The mass digitisation of our literary
heritage has resulted in both possibilities and problems for the literary
scholar. With the availability large-scale literary corpora comes the implicit
perception that digital surrogates yield the same information as the physical
object from which they were produced. But this is not the case. Scholars stand
to lose a great deal, including accuracy and credibility, by turning our backs on
the physical book. At the same time, however, increased access to masses of
literary data enables scholars to make computer-assisted queries that are
otherwise impossible. Computers can ‘read’ (for example) the literature of the
eighteenth century and with scholarly guidance and interpretation provoke fresh
insights into our understanding of literary history.
This talk describes examples of two
apparently contradictory approaches to literary study represented by the
computer and the book, and suggests that they are more similar than they
appear. Both are at heart inspired by a philological imperative to preserve our
cultural heritage and provide a means for its investigation.