Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Folger digital image collections, part 1

So, speaking of techonology, the Library has recently opened up a very cool new tool: you can now search the Folger's digital image collection from the luxury of your own computer! It's fun for playing and fun for research--although, really, is there a difference?

Our whole collection isn't digitized, of course. But there are some real gems in there. All the images that I use in this blog, for instance, are in the digital collection. Things end up in our digital collection via a couple of different routes. Sometimes a researcher requests specific images for use in a project: our photography department, headed by Julie Ainsworth, takes photos, and those get placed in the collection. Sometimes Library staff requests images for our publications, including our website and online exhibitions. Works also get digitized for use in the classroom, for instance for use in the undergraduate seminars and the Folger Institute's paleography classes.

There are also some larger initiatives to digitize parts of the collection. Most recently, and spectacularly, the Library digitized all pre-1640 Shakespeare quartos in our collection (with the exception of the few that weren't in condition to be photographed). I should repeat that: all pre-1640 quartos. Not one copy of each imprint, but all. How excellent is that? Really, extraordinarily excellent. And I'm not just saying that.

To find out more about accessing the digital image collection, either via the Folger's website or by installing Luna Insight software, see our information page. Once you're in the collection, you can browse, you can search for specific authors or works, or you can search by keywords. It can take a bit of playing to find things (the keyword searches are matched to the catalogue entries, and not necessarily to what is in the image). But I love what I find, even when I'm looking for something else. And when you do find something you want to work with, you can even download it!

(You'll see that you have the option of accessing Insight via your browser or by installing client software. It's definitely worthwhile installing the software--there is lots of stuff that you can do with the software that you can't from the browser, like accessing only the Shakespeare Quarto project. There are more options for downloading, too, like exporting a raw html page. More on those toys next time.)

So what's the image above? It's something I found while browsing the collection and it seemed apropros for this post. It's a detail from a 1700 edition of Johann Comenius's Orbis sensualium pictus, a book best described by the continuation of its title in English: Comenius's Visible world. Or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein . . . for the use of young Latine scholars. This particular picture is a detail showing a scholar at work in his study. What are the numbers in the picture? They're keyed to the English and Latin vocabulary words that are illustrated! I'll show more from this book in a future post. But for now, you can find information about the book in our online catalogue. And you can find the picture itself by doing a data field search for it in Luna Insight with the image root file number 7988; you can see the full page in image root file 1386.

The beauty of the digital image collection and the public's access to it are the results of the hard work of some key Folger staff: Julie Ainsworth, Head of Photography; and Jim Kuhn, Head of Collection Information Services. Kudos and thanks to both of them, and the many others, who made this happen.

And to all of you, happy playing!

Monday, December 1, 2008

more on book technologies, or, "the book is like a hammer"

Just after my last post, a few more items related to books and technologies came across my radar. (Okay, most of those items were in the Sunday New York Times, but I do spend a lot of my Sundays reading the newspaper.) Some quick mention of them here, then.

First up was an opinion piece by James Gleick about digital books and traditional publishing. There's been a lot of gloom and doom about the end of the book. Most of it is ridiculous: books are not dying, they are not about to disappear. But there are some things that are definitely shifting: book sales are down (though I'd say that has less to do with competition from digital texts and more from poor publishing and bookselling practices, in which there has become less and less room for individual taste and outliers) and textbook costs are ridiculously high. What I like about Gleick's piece is his recognition that books are two things: physical objects and texts.

As a physical object, the technology of books is brilliant. The Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device joke from an earlier post gets at exactly how amazingly books do their job. As Gleick puts it,
As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer.
He's not interested in fetishizing the book as an object, but in recognizing its utilitarian value:
Now, at this point one expects to hear a certain type of sentimental plea for the old-fashioned book — how you like the feel of the thing resting in your hand, the smell of the pages, the faint cracking of the spine when you open a new book — and one may envision an aesthete who bakes his own bread and also professes to prefer the sound of vinyl. That’s not my argument. I do love the heft of a book in my hand, but I spend most of my waking hours looking at — which mainly means reading from — a computer screen. I’m just saying that the book is technology that works.
But Gleick also points out that there are some texts that are better delivered through a different technology. Encyclopedias are at the top of his list, and phone books. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the best example of a book that delivers its text now extraordinarily well digitally--the OED would not be as flexible and wide-ranging of a tool as it now is if it only existed in its multi-volume, occasionally published paper form.

I'm not going to go into the agreement that Google has struck with the Authors Guild, which is where Gleick goes. But Gleick makes some good points that just as the technologies for delivering text and information change, it does not necessarily mean that the technology that is the book disappears. Indeed, perhaps it means that the purpose of that technology--to deliver text--can take on a new life and reach a new audience. Books want to be read. I have a hard time being against new ways of making more texts reach more people.

So if Gleick focuses on the technological purpose of books as text and information delivery systems, elsewhere in the Times, the Style writers suggest the value of books as objects to be objectified. In their gift-giving guide (perfect gifts for less than $250!!), books crop up twice as great holiday presents.

First is the recommendation that "Old best sellers are affordable first editions. Assorted titles from $50." It's helpfully illustrated with a photo of Rabbit is Rich, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and Mona Lisa Overdrive (no information is provided on whether we should infer we should stick with dead, or nearly dead, white men, or if other best-selling authors will do).

Second, and much more weird, are "Classics that are a snap to read. Book covers painted on wood, $150, by Leanne Sharpton" with pictures of The Call of the Wild, The Master and Margarita, Tess of the d'Ubervilles, and Oliver Twist. I'm not sure what to make of them, or of the juxtaposition between the $50 first editions and the $150 wood blocks. Read one, I guess, and display the other. Although I suspect the editors have in mind displaying both.

Personally, if I'm going to be buying a book as an object, I'm going to go with a purse. Caitlin at Rebound Designs turns old, unwanted books into purses. It's the ultimate pocketbook! I have one that features square dancers, but there are a wide variety from which to choose, and she'll even do custom orders. Plus, if you want, she'll give you the guts of the book along with the purse made from its covers. Now that's technology!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

book technologies

Digesting turkey hasn't been helping with my processing thoughts for this blog, so I'm going to do the classic blog thing of directing you to some other blog posts:

At Mercurius Politicus, Nick Poyntz has a great post on "Information technology and early modern readers", thinking about bookshelves and the ways in which the organization of books in physical space shapes their use. He looks at the libraries of Montaigne, Cotton, and Pepys, each of which were organized differently and suggests different ways in which those libraries were processed. Nice quotes from these early modern scholars and great links to more images.

A less scholarly approach but more visually lush take on libraries can be found at the reoccuring "bookporn" series at A Historian's Craft. Post #19 has some great shots of the library at St John's College, Cambridge, with its fabulous call number indexes. (Of course, I'm partial to the Folger, both the Old Reading Room and the New Reading Room.)

Over at d i a p s a l m a t a are some fabulous images from a couple of Renaissance anatomy books. They're not just any anatomy books, however, but flap books, the kind where you lift the flap to see what lies beneath the skin, or muscle, or skull. The images themselves are great. But they are also a prompt for some thoughts on the challenges on digitizing early modern books; an earlier post on vovelles touches on this thread as well.

[Corrected: Yes, for those of you who caught this post when it first went out, there was a typo in the post title; it's now corrected, thanks to blogging technologies!]

Friday, November 7, 2008

chains & ephemera

Two different and opposing examples of print today, both of which respond to some of my earlier thoughts about the material presence of books and their durability or lack thereof.

The first is what I think of as a book with a seriously material presence: Thomas a Kempis's Works printed in Nuremburg in 1494 and bound in a contemporaneous pigskin binding with beautiful blind tooling, heavy brass corner bosses, clasps, and an iron chain.
Now that's a book! And not one you could take with you on your travels, either. But, of course, that is one of the reasons it has survived: it is heavily armored. (More details in our catalogue.)

My other example is its opposite, something that I find amazing it has survived at all: a newspaper from September 1648 called The Moderate (although its user has renamed it as The Immoderate Rogue). It's just one sheet of paper, no binding, no protection, no nothing. And yet here we have it.

I like this, too, for what it shows about the early modern printing press. It's an uncut sheet, printed in a quarto imposition. There are four pages printed on this side of the sheet of paper; flip the sheet over, and the remaining four pages are printed. What you get, once you've folded the sheet in the right order, is a 4-leaf (or 8-page) pamphlet. Below is the numbering for the order of this newspaper, were you to fold and cut it.

Newspapers were not designed to last through the ages. They were meant to be read and used and perhaps passed on. As with other types of popular printed material, the more heavily they were read, the fewer of them survived for us to study today. The current exhibit at the Folger focuses on the history of newspapers. It's a hugely informative and interesting exhibit. You can see it at the Library itself through 31 January 2009; you can also check it out online and listen to the audio tour.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

almost as good as a book

I've now read Virginia Heffernan's column in today's New York Times Magazine multiple times, and I am no less confused by it than when I began. Her focus in "Pump Up the Volume" is the Kindle, Amazon's e-book reader. And her basic point seems to be that it is almost as good as a book. This is why I've had to read the column multiple times. That's her point? It's almost as good as a book? That's really what her description keeps coming back to. One of the great things about the Kindle, Heffernan insists, is that it is so un-electronic, so unlinked to the internet:
Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book.
And I thought, what?

A bit later, she continues this vein:
A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares.
And again, I thought, hunh? Why don't you just read a book? But nowhere in the column does she really answer that question. She's thrilled to be on a plane flight with her new Kindle and is looking forward to being away from the beeping buzzing world of hyperconnectivity. So why doesn't she read a book on that flight instead of her Kindle? I realize, of course, that the entire premise of Heffernan's column is digital culture, and that reading a book perhaps wouldn't be the way to go in that context. But I am still surprised that it's not even a question that is addressed.

Okay, on one last delve into her column, I see one attempt at an explanation of what makes Kindle preferrable to a book:
As I said, the Kindle feels insular and remote from the wild world of commerce and buzzing data swarms. But the fact that it’s connected to the Web sort of — it has to be, right? Or how else could I download all these books? — makes the Kindle somehow better than a book. Because while I like a few hours on an airplane, I can’t say I want to move into a locked library carrel and never visit the Internet again.
So I guess that answers my question: the choice is between nearly lifeless electronica and locked into a library carrel.

I'll leave aside what that says about how we might feel about libraries, and the inability to simply turn off our PDAs. Instead, I'll use Heffernan's column as a jumping off point to thinking about books as technology.

There's a joke that has been circulating for a while about this fabulous new technology for reading--easy to operate, portable, compact. Have you heard about it? It's the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device! (You can read the full, original joke by Marielle Cartier in the Abbey Newsletter.) I prefer Medieval Helpdesk version from the show "Øystein og jeg" on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2001. It's been circulating on YouTube for a while now, and still utterly on target, both for its spot-on satire of helpdesk agonies and for the ingenious way the codex did revolutionize the techonology of reading.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

the Holocaust and libraries

A friend shared a recent article with me from Der Spiegel that touches directly on the subject of books and owners and their emotional and historical connections. The piece, "Retracing the Nazi Book Theft," examines the legacy of the Holocaust for German libraries: thousands of books that were stolen from Jewish owners and that remain in the collections of German libraries.

This photo (from the article) is of Detlaf Bockenkamm, a curator at Berlin's Central and State Library who been tracing the former owners of books stolen by the Nazis. Here he is standing with some of those books, part of the Accession J section, consisting of more than 1000 books acquired by the Nazis "from the private libraries of evacuated Jews" and then integrated into the Library's collection.

Just as paintings were systematically taken and claimed by the Nazis, so too were books and other cultural and valuable items. The stolen books have gotten significantly less attention in the media, however, perhaps because they are less spectacularly valuable than some of the paintings, perhaps because we are less used to thinking of books as important objects. But the repatriation of such paintings and books is less about their material worth and more about their emotional and memorial resonances:
Nevertheless, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann believes that museum employees and librarians have an obligation "to devote particular attention to the search for those cultural goods that were stolen or extorted from the victims of Nazi barbarism." Neumann points out that, more than just "material value," what is at issue here is "the invaluable emotional importance that these objects have when it comes to remembering the fates of individuals and families."
You can read the article for more information on how the search is going. It's painstaking, as you might imagine. Even aside from the reluctance of many libraries to focus on the task, there is the difficulty in going through the sheer volume of accession records, of looking through individual books for traces of their former owners, and then searching for those owners or their relatives today.

Given my recent posts on the social transactions of books, the timing of the Spiegel article reminds me that books bear witness to history in ways that are much larger than just a daughter's inheritance from her father, or a mother's gift to her son. And it opens up questions, too, of libraries and their obligations to books and owners. I've been doing a lot of thinking recently about libraries--what libraries do, about the tension for rare book collections between preserving the past and making it accessible. I'll post more about that in the future.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

the intangibles of books

My recent posts have been focusing on books that have been handed down from one generation to the next, books that allow us to see evidence of the social transactions of books and the links they forge between family members. But we wouldn't be able to see that evidence if the books themselves weren't in such good shape to begin with.

The photo above is of one of my favorite books, and I mean that in a very material sense, not a textual sense: I love this particular book because it was my father's when he was a boy. I remember it sitting on his bookshelves in our house, and him telling me how fond he was of Robert Louis Stevenson. I've never actually read Kidnapped. And I'm not going to be able to read this copy. It's so fragile that the front cover came right off as I removed it from my bookshelf this afternoon. I'm not actually sure what year it was published--it was part of the Giant Junior Classics series, but there is no date on the book itself, and though my father was clearly young when he signed it, he didn't date his inscription. I could read a different copy, of course. It wouldn't be too hard to track one down, even another Giant Junior Classics issue. But it wouldn't be the same, I don't think. What I love about this book is knowing that he loved it when he was a child, and that he loved it enough to save it. Not being able to read this book doesn't make me any less fond of it.

It does, however, make me keenly aware of how unlikely it is that my children will have this book on their shelves, or their children. Or to have it someday be auctioned off at Sotheby's, as Frances Wolfreston's books were. That's okay, really. I don't think it's valuable to anyone other than me. There are plenty of mid-twentieth-century books that future readers and scholars and grandchildren could wish had stayed in good enough shape to hang on to. We're lucky that earlier books were made of comparatively sturdy stuff.

In my earlier posts about the Frances Wolfreston books and other books, I have been focused entirely on the material and social presences of books--how books are made, how they circulate between users. I have not dwelt on some of the other important aspects of books, including the emotional attachments that readers and owners form to them and with them. But I don't want to underplay the intangibles of books, either. My father's copy of Kidnapped is important because of those intangibles. And it is those intangibles that I share with my son when we read Charlotte's Web together. We actually each have our own: my childhood copy is on the right, only $1.25, and his is on the left, just released as a "major motion picture."

I was traveling while we were reading the book, so I bought him his own copy and took mine with me, so we could read it together over the phone. And because the book is still published by HarperCollins, we could read copies that were nearly identical, page for page. When we were on separated by hundreds of miles, being able to read together--to turn the pages at the same time and to look at the same Garth Williams drawings--made us feel as if we were sitting next to each other, reading our bedtime story. That closeness was possible through the material conditions and history of copyrights, publishing companies, printing processes, and marketing. But it was made possible first by the power not only of E.B. White's story, but of the very act of reading together. That's one of the amazing things about books and readings to which my posts in this blog have not always paid tribute. It's a hard thing to quantify, certainly, and hard even to put into words. But my relationship to books that I've been discussing here reminds me that the Chaucer that passed from Dorothy Egerton's hands to Anne Vernon's to Frances Wolfreston's isn't just a volume of paper in which readers inscribed their names. It's a book they sat with, and returned to, and passed on to others.

I've been negligent in posting recently, and this post has not dwelt at all on early modern books. But I'll be back up to speed again soon, with more posts on early books and book history. In the meantime, happy reading.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Montelyon's sword

I've been thinking a lot recently about the social lives of books and how they take on meaning through our uses of them. That's come in part from the moving Yom Kippur service I was at and the use of a rescued Lithuanian Torah scroll. More on that, and how it has been making me think about the lives of books and readers, in a future post.

But for this post, a much smaller look at a book from our period and the social and emotional life it suggests. So: Emanuel Ford's The famous historie of Mountelyon, Knight of the Oracle, and sonne to the renowned Presicles King of Assyria. The Folger's copy of this book is, unsurprisingly given my recent theme, one that was owned by Frances Wolfreston, and it has her characteristic inscription on leaf A3r: "Frances Wolfreston her bowk."

What I like about this particular book is that she seems to have given it to her son Francis, who also carefully inscribed it on the first leaf: "Francis Wolferston his Booke." (You can see bleed-through from the other side, on which a later Wolferstan decendant has inscribed his name and has repeated the title of the book.)

In 1652, the year that Francis has dated his inscription, he would have been fourteen years old. And later on in the book is the sort of marginalia that I imagine a 14 year-old boy reading a romance would want to draw: the hero's spear and sword.

I love that Frances bought this book, and then passed it on to her son, and that both of them marked it as their own. The fact that she gave it to him when he was still young, rather than him inheriting it as an adult, as was true of the other books that his brother was willed, makes it seem so much more evocative of a parent-child relationship. Or maybe it's that drawing of the sword that gets to me. The Chaucer is a big important book, and the marginalia only confirms what I think we already know from looking at it. Frances and Francis's inscriptions make this book, which would otherwise be a slight romance, into something more tantalizing and meaningful.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

not only Wolfrestons!

So my favorite Chaucer, as I've mentioned before, is inscribed by Frances Wolfreston and recorded as a gift to her from her mother-in-law Mary Wolfreston. And as we know from her will, discussed in my last post, Frances left her library to her third son with the instructions that it be made kept distinct from the family's other collections and made available for borrowing by her other children. As a result, her books were passed on through generations of the Wolfreston family. Elsewhere in this book are the inscriptions of two later family members: "T. Wolfreston anno D[omi]no 1717" and "J. Wolfreston ejus liber anno D[omi]ni 1718." The book itself is bound in an 18th-century reversed-calf binding that is inscribed on the front cover with "S. Wolfreston." For me, that's already a treasury of information about how this book was valued and passed on through a family.

But it gets better! The Wolfreston annotations are simply the traces of what happened to the book after it passed into Frances's hands after 1631. The Chaucer is full of other annotations, annotations that are more detailed and perhaps more indicative of the readers' relationships to Chaucer's texts. Check out the blank leaf reproduced below, covered with inscriptions:

Most prominent are three verses signed by Dorothy Egerton:
Saynct james in hys epistle sayeth vy are all offendours many Wayes but those that offende not in ther tongues Are trulye blessed. the tongue sayeth he is a small membr[e] but it Worketh wonders. Hitherto saynct james. DOROTHE EGERTON
He is neyther riche happye nor Wyse
that is abondeman to his owne avaryce
Dorothee Egerton
Fauour is decetful and beautye is a vayne thynge but the Woman that feareth god she shall be blessed. proverb 30
There is also the inscription of ANNE VERNON just after Dorothy's quotation of Saint James, some other words in a small, upside-down secretary hand at the bottom of the image, and lots of smudged-out words.

Who are these other people? Dorothy Egerton (who, you will have noticed, did not spell her name the standard way we do today) married Thomas Vernon; Anne Vernon is obviously a family member through that marriage. And the connection to Mary Wolfreston, Frances's mother-in-law? Her family name before she got married was Egerton. Not only did the Chaucer pass through the Wolfreston family hands, it passed through the Egerton family into the Wolfreston family. And its users left their traces all along the way.

More next time about those traces, their connection to Chaucer's poems, and what this book might have to tell us about readers and the networks they form through books.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Frances Wolfreston, book collector

Earlier this month I promised some more posts on Frances Wolfreston and her copy of Chaucer's works that we have at the Folger. It's one of my favorite books at the moment, so there will be lots more coming, but here's some starting information about Wolfreston's books.

Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) seems to have started collecting books after her marriage in 1631 to Francis Wolfreston (1612-1666)--or at least she started inscribing them after her marriage, since none of them appear with her maiden name, Frances Middlemore.* Nor are there any books inscribed by anyone else in the Wolfreston family prior to her marriage; in other words, she didn't seem to sign books that were already in her husband's collection, but built her own library of books.

Paul Morgan characterizes Wolfreston's books as "the leisure reading of a literate lady in her country house." They include plays and poems, but also jest-books and religious works.** Among the books bearing her signature are Heywood's Rape of Lucrece, Lodge's Wits Miserie, Ford's Love's Sacrifice, Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie, Catholic and Anglican catechisms, many of John Taylor's poems, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Richard II. Most prominent among her collection is the surviving copy of the first printing of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, subsequently owned by Edmund Malone and now held at the Bodleian. (You can see an image of the title-page of that book here, with her faint inscription just to the right of the printer's device.)

Her books clearly were important to her, since she singled them out in her will with careful instruction about their care and use:

And I give my son Stanford all my phisicke bookes, and all my godly bookes, and all the rest conditionally if any of his brothers or sisters would have them any tyme to read, and when they have done they shall returne them to their places againe, and he shall carefully keepe them together.
Her collection of books, inscribed and passed on to Stanford, and then through his descendants, remained at Statfold House until they were auctioned off by Sotheby's in 1856. A number of the books include not only her inscription, but those of her children and other family members. Taken together, Wolfreston's collection can teach us not only about her own personal taste, but about books and social networks. Plus, there is a real thrill in seeing the signature of the same person over and over again--it's a reminder that there are real readers who held and treasured these books that we now study. I'll talk more about the collection's integrity and the familial traces left in them in a future post.

*Not enough Francis/Frances names for you? Frances Wolfreston's mother was Frances Middlemore, and the eldest son of Frances and Francis Wolfreston was, yes, Francis Wolfreston. Incidentally, Frances's second son was named Middlemore (her maiden name), and the third son was named Stanfold (her mother's maiden name).

**Much more information about Wolfreston can be found in Paul Morgan's "Frances Wolfreston and 'Hor Bouks': A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector" The Library, 6th series XI (1989): 13-219. Especially notable is Morgan's legwork in tracking down over one hundred books from Wolfreston's collection; that list is included as an appendix to his article.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

copy-editors redux

A few months ago, I blogged about copy-editors at newspapers, using Lawrence Downes's lament for the declining trade as a prompt for thinking about how mistakes get corrected in print runs--early modern and modern. In that post, I noted that early modern printers made changes during the course of a print run without noting the fact or alerting readers to the fact that the book that they are buying might contain uncorrected errors. There was perhaps something similar, I thought, to the ways in which changes get made to online newspapers without any reflection of that change. A story will be reedited, reposted, and read without any acknowledgement of those changes. Any quirks in the earlier story that are stripped out are then invisible to later readers.

Last week, the Washington Post Ombudsman, Deborah Powell*, wrote her column about the disappearance of copy-editors from newspapers due to budget cutbacks. Her concern, expressed in her voice and in quotes from other newspaper professionals, is that the credibility of newspapers will suffer as a result. But there was something that caught my eye in light of my story about Client 9 in my earlier post: at the end of her column, which I read online, appeared this immediately after her contact information: "A longer version of this column appears on"

Now that's a line that cries out for a copy-editor. Given that I read the column in its online (and apparently longer) incarnation, shouldn't this statement have been changed to reflect its reading audience, providing information we don't have: "A shorter version of this column first appeared in print in the August 31, 2008 edition of the Washington Post"? The way it appears makes me wonder if I am really reading the longer version intended to be online. If they forgot to change that line when making the piece go live electronically, how do I know that they didn't forget to publish the rest of the online-only changes? Ah well.

It turns out that the New York Times has started providing such information to (as least some of) its online material. Today's Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, "Let's Talk About Sex", is published with the following clarification: "A version of this article appeared in print on September 6, 2008, on page A17 of the New York edition." It doesn't tell me how the two versions differ, but if for some reason I was preparing an exhaustive edition of Blow's columns, or perhaps an exhaustive editions of the media conversation about Bristol Palin, I could follow this note to see what might have been altered.

A final tie-in to early modern printing: Blow's column is accompanied by a chart indicating the various rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and sex in different countries. (Blow has been a graphics designer and the graphics director at the New York Times, and was the paper's Design Director of News before leaving for his current position as the Art Director for the National Geographic Magazine.) His chart makes a complicated set of data wonderfully easy to understand through his graphic design choices. (Check out the difference between Denmark and the United States!) It's a topic about which I have so far said nothing. But the way that non-verbal typography expands the ability of print to convey information is something that is as important in early printing history as it is for newspapers today (online or otherwise). I'll aim in future posts to look at some instances of early modern inforation design--the presentation of tables, graphs, diagrams, and other visual tools that not only provided information to users but helped to shape how information could be used.

*Yes, Deborah Powell's official title is indeed "Ombudsman" and not a more feminine or gender-neutral derivation of that Swedish word. The New York Times prefers to title its equivalent person as the "Public Editor", thus avoiding not only gender confusion but using a term that is more readily understood by the actual public for whom he (Clark Hoyt, to be specific) is "the readers' representative."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

school books

Today's post is in honor of all students returning to school everywhere--and in honor of all their teachers. For me, one of the strongest markers of a new school year is the buying of books (and, as a professor, the endless copying of excerpts of books to be put on reserve). For generations of early modern English school boys, the foundational text of their study was William Lily's A short introduction of grammar generallie to be vsed. Compiled and set forth, for the bringyng vp of all those that intend to attaine the knovvlege of the Latin tongue. In1542 by Henry VIII made Lily's Grammar the authorized book for studying Latin, and the work was reissued repeatedly for more than a century, and continued to influence subsequent Latin grammars well after that point. (Lily himself died in 1522, years before all this--what we--and those school boys--refer to as Lily's Grammar is a text that, in fact, is only partially written by Lily himself.)

Reproduced above is the title page of from a 1557 edition. The most noticeable thing about it, I think, is that nearly all the white space has been written on by its users. I want to point out one particular set of scribblings, those words just above the printer's device and enlarged below:

Who does this book belong to? John Scott, who carefully notes that point with the phrase "Jhone Scott with my hand at the pene." John also seems to have started to write this inscription along the gutter, starting at the bottom of the page just to the left of the printer's device. (There's something else above that line, but at some point rebinding has made the gutter swallow the words.) At the back endpaper, both "Thomas Scott" and "Gulielmus Scott" have written their names, suggesting that this was a schoolbook that was handed down among the Scott family.

One other quick thing to point out: the printer's device is, in fact, an illustration of a print shop. If you look closely you'll see the compositor on the right laying out the type, the man in the middle pulling the press to print a sheet, and the man on the left inking the inkballs. More on printing presses in the future, and I promise a return to Frances Wolfreston once my teaching preparations settle down!

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Frances Wolfresston hor bouk"

My last post lamented pristine books that remained uncirculated and lonely on their shelves. This post is a teaser for future posts examining how very much we can learn about the ways that books circulate in readers' lives.

Above is a detail from a 1550 edition of Chaucer's collected works. On a leaf in the middle of the volume is carefully inscribed "Frances Wolfresston hor bouk geven her by her motherilaw Mary Wolfreston".

That in and of itself is a rich testament to the circulation of books. But there is more to be discovered. If you examine the Folger's catalogue entry for this volume, you will notice that one of the associated names is "Wolfreston, Frances, 1607-1677, inscriber". If you follow that link, you will discover that the Folger has an additional 10 books signed by Frances Wolfreston in its collections. Frances Wolfreston, you will soon realize, was an early modern book collector and her library of books, nearly all carefully inscribed with "Frances Wolfreston her bouk", can be found dispersed among some of the greatest library collections today. Another post will be devoted to exploring her and her collection.

One more tidbit teaser: you will also notice when looking at the catalogue entry that there are lots of other inscriptions recorded as being in this book. There are a number of other Wolfreston family members, suggesting that this volume was passed on down through the family; there are also a collection of other signatures from a different family suggesting that it was similarly passed down through their family. More about that, too, in the future.

In the meantime, two quick quirks that I like:

In her inscription, Frances spells her last name differently than how she spells her mother-in-law's. Her son Francis settled on yet a different spelling, choosing primarily to record his name as Wolferstan. We all know that early modern spelling was full of variants. But so, too, were early modern names. It seems very strange by our standards today: ask any other Sarah whether her name is spelled with an "h" or without the "h" and you'll discover that we are all very insistent on the importance of that difference.

Quirk two: when you follow the link for Frances Wolfreston to find other books that she owned in the Folger collection, what you actually find is that the Library appears to differentiate between those in which she is an "inscriber" and those in which she "signed". No difference in the books themselves. It's just a nice reminder of the many ways in which books are handled by many different people, and those human differences and foibles leave their traces everywhere.

Monday, August 18, 2008

do you write in books?

Some recent browsing on bibliophagia led me to (among many other things) a curious and disturbing discussion about writing in books. A sub-forum in a forum devoted to ChickLit, it consisted primarily of entries on how horrified posters were about people writing in books. I'm not talking about rare books, or library books, or even books borrowed from friends. I'm talking about people who won't write in their own books. Here's the words of one poster:
I am totally manic. I don't lend out my books. I don't write my name in books, nor do I write little comments in the margins. I don't break the spines. Ever. I won't even buy a book in a bookstore if the binding is the least bit damaged. I don't even highlight my college textbooks. The worst thing though: I refuse to buy "used" college textbooks that are highlighted/dogeared because it irks me so much. I will just pay full price. Sad, isn't it?
That's not so disturbing to me--I'm sympathetic with not wanting to buy a new book with a damaged binding, and I've never been convinced about highlighting as a useful reading strategy. Although how do you know you own a book if you don't write your name in it? And a number of posts confessed to being unable to lend their books out to friends because they were so bothered that they might be returned slightly dinged up. Isn't one of the great functions of books the way that they circulate socially? We bond over shared books, recommend them to each other, give them to one another. One of the great things about social network sites is that they allow you to share your bookshelves with your friends, and to discover new friends through their reading habits. The insistence on pristine books takes them out of our social networks, leaving them uncirculated and lonely on their shelves.

But here's the post that really got me going:
Last night, I looked over and my husband was writing in a library book. An [i]old[/] library book, circa 1880 or so. In pen. He tried to deny it but then sort of copped to it. I was so mad that I actually just left the room and went to sleep on the couch (and cold bitchy silence is not my usual MO with anger, honestly) until he came and apologized. I said that I know it's not actually my business, but that to me it seems like, I don't know, torturing a small animal or something just to see what happens. It's so completely arrogant and self-centered. Grrrr.
Writing in a book is akin to torturing a small animal? Put alongside the other posts in this thread, what comes across is a fetishization of the clean book, an idealization of books that seems to prioritize book form over book content. I of course think there is a great deal to be learned from the material form of a book. But don't the two work hand in hand? What's the value of a pristine book that has never been read? Especially in light of my last post about how readers make sense of their passages through books and about how necessary marking your book is, these posts to the ChickLit forum struck me as describing an impoverished relationship to books--for both their owners and for scholars of book history.

If those posts describe a near-exclusive focus on the form of the book, my husband tells a story that is the opposite. In grad school, one of his professors told a story about reading a Stanley Cavell book. As he was reading, he was finding Cavell more and more infuriating. And as he read further and further, the spine of the book began to crack and the pages began to fall out. Such was his fury that he took to literally discarding the pages as he read them--read a leaf, tear it out, throw it away.

It's a scenario that would probably kill those poor posters. And if those pristine books leave no traces of their readers in them for future scholars, the thrown-away text leaves neither readerly trace nor book. But there's a book that really mattered to its reader!

And in case you're wondering what those posts had to do with bibliophagia, here's the connection:
You're all going to hate me, but I promise, I don't do this any more (much). When I was younger, I used to eat books.

Really. Literally.

My copy of A Little Princess is more than well-loved, it's practically gone. I used to gnaw bits off the corners. It's incredibly annoying to me now. I haven't met anyone else who does that, probably for good reason. Still, as nervous habits go, I guess it's better than smoking. At least I always got my recommended daily allowance of fiber.
Here's to loving books.

(You can read these posts, and others, at the ChickLit Forums. There's much to be said about the term "chick lit" and what exactly it encompasses and what exactly it dismisses, but that's a topic for another blog.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

information overload

This is the time of year when I often feel assaulted by information overload: there are new books and articles being published in both of my fields of research, I'm behind on my New Yorker, novels are piling up by my bedside, and then don't forget all those blogs and websites to check in with! Sitting down and constructing my syllabus exacerbates all this. There are too many new works to read that I might want to include, and even worse, I can't always remember where I read that fascinating study that absolutely needs to be included. Didn't I read something in that gigantic book that will help us understand the mise-en-page of printed Bibles? But where? And has it been eclipsed by something more recent that I haven't gotten to yet?

Information overload. It often comes up as the bane of the electronice age, something that the email cockroaches and the endless web sites have unleashed on us. But Ann Blair argues that it is characteristic of the early modern world too.* The printing press was worried to have unleashed an overabundance of books, so many that they threatened to bury any useful knowledge in the sea of text. In response, early modern readers developed a host of reading and note-taking strategies to manage their information overload.

I've mentioned before the period's prediliction for commonplacing. But how do you commonplace when there are too many books and too little time? Marginal annotation is one way: noting in the margin particular passages that you might want to return to later. But how to write in the margins quickly? Abbreviations are good: n.b. for nota bene, for instance. Developing a set of marks, each with a different meaning keyed to different categories of information or response is another. In the book pictured below, an early modern user has written a key to their marginal notations just below the printer's device on the last leaf:

This particular book is a copy of Cicero's De oratore printed by the Aldine Press in 1569. There are actually two keys on the last page (the picture at the top of the blog shows the one below the device; there is a second key above the device as well). The two keys differ slightly, and some of the symbols do not appear in the De oratore, which might suggest that the reader was developing a notation system during the course of reading the book. Bill Sherman notes that "a trident was used for passages of augmentation or reasoning and the symbol for Venus signalled an interest in love."** Other symbols denote particular rhetorical devices.

Do we have a handy strategy for managing the information overload of the digital age? Google has tried hard to provide them for us. They've developed an appliance for searching effectively through an entire company's files, and unveiled it in the appropriately titled blog, "Tackling information overload, 10 million documents at a time." On a personal level, and one that connects directly with Renaissance reading strategies, is their Google Notebook. From their faq:

With Google Notebook, you can browse, clip, and organize information from across the web in a single online location that's accessible from any computer. Planning a trip? Researching a product? Just add clippings to your notebook. You won't ever have to leave your browser window.
It's commonplacing! Although I have to point out that I find their last sentence a bit troubling: "you won't ever have to leave your browser window." Doesn't it seem to suggest that you don't even need to go on that trip that you've been research and clipping? Just more evidence that Google runs our lives.

*Ann Blair, "Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700," Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003): 11-28. Online via JSTOR for those of you with access.

**William H. Sherman, "'Rather soiled by use': Renaissance Readers and Modern Collectors" in The Reader Revealed, ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2001), pp 84-01. This essay was originally written for the catalog of a Folger exhibition; an expanded version of this piece is in his most recent book, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 2008).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

owning your words

In a Chronicle of Higher Education column, Jennifer Sinor writes about having one of her course syllabi used by a colleague at a different institution, posing the question "Is it plagiarism when a colleague borrows your syllabus and then uses it in its entirety for his own course?" It's an interesting question. When do you own your words and when are they up for grabs by everyone else? Sinor's experience suggests to her that although she feels she owns her syllabus, and its appropriation by someone else was plagiarism, the others she talks to are less certain. Her department chair's response, interestingly, is that she doesn't own her syllabus: the university does.

As Sinor's column goes on to discuss, the question of what aspects of a professor's output are property of their employer and what are their own intellectual property are not entirely straightforward these days. But I'd like to focus not on the specifics of syllabi but on the recognition that we have different types of relationships to the words we use and the writings we create. I've commented before on the ways that blogs recycle other blogs as a type of commonplacing--in those cases, a particular writer's words (and ideas) become akin to common property. It's usually pretty easy to trace those words back to their source (one of the beautifully simple things about hyperlinks), so I wouldn't argue that such instances are plagiarism. But they do operate under a different type of ownership than the system by which scholars quote from each other in their articles and books. Are there other types of word ownership circulating today? One other system is that of technical manuals: who is the author of the guides that come with your new cell phone or laptop? It's certainly not an individual, but the corporation that produced the product. If writer A leaves company X to go work for company Z, A couldn't reproduce those manuals she wrote at X for Z. (Of course, she wouldn't want to do that anyway, since Z's product is certainly not the same as A's--the written word is so closely tied to the product that it serves more as an extension of that product than as a product in and of itself.)

Some of these other models of word ownership are helpful in thinking about the ways writers did and did not own their words in early modern England. Although there were recognizable writers who had audiences--John Skelton was a name that his audience would associate with a certain type of poetry, for instance--published books were owned by their publisher, not their author. (Even that sentence isn't quite right, since there were not "publishers" and "authors" in the same way that there are today. More on that in a future post.) When a publisher wanted to print and sell a book, he or she would go down to the Stationer's Hall and enter that book in the Stationer's Register. If the rights to print that book did not already belong to another stationer, and if the book wasn't similar enough to another book that it would impede the other book's potential to sell, then he could claim the right to print that book himself. The author didn't figure into the matter.

I haven't talked at all yet about early modern authors or early modern stationers in this blog. It's a big and fascinating subject, and one that will come up in future weeks. But for now, I'll leave you with a few more examples of the myriad questions about authorship and ownership that come up in today's world.

Sinor, in her column, links to a blog post by Chris Cagle in which he discussed the question of syllabi and plagiarism; he responds to her column by noting that he feels his views were misrepresented by Sinor. The comments to his response raise the issue of whether or not other writers and journalists are responsible for contacting a blog author before citing them: are the blog comments public record?

Sinor also references Malcolm Gladwell's piece for the New Yorker magazine about plagiarism, "Something Borrowed" in the November 25, 2004 issue. It's a great piece, taking as its starting point the controversy around Bryony Lavery's play "Frozen" and accusations that she had lifted the dialogue for its psychiatrist character from a real psychiatrist's writings. The piece raises another question that I haven't brought up here: in artistic creations, do the rules about plagiarism work in the same way? You can read Gladwell's piece through the New Yorker archive. You can also read the piece through Gladwell's own archive on his website. Does it make a difference where you read it? Is it a different experience reading it as part of a collection of work that is owned by the New Yorker or reading it as a collection of work owned by Gladwell? Does the manner of publication suggest something different about who owns it? Does it change how we read it?

Incidentally, if you are curious about syllabi, you can find the syllabus for my Fall 2007 Folger seminar on "Books and Early Modern Culture" through the navigation links on the Undergraduate Program's homepage. The Fall 2008 syllabus will soon be posted there as well. And in light of this discussion: the syllabus is something that I designed myself, although elements of its assignments and organization are drawn from the large collection of book history syllabi that circulate via SHARPweb and through friends. I do feel like I own this syllabus. But one of the Folger's hopes for this new program is that it can serve as a model for other collaborations between research libraries and undergraduate institutions and as a model for teaching book history and research skills to undergrads. It would be hard to be a model--for this program or for any teaching endeavor--if we didn't share our efforts with our colleagues. Should you use it, please credit my work and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cranach Press Hamlet

On my last post about woodcuts, I promised some beautiful twentieth-century ones, so here you are:This is the opening to a German book arts press edition of Hamlet, printed in 1928 by Count Harry Kessler's Cranach Press in Weimar. The book consists of Gerhart Hauptman's translation of the second quarto of Shakespeare's play, surrounded by the relevant source texts of Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest. Throughout the book are beautiful woodcuts done specifically for this edition by Edward Gordon Craig. (A second version of this book, with the play in English, was printed in 1930.)

The Cranach Press Hamlet does a remarkable job of using the woodcuts not simply to illustrate but to interact with the text and to perform its meanings through shaping the look of page. Notice how the nervous guards huddle against the majuscule "W" in the opening scene, while the form of the Ghost lurks on the far right of the text. Or examine how the dumbshow preceding Hamlet's play is set off from the text just as the performance language of the dumbshow sets off the play-within-the-play and the performance of Hamlet itself. Here, the beautiful and mysterious players stand on top of the red text of the dumbshow--the only use of red ink in the playtext.

The most striking moment in the book, however, comes at Ophelia's death.

The crowd of spectators (those watchers who are omnipresent in the play) push against the solid walls that hold within them a rectangle of blue ink. Just barely visible in that blue is the white outline of Ophelia, walking away from the crowd.

It's a devastating scene that hits home because of its skillful mise-en-page.

In many ways, the Cranach Press Hamlet pays tribute to the power and beauty of early printed books. The typefont was designed by Edward Johnston after the fonts used by the German printers Fust and Schaeffer. And the layout of text surrounded by commentary mirrors that of early printings of classical and religious works. The use of woodcuts, too, is part of the reforming of early printed typography. And they are a powerful reminder of how much the layout of the printed page can effect our response to the work.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

more on medieval books

Since in his most recent post, Got Medieval has included my brief thoughts on why books should be one of words when defining "The Middle Ages in Seven Words (or less)", I thought I would flesh out my earlier post a bit.

For me, there are two equally important parts in the question of whether books are medieval: what are books and what is medieval?

For most people, I'd hazard, "book" means something in print, made from moveable type or from the computer software equivalent thereof. It's something that is printed and exists in multiple printed copies. (I'd actually go further, and say that for most people, "book" means something that is made and sold by a publishing company, rather than a vanity press. If someone says, "I wrote a book!", I think we assume that it will be bought and sold, not that it's languishing in our bottom shelves or that we paid for the cost of its printing and distribution. There's another post lurking in our future about the practices of publication and what buying and selling means for books.)

In that sense, books are something that came about after 1455--that is, after Gutenberg printed his bible. We might think that that is a bit late for something defining the Middle Ages. But books should also be thought of in terms of their form. A book is a codex, organized by stiching together loose leaves (usually of parchment or paper) in a fixed order. We are so used to this format that it often passes unnoticed. But the transition from scroll to codex (a transition lasting centuries that was nearly complete by 400 AD) was a major technological shift, one that was at least as transformative as the transition (still not complete) from manuscript to print.

In other words, while we might associate manuscripts most strongly with the Middle Ages, many of those manuscripts are also books. In that sense, I would say that books are indeed medieval.

The other half of the question--what is medieval--is not easily answered (as made evident in the many responses that Got Medieval records). For many people today, "medieval" simply means something primitive and out of date and possibly violent. If you want to lazily dismiss something as ridiculously backwards, you could label it medieval. In contrast to this vision of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance is the beginning of all things civilized: perspective painting, print, anatomy, subjectivity, colonialism . . . This simplistic binary falls in line with the equally simplistic binary of manuscript equalling error-riddled and ancient and print equalling fixed, standardized, and modern.

To this, I would respond that print is not as stable as we typically assume, and that it was partricularly variable in its early years of printing. Nor should we assume that manuscripts are automatically riddled with mistakes. To link medieval only with manuscripts and Renaissance only with books reinforces that false divide in both binaries.

At some point in the future I'll do a post about early printed books and contemporaneous manuscripts so we can think about how very much printed books owe to manuscript books. For now, though, I'll just leave with the observation that if you google "medieval books" what you get in response are sites about medieval manuscript books. Some of them are very good. But that response overlooks the much more complicated relationship between books and manuscript and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Not that I would ever suggest that Google misleads us--just check out Google Penance . . .

Sunday, July 20, 2008

more woodcuts

Last time I posted a picture of the big, full-page woodcut facing the first page of Genesis from the 1527 Latin Bible. There is another full-page woodcut in the Bible, facing the first page of the New Testament. But there are also lots of small woodcuts that appear at the heads of books and initial woodcuts that appear (sometimes) at the start of chapters.

Here is an example of both of those. The one on top--God with kneeling angels on either side--appears at the top of the page, on the left-hand column of text, just before the summary of the chapter. Below it is a smaller, square woodcut illustrating another moment of God's creation of the world. (According to Baudrier's Bibliographie Lyonnaise, these woodcuts were not designed by the master who did the full-page one, but by G. Leroy.)

I mentioned last time that woodcuts were investments that were often reused in the same or in different books. One way that the use of woodcuts was spread out was to have reusable borders that could decorate a woodcut. Look closely at the woodcut of God and the angels. There is the central picture itself, surrounded by a decorative border along the top, a different decorative border along the bottom, and two columns--one on the left and one on the right--depicting little putti standing on plinths. Now look even closer. See the white space between each border? And between the border and the picture? Each of those elements are separate physical pieces. That illustration is made up of five woodcuts. Swap out the central picture, swap in a different scene, and you have the makings for a different book illustration. Need a longer border? Add in more border sections, and you can get a bigger frame for the picture. Pretty resourceful.

Woodcuts were the most common type of illustration in the early years of making books. An image was drawn onto a block of wood, the white areas of the picture were cut away, leaving behind the raised lines that would then be inked, and transferred to the paper as black lines. Because woodcuts could be set along the type in a printing press, and inked and pulled along with the type, they were a preferred type of illustration during the early years of printing. Later, engravings became more in demand, as they could convey finer lines and more detailed illustrations; on the downside, they were much harder to incorporate into books, as they required a separate printing process and often had to be sent to a different printing house. (The image of the bookworm from earlier this month is an example of a copperplate engraving.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an essay about woodcuts and some nice examples online, including the woodcut used to print Albrecht Durer's Samson Reading the Lion.

Stay tuned for some examples of modern woodcuts in a beautifully made twentieth-century edition of Hamlet . . .

Thursday, July 17, 2008


It's been a while since I turned to the 1527 Bible, but we're not done exploring yet. We still have to look at one of its most striking features: the full-page woodcut. Go back and look at previous blogs on the book if you want to see it in context of the page opening. It's opposite the beginning of Genesis--a fitting choice for a depiction of God creating the world. Above is the woodcut itself, ready to be admired. It's a beautiful picture.

According to the Bibliographie Lyonnaise (a monumental bibliography and key reference source on early modern books printed in Lyon), the woodcut was made by an arti
st it refers to only as "the master of the Ars moriendi of Jean Siber." If you look further in the Bibliographie Lyonnaise and then follow that with research on the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, you'll discover that Jean Siber was a Lyonnaise printer associated with an edition of an Ars moriendi that was printed in the early 1490s (there's some disagreement about whether he was the printer or someone else). If you then go to Gallica, the online digital collection of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, you can find not only a record of this Ars moriendi (which they attribute to the other printer), but you'll also be able to access a pdf of the book! There are twelve illustrations in the book made from nine different woodcuts. First, here is one of those woodcuts:

Is there a connection to our woodcut of the creation of the world? To my (admittedly untrained) eye, there are similarities in style.

And now, I'll return to that number--in the Ars moriendi one woodcut was used in three different locations, so that there are twelve illustrations made from nine woodcuts. That practice is not unusual for the period. Far from it--woodcuts were often used more than once in a single book and they reappeared in other text as well. It's helpful to remember that woodcuts were hand crafted, that they were an investment of time, labor, and money. Why use it once when you can use it multiple times and spread out the cost? That beautiful illustration of the creation of the world we've been looking at? Jacques Mareschal used it repeatedly in Bibles he printed between 1523 and 1541.

Oh, and what's an Ars moriendi? It's a work that teaches you how to die well: the art of dying. Perhaps there will be more occasions to think about the connections between dying and printing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

more bookworming

Today's feast: this beautiful illustration of a book worm from Robert Hooke's Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. Published in 1665, with beautiful copperplate engravings based on Hooke's own drawings, Hooke's work is a foundational work in the history of science. And it provides us with the first depiction of a bookworm:
This Animal probably feeds upon the Paper and covers of Books, and perforates in them several small round holes, finding, perhaps, a convenient nourishment in those hulks of Hemp and Flax, which have pass'd through so many scourings, washings, dressings and dryings, as the parts of old Paper must necessarily have suffer'd; the digestive faculty, it seems, of these little creatures being able yet further to work upon those stubborn parts, and reduce them into another form.
This picture came from the Project Gutenberg's eBook of Hooke's work, which you can read in full online. There are more resources about bookworms: William Blades's 1888 Enemies of Books devotes a chapter to giving a heated account of the damage bookworms can do (it's also at Project Gutenberg, or you can find it here). More scientific, and less entertaining (albeit probably more useful) is the information given in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences:
Bookworms in the larval stage of a variety of beetles cause the most damage. Upon hatching, the larvae eat their way into the book, whose glue and starches nourish them. The well-fed larvae become beetles, lay eggs, and recommence the cycle.
That's a bit dry, to my taste, but there is useful information about killing the critters with napthalene fumes. They also explain what you might be wondering: why are there plenty of wormholes in old books, but not in newer ones? Our methods of making paper today are not as tasty. Mmm, china clay!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

digesting books

An earlier post joked about "cockroaches of the book". Then I was thinking not about scurrying little pests but about printed waste. But I don't want to overlook the relevance of critters to early modern books, so: what do you see in the image above? Tiny little black circles? Did you guess? They are worm holes, the traces of where little bookworms ate their way through this book (you might recognize it as the 1527 Bible I've discussed before).

Read more about wormholes in ABC for Book Collectors:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

medieval books

Over on the wonderful blog Got Medieval is a discussion about what terms define the medieval period and about the slipperiness between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What are the seven terms that define the Middle Ages? According to Got Medieval's students, "knights, things found on or around knights, and peasants" (my summary really doesn't do that classroom exercise justice; it's well worth reading). Got Medieval offers his own list, based on his tag cloud: "Beowulf, King Arthur, Marginalia, Manuscripts, the Bayeux Tapestry, Popes, and Latin."

A recurring feature on the blog is "Mmm... Marginalia", a highly entertaining look at medieval marginalia. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that marginalia or manuscripts should not be strongly associated with the medieval period. But what about books?

The first book printed with moveable type was Johannes Gutenberg's Bible, completed in 1455. Given the complexity of the task, it's likely that Gutenberg began experimenting with moveable type in the 1440s. Is that the Middle Ages or the Renaissance in Mainz?

I'm not quibbling with Got Medieval's list, or with the other lists that commentators devised (some of which do mention books on their list of defining traits of the period). But I do want to pause on that question of whether books are medieval. That split between medieval & manuscript versus renaissance & book reveals a great deal about how we conceptualize not only the two historical periods but also the traits of manuscripts and books.

More posts on that in the future. In the meantime, admire different copies of Gutenberg's Bible at the British Library, the Harry Ransom Center, Gottingen Library, and the Library of Congress.

UPDATE: Got Medieval fans: see my newest post updating this one!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hamlet's tables

In my last post, I mentioned Hamlet's practice of commonplacing, or recording things of note in his writing tablets. I want to return to Hamlet to look at commonplacing from a slightly different angle--not what is written, but what is written upon.

Below is the first part of the speech from which I quoted before. For context, you should know that Hamlet is speaking to himself after his first encounter with his father's ghost and during which the ghost exhorted Hamlet to "Remember me."

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter. . . . .
(Hamlet, Arden3, 1.5.95-104)
Hamlet's description of wiping away the records to clear the space for the commandment to remember his father has long been read as metaphorical. And there is much in the speech that invites us to read it as a metaphor: Hamlet describes his brain as a book wherein memory inscribes itself.

But Hamlet's reference to writing tables that can be erased is also quite literal. In a marvellous essay in Shakespeare Quarterly is a full account of how erasable tablets were made, who used them, and where we can find surviving examples. One survivor is in the Folger's collection, a copy of Robert Triplet's Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres (London, 1604). Below is an image of that volume held open to a set of pages treated to be erasable.

The pages were treated with a coating of gesso and glue, and written on with a metal stylus. In this example, you can see how the coating has crumbled over the years, with the top, harder layer remaining in some places (revealing a recipe for treating horses), while along the edges, the under, spongier layer is now visible.

It is worth noting, too, the size of the tables: small, and easily portable. What else makes this a portable tablet, as opposed to other, non-portable writing surfaces? Writing with quill and ink requires many more tools: quill, inkpot, a hard surface, paper, a quill knife, perhaps some blotting material. How could Hamlet--or an actor playing Hamlet--possibly carry so much equipment and stop to write with it? The only other tool required for these tablets is a stylus, and many surviving examples of the tables have evidence of a stylus having been attached directly to them, or kept within the binding.

Once again, the technologies of writing and the materiality of text shape what we can create. With erasable tablets, a scholar could note in his tables whatever he or she wanted to include in a commonplace book, transfer those notes to the book, and then wipe clear the table to be used again. Hamlet's juxtaposition of the table able to be wiped clean and the "book and volume of my brain" in which the Ghost's commandment will be inscribed enacts the practice of commonplacing that we have been considering.

For more information on erasable tablets, see Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe, "Hamlet's Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England, " Shakespeare Quarterly, 55 (2004): 379-419.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


At tea on Friday (the Folger heartily endorses everyone in the Library to stop for 3:00 tea--a great practice that is fruitful in ways beyond caffeine intake) with a couple of friends, I was struck by some of the oddities of blogging. Marshall Grossman was talking about the blog he writes for the Huffington Post, and about how bits of his blog crop up all over the blogosphere. Blogs are tremendously self-replicating that way: lots of them consist primarily of quotes from and links to other blogs.

Marshall was talking about how disconcerting it is to see his name and his words show up marshalled to the service of someone else's agenda. That, of course, is true for print essays as well--we all take other scholars' insights and use them to help shape our own. But what struck me is how much easier that it with blogs. You just cut-and-paste and there it is! Right now, I'm working in "compose" mode in Blogger, and there's a button with a double-quotation mark on it that will automatically format what I select into a block quotation. It's like they knew people were doing it all the time!

What this conversation made me realize was how much today's blogging is like early modern commonplacing. You copy down pithy sayings, observations, facts, and whatever else strikes you and collect them into your notebook. In the early modern period, copying them down was often only the first step; after that you would transfer them into another book, this time organized under subject headings. Hamlet does it:
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain,
My tables! Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain
The tables Hamlet refers to are a writing tablet in which he literally notes this commonplace. Commonplacing is a Renaissance practice and habit of thought that you can find in traces throughout the period's writings.

It turns out that my recognition of a link between blogging and commonplacing is, well, a commonplace. It's even in Wikipedia's entry on commonplacing. How banal is that? Less banal is this tumblelog, Commonplacing, which uses short quotes and a layout of boxes juxtaposing quotations.**

But while the recognition of all this ease of assembling quotes into a blog or a commonplace book might have been noticed, less commented on is my second observation: The ease with which the technology of cutting-and-pasting and of pre-formatted WSIWYG editing choices enable bloggers to take other people's words and incorporate them into their own blog, and in so doing, to essentially assume ownership of those words.

And this is what strikes me as the real connection between blogging and commonplacing. One of the disconcerting things, to a modern student, in looking at many early modern commonplace books, is that they do not tend to record the names of sources. A writer will commonplace a sonnet, but not the name of the poet. Put into a personal commonplace book, that poem becomes part of the property and identity of the transcriber, not the author. It's a very different conception of ownership of text: today, that would be plagiarism, would it not? Haven't politicians seen their candidacies fail for such things?

What I am describing is not plagiarism, but a different conception of the relationship between writer and written, one that is looser, one in which the written words do not stay firmly tied to one writer. For bloggers, the very medium in which we write encourages this perambulation and the technology that we use to shape our message builds into itself this commonplacing of ideas.

*I am quoting from the edition of Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor for the Arden Shakespeare (2006). There's much more to be said about this edition and about how editions matter when we're talking about Shakespeare, and especially about Hamlet.

**What's a tumblelog? Here's Wikipedia: "A tumblelog (also known as a tlog or tumblog) is a variation of a blog that favors short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with blogging. Common post formats found on tumblelogs include links, photos, quotes, dialogues, and video. Unlike blogs, tumblelogs are frequently used to share the author's creations, discoveries, or experiences while providing little or no commentary." (You can tell I'm old-school because I give you the definition instead of just linking to it.)