BMCR 2001.07.10

Electronic Texts in the Humanities: Principles and Practice

, Electronic texts in the humanities : principles and practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. xii, 216 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0198711956. $22.95.

Classicists are by now quite accustomed to using electronic texts, including such diverse publications as the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, TOCS-IN and BMCR itself. Until now, however, there has been no single, up-to-date source of basic information for scholars planning to create their own electronic texts. Susan Hockey’s Electronic Texts in the Humanities fills this gap.

Electronic Texts in the Humanities surveys the current state of the art in electronic text practice. The book is not a cookbook, however, but more like a restaurant review: Hockey does not explain how to create a text or a corpus, or how to implement various techniques, but instead gives an overview of current projects and the kinds of things that can be done. The 10 chapters move from general principles to more advanced applications. The extensive bibliography gives pointers to all the major electronic projects and to the most important research in markup theory, digital libraries, computational linguistics, and corpus linguistics.

Hockey presents the general principles and best practices that have evolved through 50 years of work with electronic texts. Although the technologies available to Fr. Roberto Busa for his concordance to Thomas Aquinas in 1949 seem primitive by today’s standards, many of the fundamental ideas have not changed. Electronic texts are most valuable when they can be used by other scholars, not just their creators, perhaps for purposes the creators did not anticipate, and when the electronic edition preserves the complex features of the original text (p. 3). Although plain text files, HTML, word-processor files, and PDF files all have their uses, Hockey argues in chapter 3 that more sophisticated markup is necessary for most serious work, and this means markup in SGML or XML. In addition, for other scholars to find materials, it is necessary to provide basic catalog information, or meta-data, just as print publishers supply library cataloging-in-publication data for their books.

Electronic texts are not as convenient to read as printed ones, but they are far more versatile. Hockey describes various literary and linguistic tasks that can be done far more easily with marked-up electronic texts than they could with pencil and paper, though she cautions against the “tendency to approach literary computing from the perspective of ‘What shall I do with the computer?’ rather than ‘Can the computer help me with this problem and how?'” (p. 67) The projects she describes here include work on scansion of Latin and Greek hexameters (Ott, Packard, p. 80), elision in Euripides (Philippides, Laan, p. 81), morphological analysis of Latin and of Greek (Bozzi and Capelli, Crane, p. 101-102), stylistic analysis of the New Testament and of Aristotle (Morton, Kenny, p. 111-112), and creation of a Medieval Latin dictionary (Howlett p. 148), as well as dozens of projects in fields other than classics.

In her final chapter, Hockey looks toward the future, pointing out that “software development is now the big challenge facing humanities computing specialists” (p. 167), who must produce tools that can be used by humanists who are not themselves programmers. Though electronic projects are more challenging than most scholars anticipate, we can now build on a substantial body of knowledge about how to make and exploit electronic texts, and this book makes that knowledge accessible.