As smart phones and tablets assume an ever-larger role in browsing the web, “responsive design” has become a hot topic among web designers. How far is it possible to design a single web site that can adapt its display depending on the characteristics of the reading device? Are there times when it’s simply necessary to maintain separate resources for phones vs. large-screen computers?
Designers of digital scholarship face even more demanding requirements. We know that we will replace our digital technologies, but it’s part of our responsibilities to preserve and transmit the scholarly record we work with. Our predecessors have not always set an ideal example for us. The work of Hellenistic scholars of the Iliad like Aristarchus of Samothrace was originally composed for papyrus scrolls. By the time of our earliest complete manuscripts of the Iliad, the tenth and eleventh century, the standard form of “publication” was the codex, or manuscript book. In a large codex, the wide margins offered invitingly convenient space to annotate the Iliadic text with selected notes from earlier scholars, as we see in the famous Venetus A manuscript.
As a consequence, virtually all ancient scholarship on the Iliad ceased to be copied as separate texts, and is today known to us only from the snippets preserved in these marginal notes, or scholia. The convenience of this early “hypertext” technology led directly to the loss of important scholarly work.
This illustrates a fundamental and somewhat paradoxical principle that should guide all our work on digital scholarship: it must be technology-agnostic. Well designed digital work will be machine-actionable, but will also be capable of expressing its content when moved to other media, even non-digital media.
One area where we must apply this principle rigorously is in our citation practice. It is tempting to yield to the convenience of using a URL to refer to on-line work: after all, with a URL we can immediately see some kind of response in a web browser.
But this convenience is as dangerous as the medieval scribes’ use of the margins of manuscripts for scholia. URLs are addresses: they will change or vanish; more fundamentally, the web that they point to will ultimately vanish (and, on a time scale that looks back to Aristarchus of Samothrace and other scholars of the library at Alexandria, it will certainly vanish sooner rather than later).
I’ve worked over the past several years with colleagues at the Center for Hellenic Studies to develop a URN notation for citing texts. (Some formal documentation is beginning to appear here ) URNs offer a formally specified notation for referring to some kind of resource, without reference to any particular technology. One of my favorite examples is the ISBN, which can be expressed with URN syntax. Many computer applications work with ISBNs: sales clerks in book stores read them with bar-code scanners, and you can search Amazon or bookfinder.com by ISBN for example. But until a few years ago, I routinely filled out request forms at my college bookstore by hand-writing ISBNs on a paper form, and they functioned perfectly well in that analog environment.
The Canonical Text Service URN (or CTS URN), like an ISBN, is a formally specified machine-parseable reference, but at the same time a simple text string that can be read by human beings and used outside of a digital environment. I have successfully disseminated URNs using chalk on blackboards, and pen on the back of a napkin. But since a CTS URN is also machine actionable, it can be passed in to a Canonical Text Service to retrieve cited passages of text. When our form of citation is not tied to a specific technology, we are free to imagine previously unforeseen re-uses of that material. Would it be handy if the printed copy of a book you want to carry with you were augmented with URNs represented as QR codes you could point your smart phone at to read a cited text? I don’t know, but it would not be difficult to implement. The QR code at the top of this blog entry represents the CTS URN