early modern historian is a genius!

Newly named Macarthur Fellow and early modern historian Jacob Soll talks to Marty Moss-Coane on Radio Times on my old favorite radio station, WHYY in Philadelphia. You should listen to it. Soll talks movingly about struggling as a high school student, what we can learn from studying Renaissance accounting, why the intellectual tradition matters, and what libraries mean to him. Pay attention to the story in the last 15 minutes about his encounter with my friend John Pollack, rare book librarian at Penn!

(There’s also a nice video and brief profile of him on the Macarthur site. I’m almost convinced I should retrain as an accountant.)

even the digital is physical

Many of you will have already seen the news that the Internet Archive is preserving hard copies of each book they scan into their archive. Kevin Kelly’s recent piece likens this to the need for type specimen in biology:

Biologists maintain a concept call a “type specimen.” Every species of living organism has many individuals of noticeable variety. There are millions of Robins in America, for instance, all of them each express the Robin-ness found in the type of bird we have named Turdus migratorius. But if we need to scientifically describe another bird as being “like a Robin” or maybe “just a Robin” which of those millions of Robins should we compare it to?

Biologists solve this problem by arbitrarily designating one found individual to be representative and archetypical of the entire species. It is the archetype, or the “type specimen,” of that form. There is nothing special about that chosen specimen; in fact that’s the whole idea: it should be typical. But once chosen this average specimen becomes the canonical example that is used to compare other forms. Every species in botany and zoology has a physical type specimen preserved in a museum somewhere.

The Internet Archive, that marvel founded by Brewster Kahle, is not simply scanning books, but it is keeping a hard copy of each book as a backup, a type specimen that will allow us to recreate what a robin is, in Kelly’s words:

Brewster decided that he should keep a copy of every book they scan so that somewhere in the world there was at least one physical copy to represent the millions of digital copies. That safeguarded random book would become the type specimen of that work. If anyone ever wondered if the digital book’s text had become corrupted or altered, they could refer back to the physical type that was archived somewhere safe.

Kelly’s piece, as is signaled by its title, “When Hard Books Disappear,” is built around the idea extinction: we need type specimens because someday they will be all that we have left. The book is dying, Kelly tells us: “Hard books are on their way to extinction.”

But that’s not what Kahle is saying. The more interesting part of the story is not that hard copies of the books are being preserved, but that all copies of the books are being preserved. From Kahle’s announcement of the Internet Archive physical archive:

As the Internet Archive has digitized collections and placed them on our computer disks, we have found that the digital versions have more and more in common with physical versions. The computer hard disks, while holding digital data, are still physical objects. As such we archive them as they retire after their 3-5 year lifetime. Similarly, we also archive microfilm, which was a previous generation’s access format. So hard drives are just another physical format that stores information. This connection showed us that physical archiving is still an important function in a digital era.

It’s not just that physical archiving is necessary to the digital era, but that the digital is physical.

Not infrequently I hear folks referring to e-books as being immaterial, without physical presence or consequence. But that’s nonsense. They may not have the same physical presence as books do, but that doesn’t mean that they are made of nothing. The bits of data that make up their core run on hardware that can be held in your hand, that needs to be preserved, that ages and decays and changes. I cannot talk knowledgeably about the problems of digital preservation (problems that are real but that aren’t any more insurmountable than the preservation of books or paintings or buildings) and that isn’t my point here. What I am saying is that the digital is physical and the sooner everyone accepts that the sooner we can move on to more productive conversations about what that means for our present and future.

to e-book or not to e-book

There’s been a slew of stories over the last few months about electronic books, primarily of the Kindle variety, but some of them touch on general issues pertaining to the availability, use, and desirability of e-books. I’ve been trying to compose a post in response to them, but I keep getting overwhelmed. What to say in response toa prep school that replaces its library with a cappuccino machine and 18 e-readers? *head-desk* (The School Library Journal has a more articulate response.) What about the summer’s too-perfect-to-be-true news that Amazon deleted copies of Orwell’s works from the Kindles without informing owners? Make that another big #amazonfail moment after their first, horrendous mistake last spring when changes in their ranking system made thousands of gay and lesbian titles disappear from searches. Ooops. In further e-stories, there’s the non-release as e-books of two of the Fall’s big titles: Teddy Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. What will those Cushing Academy students do when researching papers about the Obama election? I guess rely on Wikipedia. (For insight into why the memoirs aren’t Kindled, see Daniel Gross’s Moneybox column for Slate, in which he explains why the economics of publishing doesn’t make sense for them as e-reads.) Oh, and speaking of students and e-readers, what do Princeton students have to say about using Kindles as part of a pilot program to replace textbooks with Kindles? According to one student quoted in the Daily Princetonian, “this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool.” Finally, last week there was the New York Times piece worrying that books might be the next to be “Napsterized.” (Remember Napster? Some of you young ‘uns might not recall the world before digital music files, but let me tell you, it put the fear of Someone into the music industry when people started sharing their music online.) Joshua Kim’s response on Inside Higher Ed brings those Napster concerns into a conversation with universities and libraries.

About a year ago, I posted about my perplexed response to a newspaper column that touted the joy of Kindle as being “almost like a book”–why read something that’s almost as good as a book when you could read a book? I still stand by that point, but not because I’m a luddite. In that particular piece, I was reacting against a perception that e-reading had to be good because it was new. But I also don’t think it has to be bad because it’s new. My husband got a Kindle last spring and it’s been great. For him, the joy of the machine is that it holds so much. Given his preference for texts that come in big, heavy books–military history, science fiction, jurisprudence–the fact that he can take his Kindle on trips means that he needn’t break his back or run out of reading material. I still don’t use it, and not only because he’s the alpha gadgeteer in our household. My way of reading for work and research is to cover the page in notes, so paper copies work best for me. And most of my pleasure reading I do in a way that isolates me as much as possible from the world: glasses off, dark room, book light. We all have our own ways of reading and different technologies that meet those needs.

But much of what I’m seeing written in the popular press about e-book readers isn’t, I don’t think, taking into account the full picture. Some of the stories I mentioned above hint at the problem of Amazon’s essential monopoly over the current e-field. I know Sony has an e-reader, but given Amazon’s vertical integration, they hold an incredible portion of the e-market in their tight e-fist. (E-sorry. It’s hard to stop the e-jokes.) If there was some competition in that market, the problems of pricing and availability and Big Brother would be different.

More to this blog’s point, what does the current state of e-readers and discussion have to do with book history and book historians? So much of what we’re considering today with Kindles focuses on books that were written to be distributed in print and then are transferred into an e-format. (Daniel Gross’s book Dumb Money actually did this transference the other direction: he wrote it as an e-book for Free Press and it sold well enough that it’s now available in print–see the Washington Post profile of him for more on that.) But what happens when we get to the day that works are created for and intended to be experienced as e-books? How will that change the experience of using books? And how will we ensure the survival of those books? As anyone who has been working with computers over the last few decades knows, technology becomes obsolete and earlier formats don’t always carry over into new ones.

Similarly, how might the availability of new digital formats affect the process of creating works? According to Scott Karambis, for some creative artists, the availability of the digital world has changed how and what they write: author Justin Cronin relied on the ease of researching online to push his knowledge into new arenas when composing his newest novel, insisting that it made him become a different sort of writer. Karambis’s blog post focuses more on the effect of technology on the process of creation and less on the impact of digital creations themselves (the blog is geared towards other folks in marketing, rather than, say, writers or book historians). Rachel Toor, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more focused on the economic impact of e-books. Even though she loves reading e-books on her Kindle, she has decidedly more mixed feelings about being an e-writer. Might e-publishing save university publishers by bringing down costs and therefore recovering the economic viability of those scholarly monographs with small audiences? And the speed of electronic publishing is wonderful for timely subjects and for the responsiveness it generates for readers. But will people stumble across e-books the way they do physical books on bookshelves? Will writers be able to live off the advances from their e-books the way that some are able to today?

Toor and Cronin don’t ask this in their reflections on writing and new technology, but I will: will we still have e-books to read if they aren’t backed up on paper? Will we still be able to lend books to each other if they’re tied to our e-readers? Will we still be able to talk back to our books, modify them, resist them?

I often, when teaching early modern book history, say to my students, “It’s all about money!” And it often is. But it’s also about creativity and interactivity and longevity. And we’re still taking baby steps towards what it all might mean.

being a reader in rare book libraries

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a reader in a rare books library, a place like the Folger, or the British Library, or the Beinecke, for instance. That is, the sort of place where the lucky among us get to do research and routinely handle rare materials.

I think about this topic often while I am teaching my undergraduate course on book history. Undergraduates are not typically allowed into rare book libraries–I’ve heard stories that even some university special collections don’t like to let students handle their materials, an attitude which is sorely misguided and shameful and not, I hope, actually common. But because undergrads are only a recent, and quite small, presence in the Folger reading rooms, I worry that they might be looked at askance by other readers. And because it is a wonderful thing that the Folger lets my students have full access to the collections, I am especially careful to train them on how to be good library citizens.

I tend to think of being a good library citizen as common sense: there are the usual rare materials guidelines (no bags, no food or drink, no pens) and the usual library protocal (cell phones off, voices quiet, don’t turn up your ipod so loud that others can hear it–actually, that last one comes from my own private distate of ipods in libraries, a quirk that might be mine alone).

What needs to be taught more explicitly, of course, is how to handle rare materials: use foam supports and book weights, don’t force the binding to open further than it wants to, turn the pages carefully, wash your hands frequently. In my experience, students take to this instruction quite well. They are thrilled with the privilege of having access to these books, and they want to treat them with care and respect. And they really get it, especially once you explain the principle behind proper usage: the oils on your skin will leave marks on the page; if you force the binding it will break; if you flip through the pages, the edges will tear. If you can show them the structure of a binding–how the boards are attached, how the gatherings are stitched together–then it makes even more sense. The basic point of such handling techniques is obvious, especially to students of book history. Use the books with respect so that others can learn from them in the future.

But what I’ve been thinking about recently is not how to handle rare materials, but how to handle rare materials users. This is something that librarians are always conscious of, along with the need to balance access to materials with preservation of those materials. Go too much to either extreme, and nothing makes sense anymore. Too much access, and the materials will disintegrate. Not enough access, and what’s the point of keeping them? I kvetch about digital surrogates sometimes, and how much information is lost when you are looking at an image of something rather than the thing itself. But one thing that facsimiles do is to protect materials. The first round of information that a reader is looking to gather can often be found through looking at a facsimile or other surrogate; some will need eventual access to the original, but even if the number of uses is reduced by only a third, it’s still a reduction.

More tricky is the need to balance attracting readers into your collection with protecting the collection. The British Library’s recent installation of hand sanitizers during the swine flu scare is a perfect example of this. They installed the sanitizers to make their visitors and readers feel more secure in coming to the Library, but then they had to remind readers that the sanitizer could damage Library materials if it wasn’t used properly (let it dry, people!). In her post on this, bookn3rd saw this as “as a tug-of-war between our society’s panic over disease and the continuous, low-level panic of managing library collections” (her parenthetical insert in the previous sentence would have been the even more sensible injunction, “just wash your hands, people!”).

But I want to think about the question of what it means to be a reader in a rare book library not from the perspective of a librarian (since I’m not a librarian) or of an institution (since I’m not an institution, either). What does it mean to us, as readers in libraries, to be a reader of rare materials? What are our responsibilities to those materials, to the library, and to the other readers?

Since I assume that you, my lovely readers, either know how to handle rare books or would teach yourselves how to do that before you start handling them (more on that in a minute), one of our collective responsibilities is to help other readers handle their materials safely. That might mean intervening yourself, or it might mean getting a librarian to come to the rescue. I certainly realize that it’s not as easy to do as that. We tend to come from a world that punishes snitches and whistle-blowers rather than the wrong-doers. And most of the time we come to libraries to do our research, not be on the look-out for what other people are doing. (Well, I hear stories about rampant flirting in libraries, but you know what I mean.) I can think of instances when I saw something in a reading room and I thought “what?!” and let that be the end of the situation. In my defense, the most recent time, I was stunned that someone would try to staunch their bloody nose while sitting in the reading room rather than in the privacy of a bathroom–and the books on the table weren’t from a restricted collection but from the modern stacks. But still, I wish I had said something. Blood on a rare book is bad, but blood on a modern book isn’t good either.

The problem with my reticence, and the reticence that I know many of us feel in the face of poor library behavior, is that we too often rely on librarians to be the caretakers of rare materials, rather than seeing it as a collective scholarly responsibility.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be visiting a number of libraries (including the fabulous British Library), looking at promptbooks and other rare materials. I’ll wash my hands thoroughly and let them dry completely, I promise! I’ll be careful with the materials. And I’ll try to speak up if I see someone who needs help. Or at least I’ll go find someone who can speak up.


For those of you who would like some instruction on how to safely handle rare materials: The best way to learn what to do is to ask a librarian; she or he will be able to inform you about general practices and show what the policies are of that specific library. You can also find some information online, including written guides from the libraries at Univerisity of British Columbia and University of Southern California, and videos demonstrating handling practices for a wide range of materials from the BL.

One last word: The photo heading this post is of a highly responsible reader in the Folger’s Old Reading Room, a reader who happens to be one of my former students. And check out the use she’s making of surrogate materials: she’s comparing two copies of a book, one held in our collection (nicely supported on foam) and one from EEBO. Just makes you want to come for a visit, doesn’t it?

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.

navigating the information landscape

Robert Darnton has, again, written a thoughtful account on “Google and the Future of Books” in the February 12, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books. Prompted by Google’s recent settlement with the authors and publishers suing it for copyright violation in its vast digitization project, Darton wonders, “How can we navigate through the information landscape that is only beginning to come into view?”

For Darnton, the key forward is, unsurprising, through the Enlightenment, both in its ideal Republic of Letters and in its less democratic pratice of who had access to that Republic. As Darnton argues, the high ideals of the Enlightenment turned, in time, into the professionalization of knowledge and subsequently degraded to our current undemocratic world in which scholarly journals are produced through the free labor of professors and sold to libraries at insanely high prices. That’s an information landscape through which we cannot continue to navigate as we have been, requiring young scholars to write books to advance professionally, but in circumstances where presses cannot afford to publish books because libraries aren’t buying books because the budgets are all going toward annual journal subscriptions. (One wonders who will continue to provide the free labor for those journals at this rate.)

It’s this scenario that gives Darnton pause. The way of the future is digitization, but at what cost? Are we going to reenact that Enlightment fall from grace, moving from open access to closed doors? Darnton questions, as others have, Google’s power over this future of digital futures. In his view, “the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States.” What does that mean?

We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.

It’s not that Darnton is against digitization, just the terms on which that digitization is happening.

But we, too, cannot sit on the sidelines, as if the market forces can be trusted to operate for the public good. We need to get engaged, to mix it up, and to win back the public’s rightful domain. When I say “we,” I mean we the people, we who created the Constitution and who should make the Enlightenment principles behind it inform the everyday realities of the information society. Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning.

It’s Darnton at his utopian high. And it’s a stirring vision. Wouldn’t it be great? A Digital Republic of Learning where we can all access the fount of knowledge without fees and ivory walls. One of the things that I found the most frustrating at various times of my variously employed career is missing access to databases of digital learning. Let’s democratize, if it’s not too late!

But let’s pause, too, for a moment. As a scholar of early modern books, I have to wonder, how do we democratize those? Do we just agitate for free EEBO, Early English Books Online for everyone everywhere? Will those books be read? Will those books be understood? Every semester I see my students interact with early printed texts for the first time and initially, they can hardly make sense of what they are looking at. Why do they mix up their i’s and j’s? Why are there f’s instead of s’s? Why can’t they spell? What’s that word down there at the bottom of the page and where are the page numbers?!

Libraries, digital and otherwise, make texts available. But it is teachers who enable them to be read. Scanning all the books in the world won’t make a Digital Republic of Learning if we don’t value reading and learning in the first place.