The folks over at Oxford University Press (OUP) recently rolled out the latest component in the OHWM ecosystem: an online version of Taruskin’s complete text, accessible through a institutional or individual subscription. A few weeks ago, the people over at OUP gave me advance access to the database, which allowed me to poke around and ponder some of the advantages and potential disadvantages of this new iteration of the OHWM.
The first advantage is perhaps the most obvious: it makes the OHWM portable. “Portable” is definitely not a word used to describe the series up to now. Virtually every story written about Taruskin’s opus has mentioned its formidable size, this blog included (more than once). My non-virtual edition (that is, the paperback one) of the OHWM lives at home, and I almost never take it with me to school or class, for practical reasons. I certainly have never taken the entire set out of the house at once. There have been several times over the last year when, in the final preparations for teaching a music history class, I suddenly think of something in the OHWM that would go perfectly in the lecture. Whereas before I would have to file it away “for next time,” having access to this database anywhere, anytime, could bring more of those potential teaching moments to immediate reality.
The second advantage I noticed was the searching capability, which allows the reader to investigate conceptual threads throughout all volumes. Search “passus duriusculus,” for instance, and you immediately get an at-a-glance perspective of this rich concept’s pervasive presence in Taruskin’s history.
From my limited interaction with the site (my preview access has expired), it seems like a fairly straightforward porting of the text from page to screen, with only a few bells and whistles. The pages are parsed out by section (rather than chapter), so that the text comes in relatively small chunks, equivalent to a few “real” pages at a time. All musical examples and images are incorporated into the flow of the text (with a handy “Art Credits” link). Though each entry is placed within the flow of the overall text via the table of contents sidebar, the interface encourages various reading experiences other than the traditional linear one. You can skip around, search key terms, or click on the related links to outside material from Grove Music Online. While I can see some benefits of these alternate strategies, I can’t help but feel that the overall narrative and argumentative arc of the history, which Taruskin has crafted so consistently and skillfully, will be lost on more casual users of the site.
One opportunity that I would like to see pursued is the development of even more interconnectivity with Oxford Music Online. Currently, Taruskin’s sections link to Grove online, but it doesn’t look like that connection is a two-way one. It would be nice, with a single search, to receive results from Grove Music Online, the Oxford Companion to Music, the Oxford Dictionary Online, and the OHWM. I don’t know if this is even possible (for legal reasons) or ultimately desirable (for philosophical ones), but the prospect is a tantalizing one. I can easily imagine a distinct benefit for the end user.
In my opinion, the best way to experience the OHWM is to read it straight through, on paper. This is the way Taruskin conceived of it, and his writing shows that he took the long-form medium seriously. I also see the immense practicality the digital OHWM will bring to its current readers, and the increased dissemination of the material to potential readers. In other words, I like both; I want both. Can I have my cake and eat a virtual version of it too?
But now I ask you: If you had access to this database, how/when/why would you use it? Would you do all your reading on the site, or only when you were away from your paper copy? If you don’t own a paper copy, would you feel a need to buy one given that it’s all there online?