Digital Medievalist 8 (2012). ISSN: 1715-0736.
© Grant Leyton Simpson, 2012. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence

Kiernan, Kevin. 2011. Electronic Beowulf 3.0. London: British Library. DVD-ROM. ISBN 9780712351010. $45/£25.

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Commissioned Review

Commissioning Editor: Rebecca Welzenbach, University of Michigan.
Received: 2012-05-28
Revised: 2012-09-11
Published: 2013-02-11

Keywords: Beowulf; electronic edition; scholarly editing; usability.


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§ 1     Electronic Beowulf 3.0 is the second physical release of Kiernan’s edition, the initial 1999 release being the first (Electronic Beowulf 2.0 was a freely available download that provided enhanced browser compatibility). The release, programmed by Ionut Emil Iacob, consists of a single DVD, designed for both Windows and Mac OS X and a short manual (Supplemental materials are available at the project’s website, http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/studyingbeowulfs/overview). It is the first release of a major Old English electronic edition since Bernard Muir’s 2006 Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. For a time leading up to its release, it was known as Electronic Beowulf Student Edition. This new update offers Old English researchers and students a wealth of resources—and beautiful new high-resolution images—in a package that functions on modern web browsers.

§ 2     Though delivered on disc, the edition’s software implementation is rooted in the technologies of the web. It should be noted that there is no technical reason that this edition needed to be released on disc rather than being hosted on the web (save perhaps the speed at which the high resolution images would load). The interface, which consists of a frame-heavy HTML document that hosts JavaScript code and a Java applet for navigation, is rather dated.

Figure 1: The edition’s interface, opened to the beginning of Beowulf. The edition’s interface, opened to the beginning of Beowulf.

At the time of the release of the first edition, Java applets were a popular way to implement consistent dynamic interfaces on the web, as early JavaScript implementations were notoriously inconsistent between browsers. It is unfortunate, however, that the interface was not updated to contemporary standards. In fact, the Java applet itself has not changed significantly since Electronic Beowulf 1.0: a comparison of the decompiled Java code from both versions shows that differences consist chiefly of light refactoring done to make the code more readable. There is no need for a modern application built upon web technologies to use Java (or Flash or Silverlight, for that matter) to accomplish even the most complicated tasks, much less the simple navigational tasks it is used for in this case.

§ 3     The interface has been simplified and users are now taken right into the Beowulf portion of the Nowell Codex after clicking through a splash screen. This is a welcome change. It is clear that pains have been taken to provide a more attractive and usable design. More work in that direction would have been appreciated. The graphic design elements are a bit dated and the body font, Arial, is just not attractive enough to bear reading for any extended length of time. Navigating the edition can be a challenge. For example, the usability of the forward and backward buttons is marred by the fact that they subtly shift positions to accommodate a text box directly to their left. This text box contains the name of the current leaf (or page, in the case of some of the supplementary materials) and the lines of the poem on that page. When the length of that string changes, it can push the buttons to the right. Depending upon where on the button the user has pushed, he or she could find him or herself clicking on a different button. For example, clicking on the leftmost part of the forward button when the current leaf being shown is “Edition 132r, 92-113,” means that the cursor is now on the back button when the text changes to “Edition 132v, 113-134.” This reviewer found himself alternating between the two sides of this leaf for several clicks rather than advancing. In addition, it is not very clear what certain buttons do, which limits the learnability and memorability of the interface; that a square means “show textual notes” and an oval means “conjectural emendation” is not self-evident.

Figure 2: Navigation buttons (circled, top left hand corner) move slightly as pages turn (see video capture available here). Navigation buttons (circled, top left hand corner) move slightly as pages turn (see video capture available here).

§ 4     There is a wealth of material to explore on the DVD-ROM. The whole of Cotton Vitellius A. Xv. is available in image form, along with both a transcription and an edition of the poem. The images have been greatly improved and now bear much close scrutiny at high resolution. Images of the Thorkelín transcripts and Madden’s and Conybeare’s notes recorded in their copies of Thorkelín’s edition of the poem are also included. The text of the edition proper is encoded in HTML rather than in TEI, which is a missed opportunity. A TEI-based edition could have had rich information about the poem encoded directly into the text of the edition in a format that others could have mined and made use of in ways not explicitly accounted for by the editor. The “student edition” heritage of this release can be seen throughout the edition’s new features, which include definitions for and parsing of individual words, as well as translations and metrical analysis of each line (this review was conducted using the latest versions of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari on Mac OS X Lion, and the latest version of Internet Explorer on Windows 7. The Java code was inspected using Emmanuel Dupuy’s Java Decompiler. Chrome users will find that most of these features do not work in that browser.). These features are invaluable to those studying the poem for the first time. As generations of users of Klaeber’s glossary have learned, having confirmation of one’s interpretation of a word is quite helpful in the process of reading this challenging poem. Kiernan and Iacob’s contextual information about each word is a generous gift to those whose paper copies of Beowulf show a great deal of wear to the back pages.

§ 5     At a retail price of $45/£25, adding it to one’s research collection is an easy decision. This price point also makes it possible to assign it in graduate seminars. The high-resolution manuscript images alone are worth the cost. This reviewer only wishes the interface were attractive and usable enough to do justice to the beauty of those images.