Notes on Jerome McGann, “The Rationale of Hypertext”

Main Idea

In his essay, McGann argues that a hypermedia archive is the ideal type of digital archive. Hypermedia programs have the ability to include relevant audial, visual, or other textual documents within its system. This type of organization allows for scholars and other researchers to “escape the focus on a single text,” and easily explore related evidence and topics during their research. Additionally, hypermedia is open to alterations at any time, allowing its editors to change its contents and organization as needed.

McGann highlights the Rossetti Archive as an example of a hypermedia archive. As you can see with Rossetti’s poem “Adieu,” the archive offers many resources for the scholar to examine: the copy of the manuscript, scholarly commentary, and hyperlinks to learn about other types of his related works. As you click on other hyperlinks and move throughout the archive, even more hyperlinks and multimedia become available to the scholar.  

Side Note: See McKenna’s Practicum on The Rossetti Archive for more information

Screenshot taken from The Rossetti Archive on Feb. 26, 2022 by Rachael Davis

In order for hypermedia archives to become the norm, McGann encourages others to do the following with their digital projects:

  1. Design it in terms “of the largest and most ambitious goals of the project,” rather than staying confined to the immediate or contemporary hardware and software options
  2. Create a flexible design structure so the project and its system will not be drastically affected as hardware and software evolve throughout time

The Issue with Physical Books

McGann states that current scholarly editions, such as facsimile editions and those with notes and contextual information in the margins, limit the scholar during their analysis. Due to its purely bookish form, the edition’s author strictly constrains the scholar to the information they provide as they analyze the sources. Hypermedia programs avoid this type of engagement with sources because the documents are organized in a “noncentralized form,” which means no source is privileged over the others — it is created to “disperse attention as broadly as possible.”

What are Facsimile Editions?

I honestly had no idea what these were until I read this article! However, these types of books try to make an exact copy of the original text through photographic reproduction.

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For example, companies like Marvel and DC often create facsimile editions of their comics that include its original cover, story pages, as well as the original advertisements that were featured in the comics at the time of publication.

McGann argues that these editions have minimal analytic power, since it “stands in a one-to-one relation to its original,” but are usual for increasing access to rare works.

What are Critical and Commentary Editions?

We’ve all read Shakespeare in high school English class, right? The Folger Shakespeare Library editions were the first thing that came to mind when I read this!

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For example, the Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet includes explanatory notes placed on pages facing the text of the play, scene-by-scene plot summaries, and more to help the reader understand the writing. However, while McGann states that these editions are helpful, he also states they are difficult to read and use.

The author of the edition has to “invent analytic mechanisms that must be displayed and engaged at the primary reading level.” Additionally, if the reader wants to “hear the performance of a song or ballad” mentioned within the text, McGann points out that the reader cannot. This is where hypermedia archives and programs come in and flex their power.


While hypermedia archives and programs have their own set of issues, like questions of copyright, McGann believes that scholars will use this method and technology for a long time.

Hypermedia allows scholars to break away from their traditional “single focus” analysis and employs them a vast study space that contains an array of documents and endless possibilities in their research. As McGann says, hypermedia resembles a “circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

“The change from paper-based text to electronic text is one of those elementary shifts — like the change from manuscript to print — that is so revolutionary we can only glimpse at this point what it entails… The computerized edition can store vastly greater quantities of documentary materials, and it can be built to organize, access, and analyze those materials not only more quickly and easily, but at depths no paper-based edition could hope to achieve. At the moment these works cannot be made as cheaply or as easily as books. But very soon, I am talking about a few years, these electronic tools will not only be far cheaper, they will also be commonplace” — Jerome McGann

Discussion Questions

  1. As McGann states, hypermedia has the ability to evolve and change over time, as well as gather new material. If you were a scholar doing academic research with a hypermedia archive, what issues might you face with this factor, if any? How would it affect your analysis? OR how would it benefit your research? 
  2. If students and scholars have issues with critical and facsimile editions, how will they gain the skills to effectively use the hypertext editions? Do you think it is natural for students these days to be comfortable with technological resources? How can primary education adjust to these increasingly important and common place online resources? 

— Rachael Davis

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