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Workshop on Electronic Texts


The Workshop on Electronic Texts1 drew together representatives of various projects and interest groups to compare ideas, beliefs, experiences, and, in particular, methods of placing and presenting historical textual materials in computerized form. Most attendees gained much in insight and outlook from the event. But the assembly did not form a new nation, or, to put it another way, the diversity of projects and interests was too great to draw the representatives into a cohesive, action-oriented body.2

Everyone attending the Workshop shared an interest in preserving and providing access to historical texts. But within this broad field the attendees represented a variety of formal, informal, figurative, and literal groups, with many individuals belonging to more than one. These groups may be defined roughly according to the following topics or activities:

This summary is arranged thematically and does not follow the actual sequence of presentations.


1 In this document, the phrase electronic text is used to mean any computerized reproduction or version of a document, book, article, or manuscript (including images), and not merely a machine- readable or machine-searchable text.

2 The Workshop was held at the Library of Congress on 9-10 June 1992, with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The document that follows represents a summary of the presentations made at the Workshop and was compiled by James DALY. This introduction was written by DALY and Carl FLEISCHHAUER.

Preservation and Imaging

Preservation, as that term is used by archivists,3 was most explicitly discussed in the context of imaging. Anne KENNEY and Lynne PERSONIUS explained how the concept of a faithful copy and the user-friendliness of the traditional book have guided their project at Cornell University.4 Although interested in computerized dissemination, participants in the Cornell project are creating digital image sets of older books in the public domain as a source for a fresh paper facsimile or, in a future phase, microfilm. The books returned to the library shelves are high-quality and useful replacements on acid-free paper that should last a long time. To date, the Cornell project has placed little or no emphasis on creating searchable texts; one would not be surprised to find that the project participants view such texts as new editions, and thus not as faithful reproductions.

In her talk on preservation, Patricia BATTIN struck an ecumenical and flexible note as she endorsed the creation and dissemination of a variety of types of digital copies. Do not be too narrow in defining what counts as a preservation element, BATTIN counseled; for the present, at least, digital copies made with preservation in mind cannot be as narrowly standardized as, say, microfilm copies with the same objective. Setting standards precipitously can inhibit creativity, but delay can result in chaos, she advised.

In part, BATTIN's position reflected the unsettled nature of image-format standards, and attendees could hear echoes of this unsettledness in the comments of various speakers. For example, Jean BARONAS reviewed the status of several formal standards moving through committees of experts; and Clifford LYNCH encouraged the use of a new guideline for transmitting document images on Internet. Testimony from participants in the National Agricultural Library's (NAL) Text Digitization Program and LC's American Memory project highlighted some of the challenges to the actual creation or interchange of images, including difficulties in converting preservation microfilm to digital form. Donald WATERS reported on the progress of a master plan for a project at Yale University to convert books on microfilm to digital image sets, Project Open Book (POB).

The Workshop offered rather less of an imaging practicum than planned, but "how-to" hints emerge at various points, for example, throughout KENNEY's presentation and in the discussion of arcana such as thresholding and dithering offered by George THOMA and FLEISCHHAUER.


3 Although there is a sense in which any reproductions of historical materials preserve the human record, specialists in the field have developed particular guidelines for the creation of acceptable preservation copies.

4 Titles and affiliations of presenters are given at the beginning of their respective talks and in the Directory of Participants (Appendix III).

The Machine-Readable Text: Markup and Use

The sections of the Workshop that dealt with machine-readable text tended to be more concerned with access and use than with preservation, at least in the narrow technical sense. Michael SPERBERG-McQUEEN made a forceful presentation on the Text Encoding Initiative's (TEI) implementation of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). His ideas were echoed by Susan HOCKEY, Elli MYLONAS, and Stuart WEIBEL. While the presentations made by the TEI advocates contained no practicum, their discussion focused on the value of the finished product, what the European Community calls reusability, but what may also be termed durability. They argued that marking up--that is, coding--a text in a well-conceived way will permit it to be moved from one computer environment to another, as well as to be used by various users. Two kinds of markup were distinguished: 1) procedural markup, which describes the features of a text (e.g., dots on a page), and 2) descriptive markup, which describes the structure or elements of a document (e.g., chapters, paragraphs, and front matter).

The TEI proponents emphasized the importance of texts to scholarship. They explained how heavily coded (and thus analyzed and annotated) texts can underlie research, play a role in scholarly communication, and facilitate classroom teaching. SPERBERG-McQUEEN reminded listeners that a written or printed item (e.g., a particular edition of a book) is merely a representation of the abstraction we call a text. To concern ourselves with faithfully reproducing a printed instance of the text, SPERBERG-McQUEEN argued, is to concern ourselves with the representation of a representation ("images as simulacra for the text"). The TEI proponents' interest in images tends to focus on corollary materials for use in teaching, for example, photographs of the Acropolis to accompany a Greek text.

By the end of the Workshop, SPERBERG-McQUEEN confessed to having been converted to a limited extent to the view that electronic images constitute a promising alternative to microfilming; indeed, an alternative probably superior to microfilming. But he was not convinced that electronic images constitute a serious attempt to represent text in electronic form. HOCKEY and MYLONAS also conceded that their experience at the Pierce Symposium the previous week at Georgetown University and the present conference at the Library of Congress had compelled them to reevaluate their perspective on the usefulness of text as images. Attendees could see that the text and image advocates were in constructive tension, so to say.

Three nonTEI presentations described approaches to preparing machine-readable text that are less rigorous and thus less expensive. In the case of the Papers of George Washington, Dorothy TWOHIG explained that the digital version will provide a not-quite-perfect rendering of the transcribed text--some 135,000 documents, available for research during the decades while the perfect or print version is completed. Members of the American Memory team and the staff of NAL's Text Digitization Program (see below) also outlined a middle ground concerning searchable texts. In the case of American Memory, contractors produce texts with about 99-percent accuracy that serve as "browse" or "reference" versions of written or printed originals. End users who need faithful copies or perfect renditions must refer to accompanying sets of digital facsimile images or consult copies of the originals in a nearby library or archive. American Memory staff argued that the high cost of producing 100-percent accurate copies would prevent LC from offering access to large parts of its collections.

The Machine-Readable Text: Methods of Conversion

Although the Workshop did not include a systematic examination of the methods for converting texts from paper (or from facsimile images) into machine-readable form, nevertheless, various speakers touched upon this matter. For example, WEIBEL reported that OCLC has experimented with a merging of multiple optical character recognition systems that will reduce errors from an unacceptable rate of 5 characters out of every l,000 to an unacceptable rate of 2 characters out of every l,000.

Pamela ANDRE presented an overview of NAL's Text Digitization Program and Judith ZIDAR discussed the technical details. ZIDAR explained how NAL purchased hardware and software capable of performing optical character recognition (OCR) and text conversion and used its own staff to convert texts. The process, ZIDAR said, required extensive editing and project staff found themselves considering alternatives, including rekeying and/or creating abstracts or summaries of texts. NAL reckoned costs at $7 per page. By way of contrast, Ricky ERWAY explained that American Memory had decided from the start to contract out conversion to external service bureaus. The criteria used to select these contractors were cost and quality of results, as opposed to methods of conversion. ERWAY noted that historical documents or books often do not lend themselves to OCR. Bound materials represent a special problem. In her experience, quality control--inspecting incoming materials, counting errors in samples--posed the most time-consuming aspect of contracting out conversion. ERWAY reckoned American Memory's costs at $4 per page, but cautioned that fewer cost-elements had been included than in NAL's figure.

Options for Dissemination

The topic of dissemination proper emerged at various points during the Workshop. At the session devoted to national and international computer networks, LYNCH, Howard BESSER, Ronald LARSEN, and Edwin BROWNRIGG highlighted the virtues of Internet today and of the network that will evolve from Internet. Listeners could discern in these narratives a vision of an information democracy in which millions of citizens freely find and use what they need. LYNCH noted that a lack of standards inhibits disseminating multimedia on the network, a topic also discussed by BESSER. LARSEN addressed the issues of network scalability and modularity and commented upon the difficulty of anticipating the effects of growth in orders of magnitude. BROWNRIGG talked about the ability of packet radio to provide certain links in a network without the need for wiring. However, the presenters also called attention to the shortcomings and incongruities of present-day computer networks. For example: 1) Network use is growing dramatically, but much network traffic consists of personal communication (E-mail). 2) Large bodies of information are available, but a user's ability to search across their entirety is limited. 3) There are significant resources for science and technology, but few network sources provide content in the humanities. 4) Machine-readable texts are commonplace, but the capability of the system to deal with images (let alone other media formats) lags behind. A glimpse of a multimedia future for networks, however, was provided by Maria LEBRON in her overview of the Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials (OJCCT), and the process of scholarly publishing on-line.

The contrasting form of the CD-ROM disk was never systematically analyzed, but attendees could glean an impression from several of the show-and-tell presentations. The Perseus and American Memory examples demonstrated recently published disks, while the descriptions of the IBYCUS version of the Papers of George Washington and Chadwyck-Healey's Patrologia Latina Database (PLD) told of disks to come. According to Eric CALALUCA, PLD's principal focus has been on converting Jacques-Paul Migne's definitive collection of Latin texts to machine-readable form. Although everyone could share the network advocates' enthusiasm for an on-line future, the possibility of rolling up one's sleeves for a session with a CD-ROM containing both textual materials and a powerful retrieval engine made the disk seem an appealing vessel indeed. The overall discussion suggested that the transition from CD-ROM to on-line networked access may prove far slower and more difficult than has been anticipated.

Who Are the Users and What Do They Do?

Although concerned with the technicalities of production, the Workshop never lost sight of the purposes and uses of electronic versions of textual materials. As noted above, those interested in imaging discussed the problematical matter of digital preservation, while the TEI proponents described how machine-readable texts can be used in research. This latter topic received thorough treatment in the paper read by Avra MICHELSON. She placed the phenomenon of electronic texts within the context of broader trends in information technology and scholarly communication.

Among other things, MICHELSON described on-line conferences that represent a vigorous and important intellectual forum for certain disciplines. Internet now carries more than 700 conferences, with about 80 percent of these devoted to topics in the social sciences and the humanities. Other scholars use on-line networks for "distance learning." Meanwhile, there has been a tremendous growth in end-user computing; professors today are less likely than their predecessors to ask the campus computer center to process their data. Electronic texts are one key to these sophisticated applications, MICHELSON reported, and more and more scholars in the humanities now work in an on-line environment. Toward the end of the Workshop, Michael LESK presented a corollary to MICHELSON's talk, reporting the results of an experiment that compared the work of one group of chemistry students using traditional printed texts and two groups using electronic sources. The experiment demonstrated that in the event one does not know what to read, one needs the electronic systems; the electronic systems hold no advantage at the moment if one knows what to read, but neither do they impose a penalty.

DALY provided an anecdotal account of the revolutionizing impact of the new technology on his previous methods of research in the field of classics. His account, by extrapolation, served to illustrate in part the arguments made by MICHELSON concerning the positive effects of the sudden and radical transformation being wrought in the ways scholars work.

Susan VECCIA and Joanne FREEMAN delineated the use of electronic materials outside the university. The most interesting aspect of their use, FREEMAN said, could be seen as a paradox: teachers in elementary and secondary schools requested access to primary source materials but, at the same time, found that "primariness" itself made these materials difficult for their students to use.

Other Topics

Marybeth PETERS reviewed copyright law in the United States and offered advice during a lively discussion of this subject. But uncertainty remains concerning the price of copyright in a digital medium, because a solution remains to be worked out concerning management and synthesis of copyrighted and out-of-copyright pieces of a database.

As moderator of the final session of the Workshop, Prosser GIFFORD directed discussion to future courses of action and the potential role of LC in advancing them. Among the recommendations that emerged were the following:


The Workshop was valuable because it brought together partisans from various groups and provided an occasion to compare goals and methods. The more committed partisans frequently communicate with others in their groups, but less often across group boundaries. The Workshop was also valuable to attendees--including those involved with American Memory--who came less committed to particular approaches or concepts. These attendees learned a great deal, and plan to select and employ elements of imaging, text-coding, and networked distribution that suit their respective projects and purposes.

Still, reality rears its ugly head: no breakthrough has been achieved. On the imaging side, one confronts a proliferation of competing data-interchange standards and a lack of consensus on the role of digital facsimiles in preservation. In the realm of machine-readable texts, one encounters a reasonably mature standard but methodological difficulties and high costs. These latter problems, of course, represent a special impediment to the desire, as it is sometimes expressed in the popular press, "to put the [contents of the] Library of Congress on line." In the words of one participant, there was "no solution to the economic problems--the projects that are out there are surviving, but it is going to be a lot of work to transform the information industry, and so far the investment to do that is not forthcoming" (LESK, per litteras).

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