disembodying the past to preserve it

What follows is a keynote I gave at the Digital Preservation 2013 conference on July 23, 2013. If you’re curious, there’s a video up of the talk and the Q & A as well and a pdf of the slides I showed (some of which vary from what I’ve shown here).

“Disembodying the past to preserve it”

I am, as you’ve heard, not someone who focuses on issues of digital preservation. I’m a book historian and performance scholar who works at a cultural heritage organization that is focused on the preservation and exploration of centuries-old objects. I think about the digital and preservation from the perspective of someone who studies the past and seeks new ways to make it accessible to scholars and the public.

So since I spend a lot of time thinking about the history of books and since so many people see the rise of the digital heralding the end of print, I thought I would start off by looking back at the earliest surviving instances of moveable type in the West. We all know, I think, that the first book printed by Johannes Gutenberg was the bible in 1455. But that wasn’t the earliest instance of print. Gutenberg’s first printed text were indulgences—short formulaic texts sold by the Church and its deputies to fund various enterprises by promising purchasers they wouldn’t need to spend as much time in purgatory for their sins.

1454 indulgence (Rylands Library)

1454 indulgence (Rylands Library)

What we’re looking at is one of the earliest surviving copies of these get-out-of-jail-free cards. Now held at the University of Manchester’s Rylands Library, this indulgence was printed in 1454 and was issued to a specific buyer in 1455 on the 27th of February. (You can see why printed indulgences were so handy—the bulk of the text is the same from one to the next, and small blank spaces can be left to be filled in by hand with the particulars for each sinner.)

There are other copies of the Gutenberg indulgences that have survived. This one is a slightly later issue (it’s the 31-line indulgence, not the 30-line, for those of you who are bibliophiles). Now part of Princeton’s collections, this indulgence was issued on 29 April 1455 in Pfullendorf to Johannes Grosshans—you can just barely make out the fact that there is a manuscript insertion here, but this copy hasn’t survived in as nearly nice shape as the last one we looked at.

It’s astonishing, actually, that any of these indulgences survived. Very few of them did—even though print runs for indulgences were huge, often in the thousands, there are only 50 recorded surviving copies of the 31-line indulgence, and a mere 8 extant copies of the 30-line. When you look at an indulgence, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t survive in large numbers. They’re just flimsy little things. Compare these two images, the first of someone holding Princeton’s indulgence I mentioned above…

… and this of a bound incunable (also in Princeton’s collections):

The first can be held in one hand (even in its framed state) while the other rests heavily in a chair (don’t try that in your reading room, please!). I think you can guess my point: the Aristotle is big and it’s durable because it’s big. You can’t easily tear or lose this book. But a single sheet of paper? That gets misplaced, it gets accidentally destroyed, it gets forgotten. A light breeze could blow it away if you weren’t paying attention. And once the holder has died? Do you need to hang onto an indulgence as a record of your grandfather’s purchase?

The disposability of indulgences is why they haven’t survived. But it’s also why the ones that survived did. Here’s what I mean: because the indulgences weren’t seen as precious documents to save, they were perfect to reuse for other purposes. And the early indulgence that survived often did so because it was used as waste paper in bindings. Without launching into a lecture on early modern binding structures, I’ll just say that bindings often incorporated paper leftover from other projects. Endpapers, spine linings, structural supports—binders needed materials to finish their books. And why would you use good blank paper—paper that could be used for other purposes—when you had scrap paper at hand? And so odds and ends of printed paper were incorporated into the bindings of books:

If we turn back to the images of the indulgences I’ve shown, you’ll see that being treated as disposable is how they survived. The 30-line indulgence now at Manchester was preserved in a binding—you can see the evidence of holes in the corners and the stain left from the leather turn-ins. And Princeton’s copy survived as pastedowns in a binding from the early 1470s. With Cambridge University Library’s copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1598 indulgence we see something slightly different: these are indulgences that were never sold and are still in sheet form, preserved in the binding of a bible. This is one of my favorite examples, because it doubles as evidence of something we normally wouldn’t see, the production technique displayed in the unfinished object.

Because it was disposable, it was preserved. It’s not a preservation technique I’d recommend, but it’s worked for more than a few texts.

I’ll let you deal with what this might mean for digital preservation (I know just a tiny bit enough about digital forensics to gather that bits of data cling to other bits of data and that you might be looking to recover someone’s novel only to find that other records of their life are interspersed with it). Instead, I’ll ask what lessons we might learn from this about using digital iterations of material objects.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that I wouldn’t have been able to give this talk if these objects hadn’t been photographed and shared online. It was because I was looking for images of indulgences for a different talk that I came across these pictures and noticed that they all looked like binders waste. Discoverability shouldn’t be news, but it shouldn’t be forgotten either.

The problem that we’re facing, in my world, is that the digital objects we’re producing sometimes lead to wonky discoveries. Here’s one thing that has been bothering me recently: the size of books.

psalms unscaled

Here we have two books of psalms, one printed in Geneva in 1576 (on the left) and one in Florence in 1566 (on the right). They are, to all appearances, the same size.

psalms scaled

But this is how their comparative sizes should be displayed: the Italian psalter is 21 centimeters tall and the Geneva psalter is 13 centimeters, or about the height of a Sharpie. (Projected on a screen, of course, they appear to be significantly larger than a Sharpie, although perhaps on your device’s screen they are significantly smaller—a not unrelated oddity of working with digitizations of material objects: size isn’t stable.)

Here we see a collection of books as we would see them in the Folger’s digital image collection, displayed side-by-side:

sizeofbooks unscaled

Here are those same images shown in relation to each other—I arbitrarily chose one book as my standard, and then calculated the scale and adjusted the images from there:

sizeofbooks scaled only

This slide does a much better job of conveying the relative size of these books. But it’s a rotten way of browsing through a large collection of images if you’re at all interested in any feature other than size. In other words, if you want to treat these images as books—as objects that you hold in your hand and read—then you’re going to be dissatisfied. They’re always going to be digital surrogates (a phrase I hate), lacking the primacy of the original.

But what if we took the disembodied aspect of these images of books as an opportunity rather than a failure?

Here’s a fun fact about early printing that is all about its material process: many printed works are illustrated with woodcuts, images that are literally made from blocks of wood.

(I just want to make the aside that it’s pretty effing amazing that the Folger has the piece of wood that made that exact print—the other amazing thing is that on the other side of this piece of wood is carved another woodcut! Just like you’d reuse scrap paper in your bindings, you’d repurpose pieces of wood.) In any case, one of the results of illustrations being made from blocks of wood is that the blocks of wood could be reused to print illustrations in different works.

The Broadside Ballads Online project at the Bodleian has taken this fact and combined it with image search technology to begin to explore how images in Renaissance ballads are used and reused. Alexandra Franklin did some excellent work with this, starting with noticing a distinctive hat used in Unconstant Phillis, a late 17th-century lament by a shepherd about the woman he loves:


Using image match, Franklin searched across their ballad collection for other instances of the hat, pulling up 8 hits, including this one from The Noble Gallant.


What’s particularly fun about this reuse is that we see that although the hat is the same, the man wearing the hat is not!

Why might this be a useful discovery? Tracing the use of a woodblock across multiple printings and multiple works can help date printing; it can also help us think about iconography and shifting discourses. For me, this is also a useful discovery for the way it turns material objects into digital ones that can be dismembered and rearranged. It’s not strictly necessary to use digital tools to do this sort of image-hunting work: Ruth Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram compiled their Guide to English Illustrated Books without the use of image matching technology. But it’s certainly much easier to do it with bits than with books.

What can digitization offer that material objects cannot? Tools to reshape objects that would break under physical pressure. The work done on The Great Parchment Book by the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities is the most recent and exciting example of what those possibilities are. The Great Parchment Book is a survey compiled in 1639 of all those estates in Derry managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the City of London livery companies. It’s a remarkable set of records. But it’s also a collection of 165 leaves that were badly damaged in a fire in 1786. Through careful preservation, about 50% of the text was recovered, but the brittle, wrinkled parchment remained an intractable obstacle to further work. But after extensive physical preservation work on the manuscript and detailed imaging, the UCL team was able to virtually unwrinkle the pages (read about the preservation and digitization processes). About 90% of the text of the Great Parchment Book is now readable, and available for examination online as images of the leaves, enhanced images, or a transcription of the text.

In both of these cases, digitization makes available objects for study that would otherwise be restricted, either because they’re too fragile to handle or they’re too dispersed to work with. For someone invested in cultural heritage, these are remarkable accomplishments. We can’t study the past if we can’t access its records and artifacts.

But both of these projects are ones that require significant investments of time, money, and people. They’re not lightweight experimentations—you need high-resolution images, you need expertise in image manipulation, you need the physical objects at hand.

I want to end with a look at something that is the opposite of all this, something that builds off of what has already been done, publicizing and redeploying images without adding to them or, indeed, displaying them.

The Library of Aleph is a twitter account that tweets the captions of prints and photographs in the Library of Congress’s digital collections. The tweets are nothing more than the captions—no images themselves, no links to them. Just the captions, with occasional reminders that anyone can find these images by searching the Library of Congress. Here’s one tweet: “House burning during Groveland reign of terror—Negroes driven from homes throughout area.” Here’s a screenshot of the corresponding record:

House burning during Groveland Reign of Terror--Negroes driven from homes throug_2013-07-26_16-45-37

The Library of Aleph’s tweetstream the day after the verdict of George Zimmeran’s trial was announced was a relentless account of the history of African-Americans, from slavery through Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Movement. The person who created The Library of Aleph hadn’t created it for this purpose—it was really an account he put together to tweet out some of the interesting images he was finding without cluttering up his main account. But in his anger after the verdict, it became a platform for remembering and reliving our past.

I bring it up here because of this paradox: what makes the tweets so powerful is that they are disconnected from the material object they’re referencing. They’re just captions. We might gloss over images but I think we pause over these. What are we reading? Who wrote the captions? What does it mean to choose these words to describe these images?

I love the way @libraryofaleph connects the past to the present and the present to the past. Things that speak to us today can speak to what spoke to us in the past, and digital technologies can bring them together. But what I really take out of this in terms of what cultural heritage organizations can do with digital tools to preserve our past is that this is an account that came not from the Library of Congress, but from an unaffiliated user. The Library of Congress did all the hard work in collecting these works, in digitizing them, in creating their metadata, in making them discoverable, and then in making it open so that somebody else could do with it something powerful.

And it’s that that cultural organizations need to think about in the use of the digital objects we are creating. We need to make them open so that other people can do things with them that it would never occur to us to do ourselves. Preserve your data, create your metadata carefully, and then release it. Make it open so that it can be used, so that we can learn from it, and so that it can continue to be discovered by future users.

multivalent print, or, learning to love ambiguity in three easy lessons

Below are the slides for and the approximate text of a talk I gave at the 2013 MLA convention as part of a panel on “Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital” organized by Alex Mueller and Mike Johnston. I spoke ex tempore, so my text here won’t precisely line up with what I said at the MLA, but the gist should be the same. I’ve indicated where the slide changes are and after each change have inserted a footnote linking to source and, where available, a link to the image. I’ve also indicated my indebtedness to other scholars, particularly Jeffrey Todd Knight and Adam Smyth, in the notes.

I want to talk today about how early print complicates any trajectory from manuscript to digital, focusing on some common mistaken assumptions that are made about early print. The first assumption we make is that print replaced manuscript, that once the printing press was invented, writing by hand withered away. [slide 2] But print is not the opposite of manuscript. Indeed, we might understand print as having spurred on an increase in handwriting. When people think of the first printed work, they usually think of the Gutenberg bible. [slide 3] But Gutenberg’s first printed work was an indulgence, printed in 1454 and, as you can see, filled out by hand on 27 February 1455. Gutenberg wasn’t the only early printer to print indulgences. [slide 4] This is an indulgence printed in 1498 by Wynken de Worde. It hasn’t been filled out; in fact, it wasn’t ever cut into individual indulgences to be sold. What you’re looking at is a sheet of indulgences and the only reason it survived is because it was used as part of the binding of a book. Other categories of printed forms were popular aside from indulgences. [slide 5] This is a legal document, a summons from the Exchequer filled out on 1 August 1622. [slide 6] And this legal document from 1677 makes Francis Read of Giggleswick Bailiff of the Wapentake of Ewecross.

All of these documents were designed for the insertion of handwriting. But writing flourished on texts even when the print wasn’t inviting it. [slide 7] In this copy of Polychronicon, printed by Caxton in 1482, an early user has supplied the missing final leaves with his own manuscript copy. Is that book manuscript or print? It seems pretty clearly print: the bulk of the volume is print and the manuscript provides access to missing print. [slide 8] This copy of Aristotle’s Ethics was so  heavily annotated by its owner that the margins of the pages were not enough: he added in blank leaves to give himself more room for his notes. Is this book print or manuscript? We value it for the manuscript additions, for the dialogue between print and hand.

[slide 9] As these books make clear, print is not closed, finished, done at the moment of printing. [slide 10] We all know that print wasn’t fixed; books were printed with errors all the time, and errata notes calling attention to them. This 1624 example is one of my favorites: “There are many other errors, which being but small, I entreat the courteous reader to correct as he findes them.” [slide 11] In this 1673 book, a user has gone through and made the corrections the errata list invites him to, here crossing out “company” and writing in “presence.”

But not all marginalia responds in the way that a book invites. [slide 12] In this copy of Caxton’s 1483 printing of Confessio Amatis, a mid-sixteenth-century owner has gone through and crossed out “pope” and, in this instance, cleverly substituted “abominable” for “honourable.” But not all of the marginalia in this book responds to the text, or even works against the text. [slide 13] In the blank space on this leaf is recorded the date of the writer’s marriage: “Chrystofer Swallowe was marryed the 12th day of July in the yere of oure lorde 1553 whiche was the seventhe yere of the Reigne of kinge Edward the Sixth …. and in the firste year of the Reigne of our most Excellent and worthie princes Queyne marie the fyrst.” [slide 14] And across the bottom margins of another opening is a deed of land involving Swallowe and “Dorithe his wife.”

[slide 15] Early readers also used print for their own purposes in other ways, taking books apart and reassembling them to make their own meaning. A famous example are the Little Giddings bible concordances (here showing one at Harvard). The Little Giddings community wove together the four different gospels to produce one narrative of Christ’s life, cutting words out of the gospels and pasting them together in their harmonies. If you look closely at this image (or follow this link to see other pages from Harvard’s copy), you’ll see the small slips of paper that have been carefully rearranged and glued to make a new text.

The Harmonies are a particularly famous example of this reworking of texts, and are often discussed by later readers as shocking: Can you imagine cutting apart your bible and remaking it? [slide 16] But there are other examples of what Adam Smyth calls “reading with scissors” in this period. John Gibson’s commonplace book, put together while he was imprisoned in the 1650s, cuts out and repurposes print material with his manuscript additions. [slide 17] Gibson is not the only one to remix works. This copy of Mary Sidney’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s A Discourse of Life and Death (1600) has been supplemented an early user with images cut from Richard Day’s A booke of Christian prayers, hand colored and pasted in, and with manuscript couplets.

It didn’t always take wielding scissors to remake texts. [slide 18] Since many early books were not sold bound, buyers could choose how and when to bind them, sometimes bringing together multiple works within one binding. In this case, a seventeenth-century reader created a compilation of verse works, ranging from narrative poetry to love lyrics and epigrams and binding together five printed works and one manuscript. As the work done by Paul Needham on Caxton and Jeffrey Todd Knight on Renaissance sammelbände shows, sometimes the books early modern readers created are surprisingly different from what we expect.

One of the reasons for our surprise is that we don’t often encounter early modern works in the same manner in which early modern readers would have. [slide 19] Our notion of what is important, of the difference between print and manuscript, of what readers do with texts, has been shaped by the assumptions and practices of collectors and curators in the nineteenth century. The questions that I asked about whether we consider a specific work print or manuscript are not questions without important implications for researchers. In most libraries, print and manuscript are cataloged separately, often with different curators in charge and with different policies and grants in place. Early modern readers might not have differentiated between print and manuscript, but nineteenth-century caretakers of those books did, and often remade them according to their notions of what was appropriate, assumptions that continue to govern how we treat and encounter early books.

[slide 20] As we just saw, binding together different works into a single volume was one way early readers made and encountered their books. It was a particularly handy way of treating plays, which were slim works that didn’t always need to be bound individually. This list shows the contents of one such volume, a collection of thirteen plays and interludes housed in one binding. But this is no longer how we encounter this volume. [slide 21] In 1961, these plays were separated from each other and rebound individually. The binder’s note in the back of each play records what it once was; the original table of contents remains with the first play in the collection. But the sense of the plays as a gathering is gone. [slide 22]  What we see are slim, tidy playbooks, not the heterogenous collection they once were.

[slide 23] Sometimes we are lucky and we catch a glimpse of what was. [slide 24] But more often we encounter early works through the interventions of later assumptions about what they were, our view of the seventeenth century shaped by nineteenth-century lenses. What we think we know about early print—that it is distinct from manuscript, that it is fixed and stable—are mistaken lessons that obscure the ambiguities and complexities of what print was and can be.



june catch-up

Hi, all. Some online book-history-related tidbits you might be interested in: 1) The Folger Bindings Image Collection is now up and running and is gorgeous and full of tasty metadata to help you find what you’re looking for! 2) Jen Howard asked a great question about looking for readings about reading and the results are now being collected in a Zotero library. Please add your suggestions. 3) The talk that I posted here led to a great conversation with Glenn Fleishman, who wrote it up for The Economist’s Babbage blog! (a bit of horn self-tooting there, sorry, but it was pretty exciting in what has otherwise been a glum stretch of time)

And this is a heads’ up and a plea: I’m hosting the next early modern edition of Carnivalesque at the end of the month, so I’m eager for your recommendations for great blog posts. There’s a handy web form for you to use and I welcome your own moments of self-promotion, so there’s no reason not to recommend away.

pretty picture penance

It’s been much longer since I’ve written a proper post here than I meant for it to be. In my defense, I’ve been pretty busy over at The Collation, running the show and writing my own contributions. There’s lots of good stuff over there, including a whole world of manuscript exploration that I don’t do here; check out Heather Wolfe’s and Nadia Seiler’s interesting posts if you like that sort of thing (and if you don’t think you do, browse anyway and you’ll learn that you do!). And if you’re looking for advice on using Folger digital resources, like searching Luna and the power of permanent URLs and Mike Poston’s new tool, Impos[i]tor, the tooltips series is for you.

In any case, this post isn’t meant to be an advertisement, but to do a pretty picture penance: sharing some great book images, even if I don’t have the time to talk in any detail about them. So . . .

Voila! This is a lovely blue and red penwork initial letter from an edition of Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV, printed in Basel in 1482. (Here’s your catalog record; all photos, through cell-phone crapola, can be clicked and embiggened.)

Here’s another initial, where you can see how delicate the penwork is. I love how the details drape down the column of text:

Not all the initials in the text are so fancy. Here’s a nice, albeit plain, red one:

But that’s not the most interesting detail in this photo. Look again. And then look at this one:

And this one:

You know what I’m talking about, right? They’re the impressions left behind by the finding tabs that were once there! If you look again at the three photos, you can see how they line up, each new section marked slightly below the previous one, so that the tabs stick out, all easy to find and to use to jump to the beginning of a section. Here’s a detail from the first tab:

And here’s the verso of that leaf:

You all know how I like it when I see details of physical features of books that are normally hidden:

Because the front board is loose, you can see some of the knots of the sewing structure holding the binding and the book together.

And what else do I love? Details that show something about the printing process:

At first glance, that looks simply like ink bleeding through from the other side of the leaf. But did you notice any bleedthrough on any of the other pages? That’s some heavy-duty paper. No, that isn’t bleedthrough, it’s offset! In the words of John Carter, offset is

The accidental transfer of ink from a printed page or illustration to an adjacent page. This may be caused either from the sheets having been folded, or the book bound, before the ink was properly dry, or from the book being subsequently exposed to damp. Offset from engraved or other plates on to text, and from text on to plates, is commoner, and also much more disfiguring, than offset from text on to text. Text offset occasionally provides valuable bibliographical evidence, since it usually derives from the very earliest stage in the assembly of the printed sheets into a book. And some of the neatest deductions have been made from the offset, not from one page to another of an individual copy, but from the offset on a page of one book from printed sheets belonging to another which happened to be stacked with it at the printer’s.

So there you go, a whole bunch of my favorite things, all in one book!

an armorial binding mystery

Another book from my students’ projects, this one with a curious binding:

At first glance, what you might see is an armorial binding: a binding in which an owner has stamped his arms in gold tooling. No big deal, really; there are plenty of books like those in libraries. But this one is more complicated: there are TWO coats of arms, one stamped on top of the other. Here’s a close-up of the center of the binding, where the arms are:

And here’s the picture again with one of the two arms outlined:
A close-up of the top portion, in which you can see that there are two crowns juxtaposed and the heads of two faintly visible supporters:
Looked at in raking light, you can see that the supporter on the right looks like an antlered stag:

And the supporter on the left looks like a horse:

I can’t make out the details of the arms themselves, but you can see the motto on which the supporters are standing:

My student deciphered it as “fidei coticula crux” and that looks right to me.

If you look closely at that last picture, you can see that the arms with the supporters and motto was done second: its lines cross on top of the other arms. And if you look at the original arms, you might recognize them as James I’s arms: there’s the harp on the bottom left of the shield, the lions and fleur-de-lis quartering the right, and the motto “honi soit qui mal y pense” circling the shield. (This gives you some sense of the arms, though that harp is a bit excessive.) (And I should point out, although it’s surely obvious by this point, that I’m not particularly knowledgeable about arms and that my vocabulary choices might not be quite precise. But this is why we need help.)

So whose coat of arms is on top of James’s? Is it possible it’s James’s favorite, George Villiers, aka the first Duke of Buckingham? According to the Burke I was looking at, not only was the family’s motto “Fidei coticula crux”, but he used the supporters of “a dapple grey horse” and a stag. But, as I said, I’m not super confident of my ability to deal with armorial and geneological crap, so does someone want to confirm or deny this? I’m drawn to it because if someone WAS going to stamp their arms on top of the king’s, wouldn’t it be great if it was him? (If you’re not familiar with this period, you might want to know more about Villiers; this link should, I hope, get you into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography‘s article on him for the next few days [though April 27th]. If it no longer works, well, this would be a good time for you to do some scouting about on your own! If you know of some reliable open access information about him, please leave it in the comments. Or go edit the Wikipedia page, which could use improvement!)

I should say something about what book this is, I suppose. It’s John Smith’s 1624 The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. It’s a very interesting book, and there’s some great marginalia in it, but that will have to wait until another post, especially since my student is still in the middle of her research! But the arms thing is tricky to decipher and the Folger catalog record identifies only one of the two crests (James’s, of course), so I wanted to lend her a hand in getting it sorted out. And I certainly didn’t want to lead her astray with my desire for it to be Buckingham! So please leave me a note telling me what you think and I’ll pass it on to her.

O rare!

I’ve been looking at another book that a student was working on. It’s unprepossessing on the outside, just a small, worn brown leather binding, with the remains of ties that have long since disappeared. But the book is much more interesting on the inside. Take a gander at some of the photos I snapped (I did these with my cell phone, so they’re not super high quality, but they’re not too bad either):

The whole book is like this, covered with marginalia. There are manicules, trefoils, asterisks, notes more and less extensive. It’s a seriously used book.

And do you know who used this book so seriously? He inscribed his name right there on the title page:

O rare Ben Jonson! And while Jonson’s book when he used it might seem unprepossessing, later owners certainly valued it for its association and house it accordingly, in its own locked box.
There’s much more to be said about Jonson and his books but I wanted to get these pictures up before they burned a hole in my pocket. You can find the catalog record for this book here and I’ll try to follow this up with a bit more Jonsonia.
(Oh, I suppose many of you got the title of the blog post, but just for clarification’s sake: Jonson is buried in Westminster Abbey under a plaque that reads, “O rare Ben Johnson”–and yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the plaque, even though Jonson didn’t spell his name that way.)