an Application of Distributed Version Control Technology toward the Creation of 50,000 Digital Scholarly Editions

Jonathan Reeve

Columbia University

The British Library Corpus

  • ~49,500 scanned and OCRed books from the British Library
  • Not available online—shipped through the mail on a hard drive
  • Largest ever (soon-to-be) downloadable digital literary corpus?
  • Enormous potential for text mining, digital literary studies
Histogram of Publication Years
Histogram of Publication Years


Unshared corpora

  • Corpora are not often shared in DH
  • This makes DH experiments unrepeatable
  • Bad science!


Etexts lack editorial history

  • Especially early Project Gutenberg texts
  • Who edited a text? When? Where?
  • What edits were made?


Corpora are difficult to assemble

  • Compiling a corpus of, say, 19th century Bildungsromane, traditionally requires manually assembling and cleaning texts
  • This process should be automated


Centralized data stores ("data silos")

  • What happens when the site goes down?
  • When the project loses funding?
  • e.g. TextGrid



<String ID="P21_ST00004" HPOS="138" VPOS="151" 
WIDTH="67" HEIGHT="34" CONTENT="Thy" WC="1.00" CC="000"/>
<SP ID="P21_SP00002" HPOS="205" VPOS="185" WIDTH="21"/>
<String ID="P21_ST00005" HPOS="226" VPOS="152" 
WIDTH="210" HEIGHT="28" CONTENT="self-oblation" WC="0.87" CC="0030010105102"/>
<SP ID="P21_SP00003" HPOS="436" VPOS="185" WIDTH="19"/>
<String ID="P21_ST00006" HPOS="455" VPOS="155" WIDTH="114" 
HEIGHT="26" CONTENT="earned" WC="0.95" CC="000200"/>
<SP ID="P21_SP00004" HPOS="569" VPOS="185" WIDTH="18"/>
<String ID="P21_ST00007" HPOS="587" VPOS="155" WIDTH="49" 
HEIGHT="27" CONTENT="the" WC="1.00" CC="000"/>
<SP ID="P21_SP00005" HPOS="636" VPOS="185" WIDTH="21"/>
<String ID="P21_ST00008" HPOS="657" VPOS="155" WIDTH="63" 
HEIGHT="27" CONTENT="love" WC="0.83" CC="0600"/>


Distributed Version Control (Git)

  • Logs the history of every edit, editor, revision
  • Stores the complete state of the text at every revision
  • Decentralized: repository-agnostic
  • Allows for democratic scholarly editing

Git is MacGyver

Git is MacGyver
Git is MacGyver


Git Submodules

  • Allow arbitrary curation of texts into collections
  • E.g. 18th Century British poetry
  • Collections aren't necessarily mutually exclusive



  • Allows for easy discoverability of corpora
  • Enables issue tracking, charting of contributor networks
  • Allows for viewing and editing files directly in the browser


ALTO -> Markdown -> Jekyll ->

  • Allows casual editing of the text in markdown
  • Creates beautiful web editions for each text via

Call for Contributions