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Etexts go Hyper

Libra, (March, 1994).

One of the features that differentiate the electronic text from a print item is the etext's potential for permitting the reader to configure the shape and appearance of the document to suit his or her immediate needs. Such texts, which include links from a place on a page in one document to a place in another document, or even links across a network to documents that are geographically distant, are typically referred to as hypertexts.

Take the example of a critical edition of a literary work. The editor of the printed text has to make firm decisions about the layout of information on the pages, based largely on the audience the text is to serve. A "collected works of Chaucer" aimed at a high school or undergraduate market will likely contain basic help and extensive vocabulary translations in footnotes and in marginal comments; more detailed notes will typically be relegated to the back. The same edition aimed at a more scholarly market will likely give greater prominence to classes of material de-emphasized or excluded from the previous version, such as records of manuscript variants.

In contrast, the on-screen layout of a hypertext edition, with links made in the text to all the various levels of supporting material, is dictated by the user, according to his or her evolving needs. The first-year undergraduate may well use the web of hypertextual links to give priority to explanatory comments and vocabulary help, and only occasionally stray into more advanced commentary. The same user, writing a finalyear thesis, will use the hypertext pathways to construct a very different reference tool, this time giving priority perhaps to more detailed textual or grammatical notes and lists.

Since it opened, the Electronic Text Center has had software such as Guide, ToolBook, and Media View available to its patrons, which permit the creation and use of hypertexts. Students in classes taught by Hoyt Duggan and Peter Baker, Jerome McGann, and David Vander Meulen have experimented with hypertext as a way of presenting a variety of literary material, with some success. Until recently, however, both creator and user have had to work within the confines of the same software program: the hypertext document built with Guide can only be read by Guide - the program uses code that only it recognizes to make the links between the parts that comprise the hyper-document. This is a significant problem, especially if one intends to create something that has an extended life.

The first step towards a solution is the emergence of HTML, the Hypertext Markup Language that is based on SGML, the Standard Generalized Markup Language used for all the on-line texts currently made available by the Electronic Text Center [for some background information on SGML, see the on-line help that is part of the Etext Center's section of the GWISI. Like any SGML text, HTML uses tags - elements in angled brackets - to demarcate typographic and structural elements in the text. In addition, HTML marks words, phrases, or images as hypertext "buttons" that when "pushed" will take the reader to another text file, an image, a sound file, or a clip of digital video.

In its "raw" form, with all its tags visible, the beginning of a HTML document might look like this:

<title>The Electronic Text Center</title>
</head> <body>
<img src="logo.gif"> <hr>
<p>the Electronic Text Center at the
University of Virginia includes a collection
of thousands of <A
href="texts.html">on-line texts.</A>

However, when read through a piece of software that knows what to do with the HTML tags, it would look very different. The tags would not be visible, the page would have an image at the top whose filename is "logo.gif" - this is what the image tag in line 6 does - and the phrase "on-line texts" in line 9 would be highlighted as a hypertext button. Click on it, and you would be taken you to the document called "texts.html".

If you would like to learn more about hypertext, you can contact the Electronic Text Center at 924-3230 or

David Seaman, Electronic Text Center (