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Visualising Changes between Book Editions Using Juxta Commons
by Richard Bellis

Examining the changes an author has made between the first and second edition of their book can provide historians with important insights into the development of a work after its initial publication. We might be able to discern intellectual development in the work, or to see responses by the author to criticisms the book received from its reviewers. Alternatively, a book with few changes might indicate happiness with the content, but a desire to improve on the work’s presentation. Whatever the change, the fact that there are changes demonstrates to the historian that the author continued to engage with their work after its first publication.

So, how can historians find such changes? Generations of historians had to rely on simply reading the first and second editions (and so on) and comparing them through whatever method they thought best. Such was my initial work in comparing the first and second editions of Matthew Baillie’s The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Body, published in 1793 and 1797 respectively. I put digitally available copies (on archive.org) of each edition side by side on my computer screen and tried to compare them line by line, but soon gave up—there was too much to look at, there had to be a better way.

Happily, there is. A few months later—having put the comparison of the editions very much on the back burner—I was introduced to a piece of software called Juxta Commons at the Digital Humanities Travelling Roadshow hosted by Bath Spa University in 2018. A free, open-source tool, Juxta Commons allows users to compare various editions of texts online, providing users with visualisations of the differences between texts. To me, this sounded perfect, and I immediately set about using it to compare the first and second editions of Baillie’s book, as I had briefly attempted a few months earlier. All I had to do was set up an account, locate text-only versions (XML or TXT) of the books (which in this case are available on archive.org), input them, and let the software get to work. With the software having to compare two books, it took quite a long time to render, and I was worried that it might be too much information for it to cope with, but after about half an hour it was ready to look at. Here are a few of the things I found:

Presentational Changes

My favourite view is the ‘side-by-side view’, because both texts are viewable, with the differences between them highlighted. Here, this highlighted some presentational changes to Baillie’s introduction that I completely missed when attempting to compare them without the software. In his second edition, Baillie made his claims to aiding medicine through studying the anatomy of disease more decisive. For example, he changed the sentence: ‘When this has been done, it will be more likely to produce a successful inquiry after a proper method of treatment’, to the more confident: ‘When this has been done, it will be likely to produce a successful inquiry after the most proper method of treatment’ (emphasis mine). He made similar changes to the medical content of his work in the attempt at making his descriptions of diseased parts more precise and clearer.

New Additions

Baillie also added a huge amount of material to the work. Here the ‘Heat Map’ view shows the difference from the base text in a bar, and the ‘Histogram’ show both shows where those differences appear in the text.

On the ‘Heat Map’, the highlighted text is clickable, which produces a small ‘Witness Differences’ box, that visualises the specific difference in the text.

And the Histogram is clickable too, taking you to the part of the text that you have clicked on.

Using these various features, I was able to find the changes that Baillie made to Morbid Anatomy for the second edition very quickly. Not only were new sections and subheadings were made very obvious, those small edits to the phrasing and meaning of sentences that Baillie viewed as improving his work through making it clearer or more precise were highlighted, literally. This helped me to understand the long-term success of Baillie’s book. After its initial publication in 1793, Baillie’s work came under some heavy criticism. Critics were unsure of the usefulness of his publication to the practice of physicians, though they admitted that the descriptions of diseased parts were useful. Yet, Baillie’s work was something of a bestseller (by medical standards at least), going through five editions in Britain, three in America, and was translated into German, French, and Italian before his death in 1823. So, what changed?

In short, Baillie addressed the concerns of his critics, whilst retaining the original purpose of his publication. In his second edition, Baillie made the work more clearly useful to the physician’s practice by including descriptions of symptoms alongside his descriptions of diseased parts. At the same time, he worked to improve those descriptions of diseased parts, ensuring that his work remained as he wanted it to be.

For more on the changes between Baillie’s first and second editions (including some pretty mean reviews) see my publication in Notes and Records on the subject: “‘As to the plan of this work … we think Dr. Baillie has done wrong’: changing the study of disease through epistemic genre in Georgian Britain" For more on Juxta Commons, visit the site. It is well worth trying out if you’re interested in the changes between different editions of a text.