Editorial Triage in the Digital Age

Editing is – and has always been – about choices. For any project an editor must decide both what to include/exclude and how to best present what is included. The same decisions are required in the Internet age, but digital resources may change both the available options and the tipping points for particular choices.

The presentation of a folksong collection provides a case in point. When Alan Lomax published his various collections access to his source materials was limited to those who could travel to Washington DC and take the time to locate and study them. In effect, from his vast collecting only a small percentage could be presented in a publication and what was left was, for most purposes, inaccessible – invisible. For Lomax there were two options: in and out. Further, for those songs included in his print collections, economic and practical imperatives dictated a certain presentation: even if his source recording of a song ran to 17 verses only the melody of one or occasionally two verses could be included in the printed book.

The digital age offers additional options not available to Lomax and his contemporaries. Now there are at least three options where Lomax had but two (in or out). For example, with the Carpenter Collection Edition now in process triage becomes possible because a third option is available: in, out and online. Additional presentation options are available as well, to which I’ll turn in a moment.

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has digitized the entire Carpenter Collection and intends to put it all online through one of the Library’s digital initiatives. Thus, unlike earlier print collections, all the raw materials (collectanea) from which the printed edition will derive will one day be instantly accessible to those who wish to see them: notations, sound recordings, typescripts etc.. Further, extended edited work can also be made digitally available such as through transcriptions of long recordings. Thus, today’s editor has additional options: knowing that online access exists as part of the landscape, one may choose to include, or ignore specific data or, unlike earlier editors, one can choose to mention data not presented in full with the knowledge that that data will be instantly accessible to those who might wish to see it.

This can change the tipping point for inclusion in a print edition: there is no need for completeness for completeness’ sake – that need is digitally satisfied. And the full inclusion of materials of secondary or marginal interest is not required as a sentence of description can point the assiduous scholar to the relevant data online.

Editing is still about choices, but digital options allow the edited work to be richer by relegating, but not ignoring materials of less than central importance. Of course, deciding what is ‘central’ opens the editor to criticism and that is as it should be.

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