William Proctor Williams

The distinguished bibliographic and textual scholar William Proctor Williams, author of An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies, visited the Blackfriars for a Q&A session today, and I’m pleased to say that I got to sit in on it. Over the course of the session, Williams addressed questions related to Early Electronic Books Online (EEBO), and by students interested in creating their own editions of some early-modern works for performance and/or publication.


On the question of EEBO, Williams talked about some of the problems he had with the collection. “The problem with EEBO is that it is digitizing from microfilm, which was done badly over a period of about 70 years,” he says. The manuscripts were initially photographed to microfilm, and then the EEBO collection was created using microfilm, but the quality of the microfilm itself may have bad. This process is still being done, and the Williams feels that the quality and accuracy of the procedure is “not great.” He cites an instance of reading through a large book and discovering that the text stopped abruptly, and he found himself through another large book; attributing this to the original photographers leaving a text half-finished over night, and not remembering which text to start from the next day.


Williams highlights some other problems with EEBO: you can’t tell anything about the paper, blind strikes (when the type made a mark on the paper, but there was no ink on the type), and that you can’t use the Povey system (which lets you see where type has pressed through the paper, and thus can help determine which side was printed first). More recent online databases, such as Shakespeare Quartos Online, do color photo scans of quartos without resorting to microfilm copy. Williams concludes that “A print on your wall of the Mona Lisa doesn’t have any effect on the Mona Lisa. That’s what EEBO is. It’s a copy of a document, and we need to think about it as such. These databases are really good for some things.”


On the topic of preparing editions, Williams says “I am an editor, and we do terrible things, and that’s why things need to be re-edited.” The myth of a definitive edition is exactly that because no one edition will serve all circumstances. When asked how one should treat a text for which the author is unknown (by yours truly), Williams replied to “treat it like Hamlet.” Williams also asserts that “No play was ever printed from foul papers, and feel free to quote me on this, no printer would accept it.” Printers couldn’t afford to have their apprentices spend time trying to decipher a playwright’s individual hand, and so the material they set their type from still would not have come from the hand of the author. Since all texts of the period went through fundamentally the same editing process, there is no reason to treat the texts any differently.


Thanks to William Proctor Williams for answering our questions, and to Paul Menzer from Mary Baldwin College’s M.Litt/MFA program for arranging this event.