Fun at the National Library

During October, the National Library of Scotland held an exhibition on Banned Books. I went a long and was amazed at some of the titles that have been banned, censored or challenged over the years. I spotted several of the books that I studied as part of my school curriculum on the list of most challenged books in America. I’m really glad I went to the exhibition and feel I got a lot out of the experience. I look forward to future exhibitions at the NLS.

The National Library are currently holding a programme of lectures and workshops under the heading ‘What are you reading?’ and so on the 9th of November I attended a talk entitled ‘Textual Editing in Principle and Practice’. Split roughly into two sections: ‘Why do we edit books?’ and ‘How do we edit books?

It asked the audience to consider the following questions:

Why does a research library hold so many copies of the same title?

What difference does it make?

The first section ‘Why do we edit books?’ sought to explain why scholars go back and edit texts and to show how and why errors can creep in as the book goes through the production process. Discussing her work on ‘The Edinburgh edition of the Waverley novels’ by Sir Walter Scott ( with particular reference to ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian’, Dr Alison Lumsden first explained a little of the process involved in producing the original version of ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian’. When the books were originally published, Scott had them published anonymously which meant that when his manuscripts arrived at the Ballantyne printers they were first transcribed so as to hide Scott’s distinctive handwriting. During this process it was not unusual for something to be misread or for errors to creep in. This was not helped by Scott’s reliance on the compositors to add in punctuation and normalise his sometimes idiosyncratic spelling. Ballantyne also acted as an editor and proofs would be passed back and forth between the two till a final copy was settled on. Every time the words were copied, transcribed and re-copied the potential for errors to creep in was ever constant.

The aim of ‘The Edinburgh edition of the Waverley novels’ was to remove the non-authorial content and restore them to what they felt Scott had originally intended.

Some 100,000 variants were present from first edition to last edition. In order to find all these variants, all the copies they could find were compared against the original manuscript and variants were noted down on collation sheets. This produced large amounts of excess information and white noise as no changes were made at this stage. This was purely a fact-finding mission.

Some of the issues that had led to the numerous variants were as follows:

Scott’s handwriting can be hard to read at times. He had issues with vowels that look similar and can be easily confused. He sometimes forgot to cross the letter t and his m’s and n’s frequently broke down into a series of up strokes next to each other.

Intermediaries were given permission to correct and normalise Scott’s spelling but they sometimes missed when he was doing it on purpose for example when the main heroine in ‘The heart of mid-lothian’ asks about how to address the queen. She asks should she say “her leddyship, as we say to laird’s ladies in Scotland” but this was edited so that it said instead “her leddyship, as we say to lairds and ladies in Scotland.”

Dr Anthony Mandel from Cardiff University talked about ‘How do we edit books?’ and started by giving a little background to editing as a practice. He said that it was a relatively recent phenomenon in the western world that began in the 19th Century and centred more on the principle of editing a text to make it aesthetically pleasing. He went on to explain a little of the process of scholarly editing under the heading of ‘The Practice of editing’.

The Practice of editing

1) Locating reliable source texts (witnesses)- notebooks, proofs, landmark editions etc

2) Establishing a suitable base text (copy text).

There were two possible approaches to this: The author centric approach which relied on the use of earlier witnesses, and the social practice approach which relied on the use of later witnesses. He did warn however that this equation does not always hold true.

3) Prepare the base text in digital format for edition

This involved: Keyboarding or scanning (twice), proof-reading both visual and accoustic, and the application of a standard house style (i.e. use of quotation marks and the spacing of paragraphs)

4) Comparison (collation) of witnesses and base text – the differences are then recorded on collation sheets.

5) List of all variants in a historical collection – no decisions made at this point, purely a fact-finding mission.

6) Construction of a ‘stemma’ showing how the text relate – a stemma is a bit like a family tree.

7) Applying editorial readings to the edited text and the compilation of a list of endemations, the correction of errors, omissions or non-authorial changes. Difficulties arise however when an author can be seen to self-censor, it can be difficult to decide which text best shows the author’s original intent.

8 ) Preparation of the final edited text according to a style sheet.

9) Preparation of supplementary material such as intros, list of endemations, explanatory notes and glossaries to name a few.

He then went on to identify and explain some of the software that they are using in the reconstruction of Stephenson’s canon of 39 volumes in which they hope to show the development of his work. This included using skype, cloud-computing and windows live groups. They are using a programme called ‘Juxta’ to collate the different versions and at all levels there is a human monitoring the process. They are then using InDesign to tidy up the text and make it aesthetically pleasing.

All in all, it was a really interesting talk and I’m really glad that I went. I’m also now really sad that the workshop related to it in December is fully booked. I wasn’t quick enough off the mark this time round to secure myself a place. I think in future I’m going to be keeping a keen eye on the NLS website.