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Collaboration & Dissent

Text encoding as practiced in the digital humanities world sits at the juncture of humanities scholarship—textually nuanced, exploratory, and introspective—and digital technology, with its emphasis on formalism and upward scale. As such it is a foundationally collaborative technology: it presumes the need and the desire to make individual insight widely communicable in a form that permits its extension, critique, and reuse. But the mechanisms for achieving this result in practical terms are complex and require thoughtful balancing of the needs, respectively, of the individual and the community. Over the past 20 years, the research of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and its user community has been centered on developing these mechanisms and thinking about their operation and consequences, not only in abstract terms but through specific tools and practices. Through an examination of these tools and practices and the history of their development, we can learn a great deal about how collaborative systems work in the context of digital humanities research.

This paper will examine the TEI's framing motivations and the specific mechanisms—intellectual, social, and technical—through which they have been realized during the course of the TEI's development. In particular it will consider the practice of customization, through which the TEI manages both the representation of the TEI language as a standard and the processes of dissent and expansion through which it is modified by its users. In an important sense, this customization mechanism encapsulates the central challenge of collaborative work, and even of language itself: that of how to balance the urge toward individual expressiveness with the mandates of public comprehensibility, the desire for individual agency against the need for community.


Julia Flanders is a professor of the practice in English and the director of the Digital Scholarship Group in the Northeastern University Library. She also directs the Women Writers Project and serves as editor in chief of Digital Humanities Quarterly, an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal of digital humanities. Her apprenticeship in digital humanities began at the Women Writers Project in the early 1990s and continued with work on the development of digital humanities organizations such as the Text Encoding Initiative and the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. She has served as chair of the TEI Consortium and as President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities. She has also taught a wide range of workshops on text encoding and served as a consultant and advisor on numerous digital humanities projects. Her research interests focus on data modeling, textual scholarship, humanities data curation, and the politics of digital scholarly work. She is the co-editor, with Neil Fraistat, of the Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, and is currently co-editing, with Fotis Jannidis, a book on data modeling in digital humanities.