The study of how texts quote and reference each other is a fundamental aspect of humanities disciplines at large; more specifically, it is the main goal of textual criticism. Scholars in this field of study aim at the identification of the elements that let them distinguish an original document (e.g., a manuscript) from its subsequent copies, to the purpose of better understanding phenomena such as the history of transmission of a text, or the propagation of an idea across the time and space dimensions. Accordingly, structural elements such as citations and quotations become objects of study in themselves, for they can reveal much more than a simple conceptual reference to a preexisting document.
In this essay we present an approach based on role theory and formal ontology whose purpose is to represent the key concepts in the field of textual transmission history. By characterizing the semantics of concepts such as reference, citation, quotation as they are normally used in this academic discipline, we aim at providing a framework that can enable more precise information integration services in this area, and more generally, in the digital humanities. At the same time, we want to show that the formalization of citations objects in the humanities is more complicated that expected, and that it requires an extension (and possibly a revision) of its correspondent solutions in the scientific world.
Our research derive from the Early Modern London Theatres project (EMLoT), whose goal was to build a database that lets you see what direct use has been made, over the last four centuries, of pre-1642 documents related to professional performance in purpose-built theaters and other permanent structures in the London area. In what follows we present our attempt to express the meaning of EMLoT’s data using a formal ontology, we discuss the methods being used and, more generally, highlight the various difficulties involved in the formal modeling of the domain of textual transmission history. The ontology will serve two purposes: first, it clarifies the meaning of the relevant concepts in this area; second, it poses the basis for further research aimed at facilitating the integration of this dataset with other ones available online.