Collaborative editing of texts online

The collaborative editing of texts is central to the Early English Laws project. The complexity of the texts means that they are often best served by a team of editors taking an interdisciplinary approach. In addition to historians and language specialists, palaeographers, anthropologists, sociolinguists and lawyers all have an important perspective to bring to the task. And these researchers may well not be based in the same country, or even on the same continent.

The team at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) is developing a bespoke system to allow this collaborative editing to occur online, but last Wednesday Jenny and I had the chance to look at a service being developed in Germany, TextGrid ( Dr Stuart Dunn at the Centre for e-Research, King’s College London, is working on a JISC-funded ‘use case’ project, TEXTvre, which aims to foreground the needs and practice of researchers in the development of e-infrastructure (see for more information). The project is focusing on TextGrid, and the developing TextGridLab toolkit, which is still in its beta version. Stuart has been talking to the teams responsible for a number of digital editing projects, including EEL.

The potential offered by TextGrid and other virtual research environments or collaborative editing platforms of this type is immediately obvious, but whatever the possibilities, ease of use will be crucial to their adoption by historians and other scholars in the humanities. I’ve been involved in a number of projects where the tools that are supposed to make project management and research easier end up becoming an obstacle to clear communication, usually because one or more members of the team opts out completely on the grounds of difficulty. The TextGrid interface was familiar and intuitive, presenting complicated options and functionality in a way which would not scare a researcher who has only previously used MS Word. Roles were easy to assign (editor, author, etc.) and both text and images straightforward to upload. The ability to link from the text of an edition to a specific point on a manuscript image simply by drawing a box around it (automatically capturing that link in the underlying XML) will be of enormous value to projects such as ours which seek to connect images, editions, commentary and translation.

There were multiple options for interacting with the text of our test edition, from the traditional XML view, to a view which hid all of the XML encoding, to a very easy to navigate hybrid which offered an excellent insight into XML for researchers new to digital editing. Of course, there were any number of new features that we would like to see, including clear differentiation between the contributions of different editors and a highlighter tool, but that’s precisely what the TEXTvre project is about. We very much look forward to Stuart’s report, and will add a link from this blog post when it’s available.

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