Old books and new tools

Below is the description of a roundtable discussion I’ll be leading at the 2012 MLA conference in Seattle. Our session is on the first day of the conference—Session 47 on Thursday, January 5th, 1:45-3:00. This page will be updated closer to the conference and will eventually include links to the texts of the brief remarks that each panelist will be giving. Since the bulk of the session will be a discussion, there won’t be a text to circulate for that, but I hope you’ll come join the conversation, either in person or on twitter (follow the hashtags #mla12 #47).

“Old books and new tools: a roundtable discussion at MLA 2012”
organized by Sarah Werner, Folger Shakespeare Library

At a time when greater attention is being paid to technologies of reading and their impact on the creation and distribution of textual meaning, the two fields most invested in these questions need to work together to take advantage of their mutual expertise. Scholars focused on old books—particularly book historians, but also bibliographers and editors—have much in common with digital humanists—especially those invested in exploring how new computing tools shape reading and interpretation. Fundamental to both disciplines is the investigation of how the rise and development of technologies informs and enables the creation and reception of meaning. Old books and new tools are mutually enlightening objects of study, two halves of one equation. Books are tools for information gathering and dissemination, albeit so familiarized through their long history that we do not always recognize them as tools, preferring to think of them as immaterial form for the delivery of text. Old books were once new tools, as book historians know; new tools will someday be old, like the skeuomorphs of file folders and manicules dragged into the next generation as moments of familiarity obscuring the metaphorical shear of new technologies.

Although the study of old books and of new tools share investigative approaches, they do not always talk to each. Old books have served as a subject for new tools, of course. A long history of catalogs and databases bears evidence of that (including the English Short-Title Catalogue, Perseus, and Early English Books Online). Those projects tended to focus on accessibility, making available in centralized locations old books that are otherwise dispersed. Newer projects focus less on reproduction and more on new methods of investigation: large scale text mining of the Shakespeare corpus to determine linguistic features of genre, for example, manipulates the data of early modern texts in ways that would not be possible through reading. For the most part, however, these examples of common ground between old books and new tools don’t address the very facts that make old books distinct: their passage through time as material objects whose meanings are found not only in their words but in their physical manifestations. They do not focus on old books as old books, but as cultural or linguistic data sets. Nor do they focus on what relationship old books may have to new tools, other than as objects to be put under the lens or run through the mixer: the new tools of digital humanities are often treated by literature scholars as replacements for older analytical tools without examining what the shift in technology might be obscuring.

This roundtable aims to generate a discussion about what we gain from thinking about the histories of books and the creation of new tools together. How might the digital help us explore the materiality of books? What might the currency of the digital offer for understanding the past of books? How might new tools reshape how we think about old books? How might old books alter how we conceive of new tools? The participants in this discussion all come to the table with different interests and intersecting perspectives. Each will speak for five minutes about their specific interest in the relationship between old books and new tools; a twenty-minute moderated group discussion will then follow, building on the theoretical and practical questions raised by their presentations. The session will conclude by opening out into a twenty-minute discussion with the audience.

Meg Worley will consider what happens when the old skill of paleography meets twenty-first century transcription technologies like T-Pen and Scripto. Working primarily from a classroom perspective, Worley wonders what can be learned from transcription exercises in the keyboard age and how digital archives and material objects complement each other in our understanding of medieval textuality.

Jeffrey Todd Knight turns his attention to a different set of new tools: computational linguistic analysis. While criticism of “culturomics” has focused on the problems of inadequate metadata and the relative infrequency of early publications, Knight’s concern is grounded in the specificity of early modern writing. Can quantification procedures applicable to contemporary English be applied pan-historically to the lexical and syntactical malleability and experimentation of early modern English? Knight focuses on how the imposition of ahistorical ideas of language use can actually obscure old books and how new tools might be made more subtle and inclusive in the face of this.

Katherine Harris’s work on early nineteenth-century literary annuals gives her another perspective on the problems of joining new tools to old books. These old materials have been overlooked because they don’t fall into the normative category of “books.” As a result, they present an opportunity to consider how rare, ephemeral objects can be mediated through the digital, building a collection from scratch that might both make the texts accessible and represent their non-linguistic codes.

The transition of the material into digital is also Whitney Anne Trettien’s focus:  Print-on-demand EEBO scans of early modern books. Illuminating the undead nature of what is neither material nor digital, but a mixture of both, these books move from letterpress-printed paper to celluloid film to metadata-encrusted digital scan to database entry and back to paper. These new media platforms not only expand our notion of books, but drag the residue of the past into the present, where the accretions of history demand new archaeological methods of analysis.

Matt Thomas, in turn, flips the question of methods of analysis on its head, wondering what old books might teach us about new tools by illuminating the social, political, and moral implications of technological change. The fundamental question for Thomas is what should be the stance of humanists toward new tools. New tools enable us to do amazing things in our research and our teaching, but if we want to understand what these new tools are doing to us, we must look to old books.

In highlighting these issues, this roundtable will open a conversation about the practical and theoretical issues facing the future of old books and new tools.