Posted on 19th October 2017 by mjkurzmeier

Are you a reader or a user?

With the advent of mass digitization, powerful portable devices and great interest by publishers and researchers alike, digitized and born-digital content has become ever more important. The following is a brief look at the user in the context of digital editions, especially scholarly digital editions.

In the broadest sense, digital editions are born out of a necessity. In various discussions in class (about the history of E-book-readers), arguments were made that E-books were closely modeled after a print book and that their marketing focused on technical advantages such as storage. In fact, an early article envisioning a sphere of digitized books as a surrogate for McLuhan’s Gutenberg galaxy:

Imagine how much the Blair students could have accomplished by now in their three-semester course in Independent Research if they could have downloaded whole books, if they had not been limited to the offerings of libraries nearby. Suppose that they could easily hook up with an electronic version of the whole Library of Congress. In fact, suppose that millions of other students, parents–anyone–could retrieve technical tomes, novels, articles–almost anything ever published. (Rothmann)

While Rothmann’s vision has mostly come true through the modern Internet, over time this approach that saw digital editions as more convenient clones of print has changed towards the notion that digital editions can be editions independent and fundamentally different from print. Still it is important to note that Rothmann saw scholarly research as one of the prime fields for this new technology to take hold. This new technology would ultimately not only produce new devices (E-book readers) but also new modes of reading, especially for scholarly editions.

Christian Stinne and Greve Rasmussen in their work on digital editions investigate different modes of reading for scholarly editions. To do so, they develop a bi fold model of text and work. Following a definition from Hans Walter Gabler, text is understood “as a recording or inscription that represents the work”. (Rasmussen 121) Work then is described as follows:

A work is an immaterial entity that serves as a gathering point for all the texts that we classify under a certain title. (ibid)
Access to a work can thus only be facilitated through text, of which another three divisions exist (ideal text, real text, material text). Mediating these different texts in an attempt to create a coherent work is the role of the editor. This work of (re)creation in a print edition produces a work fixed both temporally and spatially. For Stinne and Greve, this will produce the role of a reader who is mainly interested in scholarly editions as reliable academic versions of literary works. Such a reader will seek to interpret and understand the work in and through the texts of a scholarly edition. The degree of interpretation can vary, from the pleasure reading of an ordinary interested reader to a professional reader’s deeper hermeneutical interpretation. (127)

It is important to note that the role of the reader is favored by a print format, but not restricted to it. What makes the difference between a reader and what Stinne and Greve call a user is the motivation and modes of accessing the text:

The user also seeks an understanding of the work, but in a more intertextual context, where stress is placed either on the relation between the work’s numerous texts and versions, or on the relation between the work’s own texts and other texts that explain or relate to the work. (ibid)

Those different modes of engagement in turn allow for the distinction of scholarly editions, digital or print, into static information or interactive knowledge sites. (124) The recourse to Gabler’s concept of information and knowledge sites creates two different ways of engagement and divides the audience in readers and users. The mentioned hypertextuality is not limited to one kind of material text, but describes a structural phenomenon that relies on references and a network of other sites to create a work.
Structurally, we can tie in this argument with the more general notion of the blurring lines between archive, collection and edition:

Certainly, it is now uncontroversial to suggest that, like editors of scholarly editions, archivists shape our interactions with the archive.” […] While the archivist has always occupied a multifaceted role as scholar, editor, publisher, steward, and collaborator, archival work in the digital age has further blurred these roles. (Clement et al. 114)

Quite contrary, Joris van Zundert describes the effect of digital scholarly editions as the combines vectors of textual research and technological expertise. For him, the intersection leads to the development of a common creole (van Zundert 87), a “smallest common denominator” that will affect the outcome of a digital edition. If this new vocabulary is too small, both sides will miss out on the opportunity to learn new methods and approaches to their data.

Van Zundert understands the danger of the digital scholarly edition as a lack of hypertextuality which leads to a mere reproduction of a book in digital form. Structurally analyzing the process, he sees the task not in translation but in transformation. The work, to be constructed from the texts, can only be adequately described by a configuration of nodes, a decentralized network of texts. In his analysis, the hypertextuality of the edition is of central importance. This approach is potentially suited to explain forms of participatory print culture such as the Whole Earth Catalog (Turner), and static “books on the web”.

It must be noted that Stinne and Rasmussen understand print as favorable of certain modes of reading, as much as they describe digital scholarly editions as favorable of others. Perhaps the worlds “print” and “digital” are better substituted with “textual” and “hypertextual” to do justice to the granular approach. While they see a potential growth in modes of reading, van Zundert fears a loss of in-depth text engagement that will lead to Rothmann’s version of text on a screen but not to a hypertextual document.

What we are seeing in this debate about different modes of reading is maybe a combination of McLuhan’s concept of media emulation and the before mentioned blurring of formerly distinct roles. Add to this the advent of “hidden” editors such as search engines and automated text processing tools, and I think we might being to get a better understanding of this confusion. I advocate that all reading in a network society (Castells) already is hypertextual reading, except for media that we experience in emulation. That is not to say that the digital does not intensify this process nor that it is deterministic, but that discussions about modes of reading based on the materiality or virtuality of the text must be aware if this.


Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed., With a new pref, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Clement, Tanya, et al. “Toward a Notion of the Archive of the Future: Impressions of Practice by Librarians, Archivists, and Digital Humanities Scholars.” The Library Quarterly, vol. 83, no. 2, Apr. 2013, pp. 112–30. CrossRef, doi:10.1086/669550.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Rasmussen, Krista Stinne Greve. “Reading or Using a Digital Edition?” Digital Scholarly Editing, 1st ed., vol. 4, Open Book Publishers, 2016, pp. 119–34,

Rothmann, David R. “Information Access for All. What If TV Sets Cost a Little More, Computers Almost Nothing, and Everyone Could Tap into National Databases Containing Anything in Print?” Computerworld, July 1992,

Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

van Zundert, Joris. “Barely Beyond the Book?” Digital Scholarly Editing, 1st ed., vol. 4, Open Book Publishers, 2016, pp. 83–106,