The William Blake Archive
Editorial Principles: Methodology and Standards in the Blake Archive

Milton, copy D, plate 1, Library of Congress

It makes sense to see the Blake project as an extension of ongoing archival, cataloguing, and editorial enterprises into a new medium in order to exploit its radical advantages. Until the late twentieth century there was no base of knowledge and technology sufficient to conceive, much less execute, an adequate comprehensive edition of the work of a multimedia artist. The dominant tradition of Blake editing has been overwhelmingly literary. The historical Blake, a printmaker and painter by training who added poetry to his list of accomplishments, has been converted, editorially, into a poet whose visual art is acknowledged but moved off to the side where it becomes largely invisible, partly because of what one of Blake's first critics, the poet Swinburne, called "hard necessity"—the technological and economic obstructions that have prevented the reproduction of accurate images in printed editions. On the art-historical flank a productive scholarly tradition of cataloguing has been complementary to but largely disconnected from its editorial counterpart on the literary flank. Consequently, many students and even professional scholars know either the textual or visual side of Blake's work but not both, despite their interconnections at the source. Methodologically, the William Blake Archive is an attempt to restore historical balance through the syntheses made possible by the electronic medium. We believe that the resulting archival editorial prototype can help transform access to the art and literature of Blake's era as it helps to transform scholarly approaches to Blake. The methodology and the standards associated with it are, we believe, in line with this claim.

The editors have been working on several fronts to change the dominant editorial mode. The collective facts and arguments of four books, Essick's Separate Plates of William Blake (Princeton, 1983) and Blake's Commercial Book Illustrations (Oxford, 1991), Eaves's The Counter-Arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (Cornell, 1992), and Viscomi's Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, 1993) have helped to lay the groundwork for the editorial transformation that the electronic Blake Archive is designed to accomplish.

In 1993, we made an initial trial of our basic editorial principles and procedures in two printed volumes, William Blake: The Early Illuminated Books and William Blake: "Milton a Poem" and the Final Illuminated Works. Their reproductions, based on large-format transparencies, were rigorously controlled for color fidelity, and we devised a multi-layered editorial apparatus that we thought optimized the presentation of books in which graphic and textual elements converge. Some fundamental tenets of the editorial approach that we applied to the printed volumes seemed precisely correct for the Blake Archive, and we have adopted and extended them; others, including the principle of selection, were almost inconceivable in print but are within the reach of electronic editions.

Principles of inclusion: Our printed volumes in the Blake Trust series presented the best current information about the production of Blake's individual illuminated books, drawn chiefly from Viscomi's revisionist scholarship. But in those volumes it was not feasible to reproduce more than a single copy of each work—and many of the copies most relevant to the history of production have never been reproduced. We are building the Archive on principles that, while we cannot ignore practical limitations that apply to electronic scholarly resources as to any other kind, incorporate a history of Blake's artistic production for the first time into an edition.

As we indicate in the Plan of the Archive (see Significance), we chose the illuminated books as our starting point for several reasons: their historical and artistic value, the editorial and technical challenges they present, their relative coherence as an extensive group, the difficulties that their fragility and their widely dispersed present locations have created for scholars, and the need for a new map of their place in Blake's lifetime of artistic labor. We saw the illuminated books, once we had substantially achieved our first-phase goal of including one copy from every printing of every book, as a kind of archival and editorial backbone for the project.

That backbone supports a twofold strategy: to evolve along lines that will achieve the greatest possible coverage of the range of Blake's work while at the same time maintaining the greatest possible degree of scholarly coherence. (Maximizing the usefulness of our image- and text-searching tools is only one of several good reasons for doing so.) We maintain coherence by expanding the core with works that are closely related (historically, thematically, physically, etc.) to the core, and by giving priority to significant interrelated clusters (clustered by medium, such as the large color prints of 1795, by subject or theme, such as the Job and Milton illustrations in several media, etc.). Whenever possible, we assemble these individual clusters into larger ones. Consider, for example, Blake's work as a printmaker in several graphic media. By expanding outward from the core of the illuminated books (typically watercolored relief etchings) to the other works designed and engraved by him, and then to those designed by him but engraved by others, and finally to those designed by others but engraved by him, we aim to maintain coherence while gradually achieving the desired scope. We shall also incorporate Blake's typographical works, which are all rare or unique.

For details of our plans for expansion, see the Plan of the Archive.

Fundamental units: The priority that we grant to the media, methods, and histories of artistic production has dictated a feature of the Archive that influences virtually every aspect of it. It is utterly fundamental: we emphasize the physical object—the plate, page, or canvas—over the logical textual unit—the poem or other work abstracted from its physical medium. This emphasis coincides with our archival as well as with our editorial objectives.

Those central principles have too many implications to discuss fully here, but suffice it to say that they shape the entire editorial strategy, from the underlying structure of the XML architecture, to the treatment of texts and pictures, to the user's dynamic position among those texts and pictures. The part-to-whole path reinforced by print—which typically starts with a reading of Blake's "poems" (often, in fact, transcriptions extracted from illuminated pages) and may or may not move along to a later, secondary look at "illustrations" (which often turn out to be a predetermined editorial selection of the pictures that seem most relevant to the words)—is reversed.

Perhaps the best way of describing our methodology is to present a brief account of some of its consequences, as they shape the choices available. (For a brief pictorial guide illustrating the major points in the discussion below, see our Tour of the Archive.) A user looking for a work in the Archive typically moves down through the XML hierarchy that is fundamental to the design of the whole. The user selects Works from the primary Table of Contents page. From the Works in the William Blake Archive page, the user selects a category from this comprehensive list:

Currently Available:

  • Illuminated Books
  • Commercial Book Illustrations
    • Designed and Engraved by Blake
    • Designed by Blake and Engraved by Other Engravers
    • Engraved by Blake after Designs by Other Artists

  • Separate Prints and Prints in Series
    • Designed and Engraved by Blake
    • Designed by Blake and Engraved by Other Engravers
    • Engraved by Blake after Designs by Other Artists
    • Color Printed Drawings

  • Drawings and Paintings
    • Pencil Sketches
    • Pen and Ink Drawings
    • Monochrome Wash Drawings
    • Water Color Drawings
    • Paintings

  • Manuscripts and Typographic Works
    • Manuscripts
    • Letters
    • Typographic Editions
  • Related Materials

The user then proceeds hierarchically to an index of available works in that category. Selecting a particular work (say The [First] Book of Urizen) in turn produces an index of copies available in the Archive (currently six of the eight existing copies, from five collections). From this "generic work-view" page the user can link to a bibliography (for the work Urizen) or to information About the Work, which provides a brief introduction and a full list of the existing copies of that work and their current locations.

Selecting one plate from an index of plates in a copy of Urizen, the user moves to a reproduction of the physical object, perhaps plate 2 of copy F, from the Houghton Library at Harvard. This, the "object view," is the fundamental level of the Archive, to which all else is oriented. Here we integrate the reproductions of individual objects into an array of tools and information sources that allow further investigation of the physical object itself and of its meanings in context. Each tool and information source has a designated place within the total scheme, and each is available to the user by means of a hypertextual link.

From this point, our object-centered methodology can be most readily seen in the guidelines and standards we apply to the editing of texts, the reproduction of pictures, and the informational contexts that we supply for both, and, finally, in the tools we give users to create their own information.

Edited texts: Transcriptions of texts are, in the terms of textual criticism, as "diplomatic" as the medium allows. That is, in line with the archival dimension of our project, our texts are conservative transpositions of the original into conventional type fonts, retaining not only Blake's capitalization, punctuation, and spelling, but also (for the first time in a complete edition) an approximation of his page layout. Unlike printed editions of Blake, which have typically chosen among the textual features of various copies to produce a single printed text, the texts in the Archive are specific to individual objects: each transcription is of a particular page or plate or sheet of drawing paper in a particular copy and no other. The arrangement and the contents of Blake's books and other works often vary markedly from copy to copy, version to version. (The [First] Book of Urizen is the easiest example—the arrangement of the plates is different in every copy, altering both the order of designs and the narrative sequences.) In general, printed editions such as Erdman's must not only extract text from objects that are composites of text and design and convert them to conventional type but also must represent "the work" as a single work—The [First] Book of Urizen—rather than as a collection of different visual and textual orders under one title. In such printed editions, differences are relegated to the editorial apparatus. In the Blake Archive, users can easily compare the texts of different etched, drawn, or painted copies side by side. As far as our transcriptions are concerned, however, our aim is to provide straightforward approximations—searchable and analyzable representations. We must recognize that they are, however accurate, necessarily approximations, simply because any transcription of Blake's irregular etched texts into the uniformities of conventional print is at best a translation. We feel no need to resort to elaborate typography and editorial sigla, the "barbed wire" that Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson famously protested in modern scholarly editions, because the Archive permits users to examine transcriptions right beside superior reproductions of the originals. We recognize that transcriptions are convenient approximations: they cannot simulate or replace originals. 

Images: Fidelity in the reproduction of images is a top priority. Reproductions can never be perfect, and our images are not intended to be "archival" in the sense sometimes intended—virtual copies that might stand in for originals after a fire. But we recognize that, if we are going to contribute as we claim to the preservation of fragile originals that are easily damaged by handling, we must supply reproductions that scholars can depend upon in their research. Hence our benchmarks produce images accurate enough to be studied at a level heretofore impossible without access to the originals. In side-by-side comparisons, images in the Archive are more faithful to the originals in scale, color, and detail than the best photomechanical (printed) images in all but the most extraordinary instances. Our standard calls for high-quality born-digital images or first-generation color transparencies in 4" x 5" format or larger, with color bars and gray scales. Once digitized (at 600 dots per inch [dpi] in uncompressed TIFF format in a file that serves as the archival master for permanent storage), each raw image file is color-corrected against the transparencies—which are themselves checked against the originals—by one of the editors on professional equipment designed and calibrated for that purpose. The main object-view page provides reproductions at 100 dpi compressed in JPEG format. That resolution is sufficient for most purposes and requires graphics files of modest size that facilitate downloading and movement from image to image. The enlargement (from the enlargement button at the bottom of every object-view page), which on most systems takes a few seconds longer to load for viewing, is 300 dpi (JPEG). The enlargement yields superb detail for close inspection of printing and coloring. Our standards of reproduction are, in short, as high as we believe they can be under the circumstances.

The structural priority we are granting to the physical object is apparent in our response to the art-historical principle that scale can be a significant aspect of the experience and meaning of an object. Thus we account archivally and editorially for the original size of Blake's works, whether plates, paintings, drawings, manuscripts, or printed pages. We have done that in two ways, by displaying the actual size of every object directly beneath it, and by providing ImageSizer, a Java applet available from every object-view page. Retrieving the virtual object at its actual size is tricky, given the drastic differences among computer systems. ImageSizer allows the user to calibrate and adjust, very simply, the size of any object—to display its actual size, or the size that fits the screen, or any convenient smaller or larger size.

Contextual information: The Archive strives to be much more than the gateway to a vast pile of accurate reproductions and faithful texts. This would be "access" and "preservation" of a kind, but not a very useful kind, because access depends largely upon information. The Archive does its best to live up to the principle that works of art make sense only in context: the texts in the context of the pictures and vice versa, one illuminated book in the context of others, illuminated books in the context of drawings and paintings, and all of Blake's works in the context of historical information about them. Thus each object in the Archive is embedded in several sources of information, some layered, some overlapping, and some discrete, but all directly relevant to the "works" that are the contents of the Archive.

Copyright information: Copyright may seem editorially frivolous, but it follows directly from our emphasis on physical objects, which raise property issues that could be largely ignored by Blake's literary editors when dealing with a "writer" long dead. The prominence of material objects in our schema also inevitably means that our daily editorial reality involves us in dealings with the owners of these objects for permissions and photography. The success of the edition heavily depends on our ability to provide an electronic environment where museums and collectors feel that their images are both well displayed and safe. We return copyright of the color-corrected digital images themselves (with file copies of those images) back to the owner institutions (see our Contributing Collections). Considering the volatile state of international electronic copyright, controversies over fair-use policies, and owners' fears of illicit copying, we have come to regard our copyright policy as a key part of our editorial policy—thus all users must indicate explicit agreement with the conditions of use, including copyright restrictions. Moreover, a detailed copyright notice is linked to every reproduction from the object-view page (the link is the copyright symbol beneath the image). Additional copyright information is linked to the Info button beneath each image.

Information about using the Archive: Detailed instructions are available to the user from all relevant pages (from the Help button; see our Help Documentation). To improve clarity, we have augmented verbal instructions and explanations with graphics, such as annotated screen images. About the Archive offers extensive supplementary materials, including, among much else, the Archive at a Glance and an illustrated step-by-step Tour of major features.

Bibliographical information and metadata: Each image appears along with its full bibliographical information (production history, physical characteristics, provenance, present location) at the level where that information becomes most relevant (work, copy, plate, page, etc.). Thus a user looking for The Book of Thel will find information about that work (comprising all its copies, or instances) linked to the "work" page. But all instances of the work are indeed embodied in physical forms—"copies." Copy information—on, say, copy O of The Book of Thel—is linked to every plate of that copy. When there is significant discrete information about the individual object, that is provided by a link from the dimensions that appear below it. ImageSizer is also configured to deliver (at the Info button just beneath the image) several kinds of information about the image. In addition to the owner, present location, contact information, and copyright restrictions, the information includes a precise history of the production of the reproduction itself from physical object to electronic image via photography, scanning, and color correction. This administrative metadata, the "image record," is embedded in the image file itself and travels with the image (if downloaded, for instance).

Information about designs: The Archive provides information about Blake's pictures in several complementary forms at more than one level. Although information cannot be completely separated from interpretation, our emphasis is strongly on information and hence on description. (If interpretations are added to the Archive at some stage, they will be identified as such.) The meticulous descriptions themselves may have considerable significance, however. Many interpretations have been based on weak, partial, or mistaken impressions of what appears in the designs. And again, users do not have to depend ultimately upon our textual descriptions; when in doubt, they may examine the enlargements from one or more copies. General but fairly comprehensive descriptions of each image are available from the Illustration Description link on every object-view page—including, for example, the minute interlinear designs of Blake's illuminated books.

Inote, which can be invoked from each illustration description, will bring up the pertinent illustration in a separate window, with access to more elaborate descriptions of individual details within illustrations. The importance of images and their contexts to the project registers powerfully in this Java applet—developed at IATH and configured to the needs of the Archive—which is available from every object-view page and from the illustration-information window. By means of a location-grid/overlay metaphor, Inote makes it possible to view whole images, components (details) of images, and descriptions of any or all of them. When the user of Inote clicks on any sector of the image, the descriptions of all components in that sector appear. These descriptions are, again, specific to the image being displayed; they are not general descriptions that average (or enumerate) the differences among plates across various copies (instances) of a work. This level of object-specific description has never been attempted before. Inote is also used extensively in image searches (see below). (For technical details see our Technical Summary.)

User-generated information: The principle that information and access are correlative is nowhere more evident than in the user's ability to conduct comprehensive searches on texts and images in the Archive. The power of those searches depends upon the information (about the content of designs, for instance) that we provide; users can employ that information in turn to gain access to additional information and, ultimately, to create new combinations of information relevant to their specific interests (in Blake's use of a visual and/or textual motif, for example).

Text searches: From most pages in the Archive, including all object-view pages, the user can launch searches for any text in the Archive. The aim is to make all texts in the Archive searchable. Searches produce lists of matches or "hits" indexed by category, work, copy, and plate; choosing among those, the user is taken to transcriptions where the search-terms are highlighted in color. The search mechanism is, again, oriented to the individual object. (Users who want more conventional text searches that treat a poem as a single "work" have the option of searching the electronic version of Erdman's print edition in the Archive.)

Image Searches: Similarly, the user can launch searches for virtually any combination of details in any and all of Blake's images. This capability—unique as far as we know—has been made possible by combining the resources of XML, Inote, our search engine, and a system of image description, developed by the editors, which employs a controlled vocabulary of characteristics. (For an explanation of how we arrived at our system, see Plan of the Archive, History, year 2, 1996-97.) These search terms are organized for easy reference in a set of commonsense categories (figure, including character types and names, postures, gestures, etc.; animal; vegetation; object; and structure). The user can define a search using up to 19 terms at once (thus, for instance, simply "male"—a huge category—or, more limited, "bearded" "nude" "males" who are "crouching" in "fire" and "holding" "swords"). Like a text search, an image search produces a list of hits; choosing among those, the user is taken to textual descriptions of particular image details and then, choosing among those in turn, taken (via Inote) to plates zoomed to specific image-details displayed alongside the pertinent descriptions. At the zoomed image, all the functions of Inote are available should a user wish to explore the whole image in which the detail appears or study any or all of the other descriptions associated with the image.

A final word on our editorial methodology. Although the Blake Archive is constructed on an archival editorial rationale that we believe is sound and fully justified, the overriding goal of the editors is not the maintenance of theoretical purity but the creation of a superlatively useful and durable scholarly (and pedagogical) resource that will be available free to all who have the means of access. Thus, although our online discussion group blake-proj is full of daily debates over minute editorial issues, we had no difficulty agreeing that we should incorporate David V. Erdman's standard printed edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake and make its texts searchable right along with the rest of the Archive. Though it is a fine edition in its own terms, we are including it not because it jibes with our theories about editing Blake but because we want the Archive to be much more than an edition, and we want it to be as convenient as possible to its users, who will often visit the site with Erdman's edition as their point of departure. By similar reasoning, we have provided an extensive bibliography of reference works, biography, and criticism that we revise and augment at intervals; a brief biography of Blake; a glossary; and a step-by-step account of his illuminated printing process—a few of what we hope will be many supplementary study aids.

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