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How to Read with Hypertext: Building and Using New Alexandria

Charles Pletcher

Columbia University

The New Alexandria project is an open-source project by the Center for Hellenic Studies that combines commentaries, editions, and textual traditions into a multidimensionaltool for scholars and readers alike. In this talk, we will discuss New Alexandria’s technical architecture and its benefits for those studying, editing, and commenting on ancient texts. Specifically, we will use the example of building a commentary and a text with apparatus criticus to demonstrate the capabilities of New Alexandria for scholars of ancient works.

At its core, New Alexandria transforms works written in the TEI XML standard into a format that resembles the ContentState schema developed for Draft.js. Each work consists of an array of “blocks” (roughly speaking, a block is a line in a work of poetry or a paragraph in prose) and an “entity map.” A block can reference multiple entities and place them across different spans of the block’s text. An entity can be anything: additional text (e.g., a hypertext app. crit. or simply a note), a video, an image, etc. Both works and entities can be versioned, allowing them to evolve independently. These structures allow us to describe complicated texts in simple ways: as ordered lists and hash tables. Because they map transparently into JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) objects, we can easily manipulate and study them as raw data.

This JSON-oriented schema is less verbose than TEI’s XML, and it decouples text, commentary, critical apparatus, etc. In TEI, each entry in a critical apparatus is embedded in an <app> element, which in turn has its own sub-embeddings (TEI §12). New Alexandria’s schema is completely agnostic about a given entity’s shape, only requiring start and end points and a rendering function, which can be supplied by the entity itself. By convention, these start and end points map directly onto CTS URN citations-style citations, making it easy for multiple entities to reference a single block and vice versa. New Alexandria allows readers to engage with ancient texts as open rather than closed texts that encourage collaboration and interdisciplinarity. In some ways, New Alexandria extends the core concepts of the Homer Multitext to the commentary tradition. By combining a diachronic approach to text and commentary, New Alexandria makes it possible to see how variations among manuscripts shape what we call a “text” as well as how interpretations around a given text evolve.

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