Monday, February 16, 2009

democratizing early english books

So after my last post, I've been thinking about what it means to make digital early modern books available in the sort of democratic access that Darnton hopes for in an Digital Republic of Learning. My final point, in that post, was that when my students are first confronted with early English books, they don't know how to make sense of them.

Here's one example of the sort of book that might perplex them:

Just looking at the page opening brings up some of the details that estrange us from early books: the catchwords at the bottom of the page, the signature marks, the fists and marginal comments. None of those are details that we are used to seeing in how today's books are laid out. And then there's the text:

This is a pretty straightforward and easy-to-read example. But even so, there are the long s's that look like f's, the non-standardized spelling, the interchangeable (by modern standards) u's and v's and i's and j's. (This image is from John Brinsley's 1612 Ludus literarius: or, the grammar schoole, an appropriate choice, I thought, for thinking about learning and the connections between learning and reading and writing. Don't forget to note your scripture in the margins! A zoomable image of the page opening is here--although you'll need to have your pop-up blocker turned off--and the catalogue listing is here.)

What about this for being accessible?

That's not as easy to read. It's not simply that it is in a gothic font, although that doesn't help--it's not a font we're used to today. But there are different letter forms even in that font: there are two different forms of "r," for instance, as seen in the last two words in the seventh line. There are also different spellings than we are familiar with, not to mention the different vocabulary. There's also the use of abbreviations, such as the thorn (what we would describe as a "y") with a superscript "t" in the fifth line. And then there's the second line which is too long to fit on one line, and so the final letters spill over onto the third line, marked off with the bracket.

What is this text? It's the start of the Nun's Priest's Tale, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, here shown in an edition printed by Wynken de Worde (my man!) in 1498. Here's a transcription (I have not regularized u/v or made any other changes):
A poore wydow somdele ystept in age
Was somtyme dwellyng in a pore cotage
Besyde a groue stondyng in a dale
This wydow of whyche I telle you my tale
Syn that day that she was last a wyf
In pacyence ledde a full symple lyf
For lytyll was her catell & her rent
By husbondry of suche as god her sent
She fonde herself & eke her doughters two
Thre large sowys had she and nomo
Thre kyne & eke a shepe that hyght malle
Well soty was her bour & eke her halle
In whyche she ete many a slender meel
Of poynaunt sauce ne knewe she neuer a deel
Oh, yeah, there's one other difficulty in reading this: no punctuation!

Those of you who know this text might notice, too, that it doesn't match up exactly with today's standard texts, and I'm not talking about how the spelling changes from one text to the next. At some point in the transmission from the surviving manuscripts of Canterbury Tales to this printed text, some of the words have changed (is the cottage narrow or poor?). Such are the joys of working with early texts. And I mean that seriously--I love that texts change as we transmit them.

So does putting early English books online make them accessible? My Chaucer example might be a bit loaded--part of what makes that book hard to read is Chaucer's language, which is distant from ours in ways that are assisted by glosses or teachers (although I do think that it's possible to understand the Tales without such aids, if you read patiently). But that is what early printed Chaucer looks like. And my first example doesn't have that problem--there are no big vocabulary obstacles and no strange printed letter forms to confuse us. But it still holds itself apart from us through the way that it appears.

I am certainly not suggesting that early modern books should not be made accessible through digital surrogates. (And there's a whole other post to be done on what digitization cannot do for us.) But it is helpful, I think, to remember that early modern books are not necessarily ever accessible without an apparatus that has been generated either in the classroom or through other forms of scholarly attention and intervention.

I don't think that Darnton doesn't know this. He certainly does. But in the discussion of what digitization means, I find it helpful to remember that access does not mean understanding. And looking back at early printed books can help us remember the ways in which texts and learning and reading are not always easily aligned.

And now to close with something pretty! Here's the lovely woodcut illustration and the marginal annotation summarizing the tale that starts things off (zoomable image of the page opening here; catalogue entry here).

Friday, February 6, 2009

navigating the information landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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