accessing and looking at books

My last couple of posts on “navigating the information landscape” and “democratizing early english books” have gotten a number of links and comments–it’s great to have such thoughtful feedback, and I wanted to use this post to clarify some of my thoughts.

This series of posts has been prompted by Robert Darnton’s latest essay in the New York Review of Books on “Google and the Future of Books.” Darnton’s call for the need to create a Digital Republic of Learning led me to wonder what it would mean to democratize access to early modern books. Does access to those books equal understanding those books? Perhaps. But not necessarily. As I argue in my last post, early modern books look different from modern books in ways that alienate us from the books and from their texts.

There is a lot going on in Darnton’s piece that I don’t address in my posts, or only mention glancingly. The financial implications of access came up briefly in “navigating” with my frustrated aside about what it was like to be a independent scholar who didn’t have access to those fabulous resources like EEBO, a frustration that is echoed and expanded over at PhiloBiblos:

Reading and learning (and teaching) must be valued, there can be no dispute about that. And I don’t expect expensive databases like EEBO, ECCO, Digital Evans, &c. to suddenly be free and available. But I certainly wish they could be. Sure, there might be people who don’t get every nuance of what they see (opening up a great opportunity for those of us who can help in that regard to provide contextual details). But not having access to them severely limits scholarship, especially for those of us who are no longer students and don’t happen to work at places that can afford access to all of them). Leadership from Harvard and other major research libraries on that front could help too; a clamor for open access to such resources would go a long way toward making it happen. 

And one of the commentators on my last post, Vaguery, feels similarly about the desire for people outside the walls of academia for access to those resources:

I can attest—having just paid my $380 annual fee for the privilege of dragging my butt downtown and sitting at a low-grade computer in a campus library so I can swear at the stupid EEBO scans or read JSTOR’s precious license-protected 19th century public domain journals (without being permitted to save or print them)—I can attest there are still real people out here that folks inside the monstery walls who find utility in these scans. :) 

I hadn’t dwelt on that digital divide because I was on a different trajectory in that post. But that gate around those resources is key to Darnton and to many of my readers and it is to me, too. I’m at the Folger now, and my faculty affiliation at GWU and Georgetown gives me access to amazing riches, but when I was conducting research without those resources, it was deeply frustrating. (And I want to point out, too, contrary to some assumptions, not all scholars are at institutions that provide access to such things: they are expensive resources and even before this age of declining revenue, not all schools or universities were able to or could see the value in paying for them.)

The possible divide between credentialed scholars and amateur scholars is another topic that I did not address. It’s at the heart of Darnton’s examination of what we might be able to learn from the Enlightenment: what began as the opening of access to learning did not open up beyond a small, elite class of readers, and that elite class of readers contracted even further once learning was professionalized and hardened into academic disciplines and profit-driven publishing companies. My suggestion that early modern books were so estranged from our habits of reading that they were not going to be easily made accessible simply by providing free digital images was not intended to coincide with that division between “professional” and “amateur” readers. Vaguery makes the useful observation that there are lots of folks out there today who are not professional scholars but who are able to read these early books:

But the texts you’ve tapped as “challenging” wouldn’t faze the hundred blackletter specialists at Distributed Proofreaders; the marginalia would be sought out as a challenge by a dozen fans—for fun. While they might not talk about it aloud or explicitly, amateur volunteers are doing the required modeling of the document when they’re planning and creating an authoritative transcribed electronic version. It happens as a matter of course. 

And he reminds me as well that the very fact that we have so many books available to be transcribed is due to the knowledge and skills of the amateurs of times gone by:

It’s as if the Academy has forgotten all about the antiquaries—the men who actually collected and saved these physical documents in the first place. The ones who published the 18th and 19th century magazines that fill my shelves with interminable discussions of inscriptions and editions and mysteries and local knowledge, and spent their middle-class disposable income having wood engraved reproductions made of their collections, and wrote these pedantic letters on local names, and filled innumerable miscellanies and folklores. 

Vaguery is right: the books I have highlighted are by no means illegible. Nor are they legible only by folks with PhDs. But these examples illustrate all the more what I’ve been arguing–it takes skill and practice and love to read these books. We teach ourselves to read them by reading them over and over. It’s still learning to read, whether we teach ourselves or are taught by professors or encounter them through blogs.

It also makes me wonder, where are the antiquaries of yesteryear? Do they now collect twentieth century pulp fiction? Classic sci-fi? Modernist design magazines? Is it too expensive to collect earlier works? Are collectors and antiquaries the same thing, anyway?

More to the point, though, I want to close with an observation that what I have been interested in when thinking about what it means to digitize early books is what habits and cultures of reading affect our interaction with those books. Jonathan Hsy comments that digital images, like the one of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in my last post, encourage us to approach texts differently:

What I appreciate about digitalization projects like those at the Folger is precisely the wider access they provide – a digital image allows you not only to read a text but to *look at it* as well, picking up on what it transmits in addition to its “content.” 

The difference between looking at and reading is a valuable one for those of us interested in how books work and what we can do with them. It also opens up questions about how different codes of looking at encourage us to read or not read in different ways. DrRoy (who writes the great blog Early Modern Whale) asks in response to my last post and to Vaguery,

Tell me, which is easier to read, page images off EEBO, or the transcribed texts created by the text creation partnership? My answer would tend to be the page images: the eye copes with a line of maybe 12 words: the text creation partnership transcripts run maybe 20 words or more across your browser. I get eye-slip all the time. Of course, for the sheer ease of getting a quotation into a document, I tend to read the transcription. But I often think I should revert to the page images. 

I’m exactly the same–I find it much easier to read the image than the transcription. I can read transcriptions, of course, and they are very handy for all sorts of reasons, including making it possible to search texts. But they slow me down in a way that the image does not.

My problem, though, has less to do with line length and eye slip and more to do with the mixed signals I get when I look at the text. I was just telling my students, most of whom are new to reading unedited early modern texts, that when they quote from them they should not modernize the spelling, nor should they regularize i/j or u/v, but they should absolutely use the modern short “s” rather than the long “s” form. It’s standard transcription practice. But why is that? I always have at least one student who finds a font on her computer that has a character to reproduce the long “s” and who wants to use that in her transcriptions. But I find it impossible to read. The long “s” I have no problem with in an early modern font. But put it in a modern font and I cannot process it–the signals are just all wrong, with one set of signals telling me to read one way, but with the “s” form belonging to a different set of signals that aren’t otherwise there.

And that’s my point. It’s not that any of us are incapable of reading. But we all have habits of reading, habits that are activated by the presence or absence of signals of which we are not necessarily aware. Without being aware of those habits, we cannot assume that access equals understanding or that reading equals looking at. One of the great possibilities of digitizing early books is that it can open our eyes to those ingrained habits so that we can see anew what it means to look at and to read books.

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