Days 31–34, August 24th–28th: stemmas of sagas, and happy birthday World Wide Web!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 174/252

So you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much the last few days. That’s because I locked myself in the Goon’s flat and have been working lots! Mostly this has been the usual stuff, like supervising and marking and trying to keep Leeds Studies in English under control.

Page from AM 524 4toBUT, at last, I also have something to show for my labours! Seriously diligent readers will recall that back in the 2009 travelblogue I was talking about drawing family trees of the manuscripts of medieval Icelandic sagas so that you can find about about who was copying what off whom, and why. I made optimistic posts like this one, and weary but still somehow optimistic posts like this one. I may even have said ‘It’ll be over by Christmas’.

Well, two years later I’ve FINALLY finished the first of what will no doubt be a long trickle of draft articles about these bloody manuscript family trees. WOO! Click here for a working paper of

Making Stemmas with Small Samples: Testing the Stemma of Konráðs saga keisarasonar, and New Media Approaches to Publishing Stemmas

Stemma of Konráðs saga keisarasonar

Erm, but obviously only if you’re one of the three people in the world who actually have an interest in the family trees of Icelandic saga manuscripts.

* * *

The thing is, right, a century ago, if you really wanted to share your ideas with the world, you had to find someone with enough capital and know-how to print your ideas and distribute them to libraries and bookshops around the globe. It wasn’t an ideal way of moving ideas around, but it was better than just talking to your mates in the pub, and it was better than having to get out your quill every time you wanted to communicate beyond shouting distance. And if someone was going to put in all that capital and know-how to put you in print, you had to make sure your ideas were pretty highly polished first.

Distribution of Konráðs saga manuscripts in north-west IcelandTwenty years ago this month, the World Wide Web came online to reinvent that process. These days, if I really want to share my ideas with the world, the last thing I want to do is go to a publisher: I can do the job quicker and better by putting my work online, free access. Not that you’d know from the way most humanities scholars still work. But, besides the convenience of being able to link to my work from my blog, or Facebook, or, or wherever, I can also be assured that Google and the like will do their jobs, ferrying my ideas to the people who want to read them—people who didn’t even know they wanted to read them, people who I never knew existed.

Publishers, once the very trade winds of thought, ironically these days mostly exist to limit the circulation of ideas.* Although they’re starting to wake up to the twenty-first century, the usual attitude is still that it’s only by making ideas a limited good that they can turn a profit on them. But here in the technological backwater that is humanities research, publishers have another function too. Having a bit of publisher capital behind you is still seen as an irreplaceable imprimateur of quality: to new ideas, a publisher can add a veneer of old school style, a touch of class, a Low-Countries name that still echoes the intellectual ferment of the Reformation, or the pleasingly nineteenth-century whiff of printed paper and dusty shelves. In the humanities, our libraries can’t afford the books that we ourselves publish, but we keep publishing them anyway.

Die Gedanken sind frei!So here’s the halfway house that me and others like me have reached. We finish a decent draft of a paper and put it online for the real intellectual activity to take place—the criticisms, the suggestions, the discussions. Then, once that’s all done and dusted, we polish it up and get that olde worlde publisher stamp put on it so that it can rest quietly in a library, hallowed by the esteem of the establishment, and so that we can put it on our applications for promotion.

This particular working paper is actually kind of all about how ideas used to circulate, and about what you can do with online publication. Unfortunately, it’s a very boring paper, so it’s not much of a tribute to the vision of Tim Berners-Lee. But it’s something! And if you do have anything by way of criticisms or suggestions, do please let me know! In the comments below or by email.

*I should admit that, having inherited the Leeds Studies in English enterprise, I have myself found that I am a publisher, a link in the shackles of this very system. But, on the plus side, all Leeds Studies in English articles up to 2009 are now online, free access. With book reviews and early numbers of Leeds Texts and Monographs to follow. Woo! I haven’t made any grand announcements yet because we’ve still got some technological problems. But still, it’s progress.


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5 Responses to Days 31–34, August 24th–28th: stemmas of sagas, and happy birthday World Wide Web!

  1. Pingback: Days 51–58, September 14th–21st: libraries, ego-trips and elves | alarichall

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  3. Pingback: Reikult og rótlaust stemma | My first conference paper in Icelandic! | alarichall

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