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TEI-L  March 1991

TEI-L March 1991

Subject:

Comments on Critique by Literature Working Group

From:

John Lavagnino <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Text Encoding Initiative public discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 4 Mar 91 11:57:00 EDT

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (101 lines)

I've been wondering at the lack of response on this list to the report
released last month by the Literature Working Group.  Here, at any rate,
are my comments on the most important issues they suggest---which skip
over the questions they raise about the content and audience of TEI P1,
and about its relation to actual software, because my notes on those
subjects would add nothing to what Michael Sperberg-McQueen says in his
Valentine's Day progress report.
 
 
1) ``The Perspective of the Literature Scholar'' as seen by the Working
   Group
 
The group's report rests on an assumption about what the encoding of
literary texts is for, and how it's done, that doesn't reflect the
breadth of actual practice.  Section 1.B of their report talks about the
``pragmatics of work on literature texts'' and states their assumption:
that the only reason you enter literary texts into a computer is to make
mechanical analyses of large amounts of previously-edited text.
 
This is one kind of work the TEI guidelines need to support.  But it's
not the only one, and other kinds of work have different needs, which
aren't taken into consideration by the group when they make many of
their absolute statements about what should and should not be.  For
example, they assert that descriptive markup is always preferable.
Their argument sounds dubious to me even for the kind of work they're
talking about; but it's entirely irrelevant for the editors of
modernized texts, in which the encoding can indicate the meaning rather
than the appearance with ease and certainty---because the editor who
chooses to italicize a word is alive and present, ready to swear to a
belief that it is a foreign word.
 
This is not a trivial application.  The number of modernized texts that
is produced is far greater than the number of critical editions; and
having them available in a standard electronic encoding would be of
great value.  But the Working Group's report assumes that this kind of
work does not exist and is not of interest---a position it takes with
respect to lots of other computer applications that literature scholars
have thought up.
 
In justification for this position, the report claims that the survey
conducted by the Working Group revealed that everybody agrees with them
in wanting a very minimal markup, and in opposing the general
distribution of texts containing interpretive information: ``Literature
scholars are not interested in, in fact many object vehemently to, the
perspective of obtaining texts which already contain - explicitly or
implicitly - literary interpretations. The responses and comments
elicited by the Survey bear eloquent witness to this.''
 
This claim is false.  The report released by the Working Group on their
survey turned up, on the question of interpretive information, 15 people
who considered it ``essential'' or ``important,'' and 20 who thought it
``should not be included.''  This does not justify the group's sweeping
claim about what all literary scholars want.  What that report instead
shows is that some people think an encoding for interpretive information
is a splendid idea---the Survey elicited eloquent comments to this
effect---and that others hate the idea.  The Working Group should sort
out for us the reasons behind both positions, and suggest how to
accommodate both groups of scholars.  Instead, they've decided that one
group of scholars just doesn't matter.
 
 
2) The Working Group's notion of the TEI's value
 
The Working Group also seems pretty convinced that you'd never want to
follow the TEI guidelines for anything except writing tapes to ship off
to the Oxford Text Archive; that they're obviously not appropriate for
``local'' use.  Their report asserts that the guidelines are only for
``interchange and possibly archival purposes''---``interchange'' here
evidently meaning ``between distantly-separated people,'' and never just
``between programs on your computer,'' as TEI P1 1.1.3 suggests.  The
report tells us: ``SGML should not take precedence over the needs of
scholars.''
 
I find this surprising: the Working Group never seems to have considered
that SGML---or some encoding standard for use in literary programs---is
itself a need of scholars.  I always assumed that standardization would
help to bring us better software for literary computing, because it
would make it possible to get general tools for processing texts; right
now you can only use the ones designed for the particular encoding
you've chosen, or invented locally.
 
The Working Group seems to think that it's better if we all use
incompatible home-grown encoding (and hence use only software we've
written locally), and translate to SGML only for communication with the
outside world.  (Of course, if it's only for such communication nobody's
ever going to use it.)  The only justifications they give for local
encoding are archaic: it's easier to type; you can read it, whereas SGML
encoding of any complexity is hard to read.  These are not serious
arguments against a scheme which is not intended for data entry and is
not intended to serve as a visual representation of a text for people to
read.  I, at least, am sticking with SGML.
 
 
John Lavagnino
Department of English and American Literature
Brandeis University
Waltham, MA  02254   USA
 
Internet:  [log in to unmask]
Bitnet:    lav@brandeis

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