EESE 5/2001

Internet Teaching - Guest Editor: Thomas Kühn (Berlin)


Text, Source, Format. Electronic Texts and the Internet

Thomas Rommel (Tübingen)

This short essay summarizes the points made during a talk at Humboldt-Universität Berlin in 2000 at a workshop on the impact of the New Media on teaching in the Humanities and Arts. View web-based presentation now.


Electronic texts play an important role in literary and linguistic studies; their function as sources of reference and as teaching material cannot be underestimated. As a consequence, possible methodological problems involved in using electronic texts, i.e. digitized versions of prose, drama or poetry, in teaching and research have to be considered from a philological point of view.

Electronic texts in literary studies are often seen as books in digital form. Questions of accuracy apply in the electronic environment in much the same way as they do in the world of paper-based products. As with traditional printed texts, electronic texts need to adhere to certain standards of editorial integrity, i.e. the user needs to be aware that the corruption of either textual material or of tags can seriously limit research based on electronic files. The provenance of digital texts becomes the only guarantee of quality and integrity of both text and markup, and scholars need to be aware of the important role of the editor who provides the sole "stamp of approval". As electronic texts are rarely read in their entirety (few people read novels on-line, let alone peruse linguistic corpora in their entirety), a process of electronic verification can only be omitted in cases of undisputed quality of text files based on provenance and status of the editor.

Only then can electronic text files be used as (supplementary) material for stylistic analysis, i.e. any philological analysis interested in surface features of texts. The main focus of this kind of study is based on "empirical evidence" and analysis substantiated by a complete survey of all the text/s available, as opposed to the more impressionistic process of interpretation based on a study of selected passages only.

In addition to an evaluation of suitable programmes a number of fundamental differences between electronic texts and printed versions of the same material have to be considered in a discussion of digital literature: electronic texts cannot be archived in the same way that a library stores books. They come in formats that may be difficult to be converted without loss of data (text, character sets, tags), so migration may pose serious difficulties. In addition, electronic texts usually entail markup, i.e. meta-information on the text inscribed into the text. This meta information is usually specified in a DTD. Given the rapid change in the electronic environment and the development of SGML and XML, even documents with markup based on the recommendations of the TEI may prove difficult for archivists and librarians.

Electronic texts are perfectly suited to supplement traditional philological analysis; in addition, they provide means for a more extended analysis of what constitutes "text" in the age of digital reproduction.

The web-based presentation of the original paper given at the Berlin conference can be found here. View the web-based presentation:


Comments? contact the author Thomas Rommel.