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 ageOh, yeah, there's one other difficulty in reading this: no punctuation!
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
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).