Lara Rose Roberts Archive Visit 2: Log Books in Old and New Media

In the article “Languages, Books, and Reading from the Printed Word to the Digital Text,” Roger Chartier seeks to outline the distinct differences in media of texts from, as the title suggests, the printed to the digital. The ideas are, of course, drawn from D.F. McKenzie’s sociological model of text. Chartier argues for “the profound difference that exists between readings of the ‘same’ text when it is moved from a printed medium to an electronic form” (146). This idea seems obvious to me after this semester of studying the history of the book; however, I confess that I certainly believed before September that reading the edition of Love in the Time Cholera on my Kindle was not really different than re-reading the pages of the Penguin edition that I’ve annotated four times over. Chartier acknowledges that the differences between print and electronic versions of texts seem self-evident, yet reinforces, “This difference must be pointed out at a time when, in all the libraries of the world, people are discussing the need to create digital collections, in particular of newspapers and journals. Digitization projects that will enable long-distance communication are absolutely essential. But they must never lead to the abandonment or, worse, the destruction of printed works in their original form” (146). Chartier’s insistence on the preservation of physical materials provided the impetus for my second archival visit. I went to the Houghton Library at Harvard to view the physical artifact of a log book that I had already seen in its digital form in the online catalogue. I wanted to understand what, really, might be lost if the physical log-book was destroyed in preference to its digital simulacra.

The logbook is from a whaling ship from New Brunswick, Canada; the first log dates to February 17, 1835–about one year before the last entry in my pet [record] book in the Northeastern archives. I was initially drawn to the logbook genre, because I was interested in providing a comparison of the content differences between shipping operations that happened on shore (as in the Abraham Bell & Co.) and those that happened at sea (on a whaling ship). However, the issues of media differences generated by Chartier proved to be much more interesting. I narrate my experience of the comparisons here.

The three-dimensionality of the log book is, predictably, the first thing that strikes me as different from the electronic version. The binding of the book is peeling away; I can feel the soft cardboard, and turn the book to see the letters “LOGBOOK 1835 – WHALING” stamped in gold ink on the binding. On the computer, the deteriorating binding appears as a small brown rectangle on the left bottom corner of the document. The stamped text on the binding is not recorded at all.

More dimensions: the blue marbling of the cover and flyleaf looks rippled. When looking online, I had assumed these ripples were the result of water drying on and distorting the page. In person, the ripples are simply an effect of lighter and darker color swirls. The paper itself is smooth–too smooth, even, for hand-made marbled paper. The perfection reveals its nineteenth-century machine-made form. What is rippled in person (that is not in the online images) is the creases formed by the binding on the pages inside. They are barely perceptible in the images, so it seems the archivist responsible for the digital scan pressed the crease smooth before taking the photo. I do not take that liberty in person, relying only on a weighted velvet tube to hold open the page.

Overall, the volume is much slimmer than I had assumed, and larger (a folio). I had no reference for the size of the object before this, since the image of the log book in the online catalogue shrinks or expands according to the size of the screen of the device on which it is viewed. When I pull up the document viewer on my laptop, though, the screen is too short to fit the entire page, even zoomed out. The page control buttons cover the bottom fifth of the image, and so I have to click and drag the image up and hold it there while I examine the page. I notice that the image of the second rector page also includes a sliver of text from the verso page on the other side of the binding. I wonder, if/when OCR technologies advance enough to learn handwriting,  whether a computer would read the letters that appear on the sliver of the verso as part of the recto page.

Opening the book in the reading room is an act of sensory experiences: the cover releases the familiar smell of decaying matter when I lift it from the first page; the leaves are so loud when I turn them; the micro tears on the edge reveal the habits of people (the writer? other readers?) who touch the page at the same place every time to flip it over. I am conscious of how I touch this paper, how the oils on my hands will speed its decay. I am aware of the organic-ness of the book. I am aware of the organic-ness of my own body–I am breaking the rules here in this reading room–eating almonds from my pocket to stave of a drop in my blood sugar that I can feel coming on. My fate is now tied more intimately with the book–almonds dust even more hastening decay. I am not aware of the organic-ness of the electronic version. The only noise to mark the “turning” of the digital pages is the soft click of my trackpad. But I wonder if my digital clicks will leave fingerprints of sorts–my clicks prompting a whir on a server, an electronic current–hastening the equivalent of digital decay: mechanical components that will eventually break down.

I am more intensely aware of the fragility of the physical artefact than of the digital item. The logbook is from 1816-1882, and its pages and cover are constructed of wood-pulp and made by machines. I have noticed this semester that these machine-made pages are thinner and more delicate even than those made of skins or cloth rags that have existed for hundreds of more years. I wonder how many times these thin pages can be turned before they crumble. The low quality of this machine-produced book shows in the sepia-ink that seeps from one side of the leaf to the other. Online, these are difficult to read; but in person, I can draw my fingers across the lines, and sheer proximity allows me to ignore the letters showing through.

Certainly, I can put my finger on the screen of my computer, but it does not help with the legibility of the handwriting. In the digital viewer, it is difficult to process the item as anything other than an image, and my brain will not focus on the letters–seeing instead only color differences between one pixel and the next. I am reminded of the recent development of literary criticism that turns to “surface reading” instead of hermeneutics that seek to uncover truths about texts via, for instance, psychoanalytic theory. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus explain that they conceptualize the surface of the text as “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and bredth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” (9). They are not talking about a digital surface here, but the analogy is a good one. On the computer I am looking at the item. In the reading room, though, I am with it. I can see where the record-keeper pressed harder on the page –the sepia ink forms puddles at the ends of the letter curls. In other places, I can see where the writer’s hand smeared the ink before it dried. I can see these things in the digital images, obviously, but I cannot feel them. Using my fingers to trace the path of the pen, I imagine I can even feel where the pen’s nib leaves barely-perceptible scratches on the surface of the paper.

Looking at the 1st folio verso page on my screen, I saw a dark dot that I assumed was left by an accidental press of a nib. Now, though, I can tell that the mark is darker and blacker than the sepia ink. It looks like a drop of ash from a candle held over the page. Later, on the fourth verso and fifth recto pages, miniscule black speckles are scattered across the page; but these seem to be the same tone and hue as the ink. I image the record keeper writing on the ship. A gust of wind rushes through the room. It blows the liquid from the nib of the pen onto the page. The speckled ink, the edges of the pages darkened from exposure to the elements: these things appear in differences in hue so slight that I didn’t notice them on the computer, despite the high pixel count on my “retina” screen.

Something else: the 6th folio recto page looks so dirty that I can see the grains in the paper more clearly. I run my fingers across the paper and lift them to find that tips are blackened–the dirt or dust or candle ash has transferred. Now it is the grooves in my fingerprints that are brought into relief (like the raised surface of a wood-block print). I am aware now of the materiality of my computer: pieces of metal and plastic that must be clean to ensure their continued functioning. (I would worry that these centuries-old filth will affect my keyboard, but I already have my keys covered by a silicone protective sheath.)  

Sitting in the reading room, I am trying not to fetishize the physical object or let the nostalgia overwhelm me as I wonder about the people on a ship from 181 years ago. But I wonder about the experiments that might be done on the remnants in this log book, like the studies of the smells of books mentioned by Sarah Werner. The digital record lists the ninth recto folio as a “blank” page. When I flip to it in the reading room, a spot of dark red sits on the page. This page is not blank. This page is covered by something left by humans (Is it blood?). The book holds human remnants, and they have seeped through onto the next–physical, not digital–page.


Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (November 2009), doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.

Chartier, Roger. “Languages, Books, and Reading from the Printed Word to the Digital Text,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004): 146.

Sarah Werner, “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities,” Journal of Digital Humanities vol. 1 no. 3 (Summer 2012).

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