CEDAR (Critical Editions for Digital Analysis and Research) is a multi-project digital humanities initiative in which innovative computational methods are employed in textual studies. The CEDAR software tools and editorial procedures are being tested and documented by seven pilot projects before being made available to scholars more widely.
The CEDAR pilot projects involve more than forty textual scholars, Ph.D. students, and humanities computing experts at the University of Chicago and fifteen other universities in North America and Europe (16 UChicago scholars and 7 Ph.D. students from 6 different departments are working with 18 collaborators and advisors elsewhere). Each of the CEDAR project teams works closely with the CEDAR computational staff to develop methods suitable for their individual projects and, in many cases, generalizable to all projects.
Ellen MacKay, Associate Professor of English, and Jeffrey Stackert, Professor of Hebrew Bible, serve as the faculty co-directors at the University of Chicago to administer the CEDAR initiative. The primary contact for CEDAR is Miller Prosser, Associate Director of Digital Studies in the Division of Humanities of the University of Chicago (firstname.lastname@example.org).
CEDAR projects focus on literary corpora that have complex histories of composition, revision, and dissemination. The pilot projects are developing, testing, and documenting new methods of digitally representing and displaying the textual variations found in both hand-copied manuscripts and in printed copies of literary works. The software used by CEDAR can record and analyze in exhaustive detail every nuance of a text in both its epigraphic and its discursive dimensions and can keep track of the many possible editorial reconstructions and translations of such a text.
Phase One of CEDAR (2017‒2021) focused on three “canonical” corpora written in different historical periods using very different languages and writing systems: the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, and Shakespeare’s plays. Four more projects were added in Phase Two (2022‒2025): one ancient, on the Egyptian Book of the Dead; one medieval, on the Middle English poem Piers Plowman; one modern, on the works of Herman Melville; and a project on indigenous American sign systems that explores non-alphabetic and non-Western traditions of writing. In Phase Three, after the CEDAR software tools and procedures have been thoroughly tested and documented by these seven pilot projects, we will make them available to scholars in all fields who wish to contributed to an online series of digital editions published and maintained by the University of Chicago.
The culturally and chronologically diverse set of CEDAR pilot projects span ancient, medieval, and modern periods and Western and non-Western cultural traditions. They were chosen to demonstrate both the practical benefits of a shared computational platform for scholarly research and the corresponding intellectual benefits of jointly addressing a conceptual challenge faced by textual scholars in very different fields. The challenge is to design digital editions of literary works that preserve the hard-won achievements of traditional philology but open these works to new readings and new modes of analysis without suppressing any textual phenomena and without foreclosing alternative conceptualizations of texts and their intra- and inter-textual relations.
CEDAR does this via a state-of-the-art “graph database” representation of the internal epigraphic and discursive structures of each text, in all their complexity, as well as the external relations among texts and other cultural media through time and space. This innovative software can represent every textual nuance a scholar may wish to note and can model the most complex textual relationships, with proper attribution to each author, editor, translator, and commentator. The software used by CEDAR enables views of textual features and interconnections that are not possible in traditional printed editions or in other software available today. The result is a tool for research and teaching that goes beyond existing tools to achieve the vision of philology, in the fullest sense of the word, by enabling many possible mappings of processes and structures of textual composition, revision, and transmission, in all their rich complexity.
A Shared Platform for Scholarly Work
CEDAR makes use of the University of Chicago’s OCHRE database system, a powerful, thoroughly tested, and well-supported computational platform for scholarly and scientific research. OCHRE has been in operation for two decades without interruption. Enhancements to the platform were funded by a $1.75 million grant (2015–2019) from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure. Technical support, user training, data cleaning, data conversion, and long-term data storage are provided by the OCHRE Data Service, which is housed within the University of Chicago’s Division of the Humanities.
OCHRE is currently being used by more than 60 multi-person research projects at 17 universities in North America and Europe. It can integrate and manage large amounts of data of all kinds (texts, numeric data, 2D images, 3D models, audio, video, GIS raster and vector maps, etc.). It has many automated tools for cleaning, linking, displaying, and analyzing a project’s data; for publishing the data on the Web; and for archiving and preserving the data in standardized open formats (e.g., XML, JSON, RDF) with persistent URLs to ensure its usability and accessibility over the long term. The OCHRE servers are monitored and backed-up by professional system administrators in the University of Chicago Library.
Scholars in the humanities have long needed a technically sophisticated and well-maintained computational platform that can accommodate all kinds of information and facilitate the most complex scholarly tasks, and is also sufficiently flexible and customizable to serve a wide range of scholars in different fields of research. A shared platform of this kind, in which the same professionally engineered code-base meets the needs of a large number of people, enables economies of scale that are essential for sustaining and enhancing the software over time. This is in contrast to the motley assortment of idiosyncratic and incompatible software currently used in digital humanities, most of which serves only a few scholars and is not sustainable.
CEDAR demonstrates that the same underlying data model and software code can be used for research on very different literary corpora written in different historical periods using different languages and writing systems, and studied today by different communities of scholars. Digital images of original manuscripts as well as transcriptions, translations, and commentary are all stored and linked within the same platform, forming a well-organized, curated, and reusable body of data. Moreover, CEDAR projects can easily exchange data with other digital tools for literary studies via widely used standards such as the TEI textual markup format and the Semantic Web standards of the World Wide Web Consortium.
CEDAR project participants receive password-protected access to the OCHRE database to build and analyze text editions and to map textual variations in all their complexity with the aid of a feature-rich graphical user interface, without having to do any coding or entering of cryptic commands. To complement the content-building done by scholars on the back end, the OCHRE computational staff are developing open-source Web apps tailored for particular scholarly communities in ancient, medieval, and modern studies. These front-end apps will make it easy for scholars and students everywhere to view, search, and annotate the CEDAR texts, free of charge. The result will be a new kind of online critical edition that is not closed off but can grow and be supplemented by additional commentary, translations, images, and other media.
We are grateful to Paul Funk, not only for his generous financial contributions, but also for his intellectual contributions as an active member of the CEDAR technical staff and as an aficionado of early modern English literature. The CEDAR initiative is supported also by a grant from the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. The development of the OCHRE computational platform used by CEDAR has been supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure.