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Such Stuff as Footnotes Are Made On

April 22, 2005

I am among the few professors who can identify a corrupt Shakespearean manuscript -- an inferior facsimile of Hamlet, say, that an Elizabethan actor recited to a printer in return for a beaker of ale. I would compare that manuscript to another version closer to the original, detecting phrases and locutions that better embody the Bard’s verbal genius.

Shakespeare never published his plays, of course. But some actors were better at remembering lines than others. Thus, several variants of a given work might exist. A good textual editor can discern which versions are “fairer,” or more authentic, than others more “foul” or corrupt.

I have been thinking about Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564, and died on that same date, at age 52. I’m age 52. By what measure will I be remembered by the digital literati with a research specialty like mine, seemingly worthless at the dawn of the Internet age?

Perhaps not totally. A few years ago at a university where I used to work a colleague was sending anonymous libelous memos, which I analyzed the way I used to review passages from plays. You see, over time, each of us develops a distinct textual signature. We may be given to odd phrases, locutions and colloquialisms, such as “in regards to” or “clearly, it seems” or “in cahoots with,” as in, “In regards to his annual review, clearly, it seems, John Doe is in cahoots with the Dean." Collect enough writing samples, and you can identify the likely source of such a sentence, just as you can discern a fair from foul excerpt of a Shakespearean play.

Granted, my application of textual analysis was trite compared with that of Shakespeare Professor Don Foster at Vassar College, known for outing journalist Joe Klein as the anonymous author of the 1996 book Primary Colors.  

In the case of the defamatory memo-writer, I ran suspect phrases through thousands of Eudora e-mails and identified the culprit. I did not turn him in, fearing the prospect of having to explain textual studies in a toxic workplace. Soon after the person left an original of his latest missive in the photocopier with his handwriting on back side of the recycled paper. I put a notice in the mail room that I knew who the person was and demanded that he cease and desist -- which, to my surprise, he did.

That one episode aside, my research acumen was meaningless in an era of cell phones, personal digital assistants, laptops, home computers, Internet, iPods, blogs, and other technological wonders. So I forsook iambic pentameter and focused my scholarship on Pentiums.

Last year I was fact-checking the final manuscript of my new book Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age  (Oxford University Press, 2005), when I found that 30 percent of my Web-based footnotes no longer functioned on the Internet. Footnotes malfunction for many reasons -- technicians reformat folders and redesign sites or, especially worrisome, revise content at the same online address.

That was the case in the introduction of my book with a reference to Microsoft’s mission statement, which I had retrieved in late 2001 from the Web. At the time it stated: "Microsoft and its employees recognize that we have the responsibility, and opportunity, to contribute to the communities in which we live, in ways that make a meaningful difference to people’s lives."

Two years later, Microsoft’s values apparently had changed. Now it vowed to show "leadership in supporting the communities in which we work and live."

The change in wording may be subtle, from Microsoft’s perspective, but it corrupted my citation. Any scholar checking my references would wonder whether I fabricated the footnote.

Alas, there was little I could do as an author writing about the Internet. Simply, I had to cite Web pages. I also had to rewrite my book manuscript for Oxford, but this time I printed out copies of Web sites used in footnotes and sent two thick binders to my editor to validate sources.

Then, working with a colleague, Assistant Professor Daniela Dimitrova, we documented the citation problem in a quantitative study that has been selected as a top paper in the technology division of the International Communication Association convention. We present our findings and recommendations on May 29 in New York City.

Our study is important news, especially for librarians, who have spent billions on computers and subscriptions to online journals whose footnotes often are as ethereal as Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, believed to be his last complete play.

The most famous line from that comedy -- "We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on" -- was recited by the magician Prospero after he makes a bevy of spirits vanish, to remind us that life is brief.

Our time here may be fleeting -- "Out, out brief candle!” -- but footnotes are not supposed to be. When online citations extinguish, every discipline is befouled, because replication, at the heart of the research process, becomes difficult without stable archiving, which libraries used to provide.

It was called a book shelf, as in Shakespeare’s day.

The Bard never published his works, perhaps because he did not trust the new medium of the printing press. It cut into his profits as a playwright, much the way Internet cuts into profits of Puff Daddy when digital pirates purloin his rap.

But there are also vast differences between the printing press and the Internet, especially when it comes to books. A book is the ultimate fire-walled medium, with exact printed copies distributed to libraries. Manipulate books in a library, and you are committing a crime — literally. Least we forget, there is a reason for that, which has to do in part with scholars needing the work for a reference. That is not the case with Internet, which allows a user to select, copy and paste original works into a folder called "My Documents," as if that user had authored them.

Now imagine if Google digitizes entire libraries. True, computer patrons will be able to copy and paste text from books—and then re-write and re-distribute variants via the Internet -- but in time, who will be able to distinguish fair copies from foul derivatives?

I would, thanks to my doctorate in English.

Bio

Michael J. Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.

 

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