to show every house and building. The maps is supplemented by text and images from other contemporary publications linked together by locations. In creating a digital version, he can also introduce comparisons other editions of Horwood’s maps and with modern maps. He built the site using a lot of tools now easily available, can update it and also track the usage. It’s an exciting time to be thinking about these kind of editorial projects but they also raise issues about maintenance and sustainability.

The other two TELab co-directors provided some additional context for the creation of the TELab. Bryony Randall asked what is new or modernist about the new modernist editing, how does scholarly editing in the 21st century differ from earlier practice, and what do we know about audiences? Alison Wiggins described the Archives and Writing Lives research project (funded by the AHRC) in particular the layers in the text of letters by Mary Queen of Scots reflecting that one of her perceived readers was Lord Burghley whether the letter was actually to him or not.

As a newcomer to this field I found all the presentations interesting for the very different texts they encompassed, and the questions and challenges they posed.

The digital projects were particularly fascinating for me; I felt that only do these require conceptualisation from a methodological point of view but simultaneously the outputs are are also objects of scholarly communication. I found myself thinking about my past work on web content, particularly in content strategy, and how that might potentially interface with digital humanities.

The next TELab event is Editing and Poetics with Dr Susan L. Greenberg (University of Roehampton) and Professor Jeffrey Robinson (University of Glasgow) on Wednesday 6 March 2019, 2-4pm.

The Textual Editing Lab (TELab) webpage provides information about their activities and how to join.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s