Pet Book Report #4: Digital Materialities

I’ve been theinking a lot about Professor Cordell’s argument that digitized historical texts are their own new editions, in terms of my recent work with Charles William Day’s Hints on Etiquette, and particularly my motivations for trying to see it in person. The motivations that I cited in my first archival post are admittedly somewhat reverse-engineered, since making trips to different archives has been a part of this course; were I doing this research on my own rather than for an assignment, I would have likely browsed the facsimile instead from the relative comfort of my desk.

I had a lot of trouble, as I was writing the post, justifying to myself why I took that trip to the BPL and then to the Schlesinger library when the book was “already accessible” to me from a number of online sources. Moreover, I kept feeling like I had to make the case to an audience beyond the people in our course about why I bothered to make the trip. So, I modified my narrative somewhat to facilitate making this case, or to avoid the need to make it at all. In truth, I did not anticipate looking at the book’s size when I visited, but in truth worked that in to my reading upon seeing the book. I mention this not to suggest that I think less value dervies in research from serendipity than from deliberate “searching,” but instead to suggest that my material readings of the text I found sometimes felt less-than-organic–or, at the very least, that they would come across that way.

I’m not sure why I in turn felt baseless or disingenuous for letting this concern shape my writing, since don’t think my trepidation was unfounded: even my response to a query posed to one of the libraries’ curators prioritized the convenience of the book’s digital edition over the physical copy (if I happened to be interested in it). And while my reading incorporated the book’s paratext and dealt with the readers’ identities within their reading environment (I think of Alberto Manguel’s work here), it was not especially material in that it did not specifically trace circulation or make much use of physical observations about the book (e.g. typesetting, paper type/quality, ). I considered it a weakness in my post, at least from the materialist perspective that has informed in book history: I was worried, as Robert Darnton narrates in his update to “What is the History of Books?,” that I was “stud[ying] the texts imbedded in [the book’s] pages without asking questions about the material itself” (497).

I may not be giving my reading of Hints on Etiquette enough materialist credit here: I did incorporate the book’s size and a reference to how image-setting methods may have influenced images’ placement and thereby constricted (or at least altered) their rhetorical function alongside the work’s text. But could I not noted the pagination on the facsimile, or zoomed in on it to determine the technology that created the image? In other words, I feel as though I didn’t say anything that required me to physically interact with the object. Further, I may have been reluctant to make any material argument about that particular edition, since I was working with the American adaptation rather than the London version–the assumption being that examining a digital facsimile of the “right” edition might be preferrable to a physical engagement with the “wrong” one.

My examination of the London edition’s digital facsimile would have been using it as what Cordell calls a “surrogate” for the analog original. This assumed surrogacy ignores the extent to which the screen as a technology mediates how we read digitized documents. Sarah Werner writes about the ways that these facsimiles don’t always capture what we want them to, because of both technological limtations and editorial decisions. See, for instance, my inability to make out the captions on the London edition’s engravings; facsimiles may also have left have out ephemera that have been vital. But the impulse can’t be to return to the physical version for authority, as we’ve discussed, since that ignores the extent to which variations exist and non-digital technologies also and differently mediate. Cordell argues that in order to do digital facsimiles due diligence, as the product of editorial choices made during digitization, we have to consider them as their own new editions rather than as transparent representations of the analog texts of which they are scans. I think this is one answer to the question I’ve posed here. Regardless of whether or not a reading makes conspicuously material claims, being transparent about which version you are using–to “keep track,”1 borrowing from Martin Paul Eve–that, in itself, demonstrates a material awareness. And it may have taken an additional trip to the archive to work that out.

1. ^ This is making me think of citation practices, like MLA, and whether we specify what form in which we encountered a source. I tend to trim the scholarly database I used, for instance, from all of my Zotero-catalogged works when I cite them in my scholarly work, but is that information worth retaining? Sharing? Is this only important for primary sources only? Secondary? Where is that line drawn? That’s beyond beyond the scope of this post. Thanks to my classmate Thanasis for chatting with me about it.

Works Cited

Cordell, Ryan. “‘Q I-Jtb the Raven’: Taking Dirty OCR Seriously.” 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Darnton, Robert. “‘What is the History of Books?’ Revisited.” Modern Intellectual History 4.3 (2007): 495–508.

Eve, Martin Paul. “‘You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes’: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.” Open Library of Humanities 2.2 (2016): 1–35.

Manguel, Alberto. “The Library as Space.” The Library at Night. Yale University Press, 2008.

Werner, Sarah. “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1.3 (2012). Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

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