Tuesday, December 22, 2009

the most influential book history tools of the decade

It's that time of year again. Indeed, it's that time of decade. That's right, everywhere you look, top ten lists abound. I'm not sure why we need to list ten of things we find remarkable. But it's made me start thinking: what would be on my top ten list of notable early modern book history events or tools of the decade?

Right up there at the top would have to be digitization, from EEBO to Google Books to The Shakespeare Quartos Archive. The ability to access facsimiles of works without having to travel thousands of miles, potentially saving time and money and carbon emissions and wear and tear on the books, has fundamentally changed how we conduct and teach early modern books and book history. EEBO and Google Books have been mostly about access, but Shakespeare Quarto Archive is not only about access but about developing digital tools for studying texts. (Read my posts on digitization to see some of the pros and cons I see with this development, since it's too complicated of a subject to rehearse here. Again.)

I'd say, too, that book history and early modern blogs have seen remarkable growth over the past ten years. Blogs have enabled a conversation between far-flung scholars and devotees of early books that wouldn't be otherwise possible. I've learned a lot from Mercurius Politicus and diapsalmata, as well as Early Modern Online Bibliography and Bavardess (I've learned from many others, too, and have links to them on my blog--this is just a ruthless short list of a handful that I go to the most often). They've done good things for libraries, too, opening up interest in collections and, I like to imagine, the use of our materials, across levels of scale and resources. The Beinecke has a great bunch of blogs (early modern, paleography), and I enjoy reading "Notes for Bibliophiles" from the Special Collections at the Providence Public Library. I've pleaded before for more early modern literature blogs, but I've really enjoyed what is out there, literature or not, early modern or post modern. Especially as someone who only came to this field a few years ago, I've learned a lot from reading your blogs and have been grateful for being part of this community.

This one is a bit more idiosyncratic, but watching my kids learning to read has given me a new appreciation for reading in general and for the emotional ties we have to books. Over the past ten years I've seen both my kids start reading and start loving books; I've actually also gotten to see both of them start learning Hebrew as well, which brings home the whole weirdness of written languages and learning to recognize letters as making up words and those words as having recognizable (and deployable) meanings. I continue to find the transition from gobbledygook to spoken language amazing, and the movement from spoken to written language is equally fascinating. I have one child who refused to read on his own until he had it mastered; the first book he read was The Borrowers, which is crazy ridiculous for a first-time book. My other child insisted on figuring out the reading thing before he'd even started school and made tons of mistakes along the way; those rhyming books like "Pat sat on the cat" were a key exercise for him, if a bit tedious for me. Watching them learning to read in their own ways provided insight into literacy in a way that I otherwise wouldn't have appreciated. What does it mean to be literate? Does it mean to haltingly read rhyming books? To understand the metaphorical implications of Bilbo's fight against Smaug? To pronounce written characters in words whose meaning you cannot understand? (For something of the emotional resonance of reading with children, see this post.)

This might also be myopic, but I think a growing interest in the pedagogy of book history and bibliography has been another development. In my discipline of English literature, at least, bibliography and textual studies had a marked decline in graduate programs--when I was in grad school in the early 1990s, in a program that is now characterized by a strong interest in the history of the book, there were not only no requirements for mastering descriptive bibliography or editing, there were few opportunities to learn those subjects. My sense, without having conducted formal studies of the subject, is that this was characteristic of the field in those years. Once upon a time, PhD students were required to have a knowledge of bibliography and editing; those requirements fell by the wayside, and an interest in those subjects has only recently reemerged and trickled down into graduate and undergraduate programs. As someone who runs a program teaching these subjects to undergraduates, I might easily be accused of myopia here, but I do think that an increased interest in teaching these subjects is not characteristic only of the Folger but of many programs. (I've blogged some examples of the work my students have done in my courses.)

Back to technology, here's another one that people didn't necessarily see coming: audiobooks. That's right, the rise of the iPod has led not only to the rise of iExcess, but to an increase in audiobooks. Remember when we used to listen to books on tape? Remember how awkward they were, how limited the selection was? I used to go to my public library (the fab Philadelphia Free Library) to try to find books on tape to get me through the ten-hour drive home to Michigan. It wasn't so easy to do. But now, thanks in part to Audible's large library, there are a slew of options out there. And listening on your iPod is so much easier than flipping tapes over. Neil Gaiman had a nice piece on NPR last month pointing out the unexpected rise in audiobooks. I love me a good audiobook. But I love, too, the way this reminds us that technology doesn't always have the effect we expect it to. Audiobooks were on their way out, and the decline of the cassette tape seemed only to confirm that fade. But then came along MP3s, and the rebirth of audiobooks.  

I am, alas, only up to five, which is well short of the ten that make up most lists. So I turn to you, dear readers, to help flesh this out. What would you point to as developments over the past decade that have shaped our understanding of early modern books and book history? Twitter? Amazon? The recovery of Durham's stolen First Folio? Kindle? The pdf of the Stationers' Register? Don't let my perspective dictate yours--I'd be thrilled to expand my horizons with your help!

And with my advance thanks for your thoughts on this subject, please add my best wishes for a happy new year!


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

My favorite line from the One Fish Two Fish book that you are quoting is "Pat sat on a cat," well illustrating what Freud called the anal phase of child development. Then comes Pat about to place his derriere on a cactus with the interjection, "No Pat no! Don't sit on that!" Yes I have read this book more than one million times.

I have had a similar experience of watching language in action through my kids learning Hebrew and (now in one case) French ... and piano. Their ability to translate black circles on lines into finger movements into music has been breathtaking to behold. I'm in awe because they have a language that I don't. The pleasure it gives them is also extraordinary.

That doesn't answer your query about books and book history, but it is an appreciation of this post, and this blog. Happy 2010!

Peter Friedman said...

I'm sure it's not strictly a 2009 phenomenon, but it's one that's in line (or even part of) your category regarding book history and bibliography: specifically, the increasing scholarship on the very notion of authorship. No doubt this interest is provoked in part by the expansion of technology that breaks down assumptions regarding intellectual property rights that have existed for the last 150 years or so. But it also is provoked by the wondrous tools we now have to create in new ways (collectively, and crudely, categorized under the rubric of the "mashup"). I've blogged myself on a few of these issues, though people like Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi are the go to scholars in the area. See

Peter Friedman said...

The link I meant to leave on my own posts regarding changing notions of authorship is http://tiny.cc/uWpD1

Bavardess said...

Thanks for the shout-out. I pretty much agree with your top picks. The proliferation of original sources online in facsimile form through sites like EEBO has definitely made a major difference for me, as it makes it possible to do research in major UK/US/European manuscript/text collections from a distance. I still expect to have to invest in travel to consult originals at some point, but it certainly allows me to do a lot of leg work first. For my own work, I consider Gallica (the online digital archive of the Bibliotheque Nationale in France) a key development, especially since many older French language sources are not readily available through my local library system.

A related development that makes it all possible is, of course, the availability of cheap and easily accessible broadband connectivity and portable devices. I'm looking forward to seeing how much good e-readers will change scholars' practices, too. I wonder if new formats and functionality will make it possible to, for example, annotate a journal article and then disseminate it in new forms via electronic channels (kind of like the mash-ups Peter Friedman refers to above). It seems that the availability of articles in standard formats like PDF is already beginning to subvert the security systems that have until now kept a lot of material from academic journals locked behind pay walls. On a similar note, I'm noticing more academic books are starting to appear on BitTorrent-type file sharing sites.

Jeffrey - I'd forgotten that great line about the cactus! Thanks for the laugh.

Anonymous said...

Word clouds. Using computers to count word frequencies has been around for a while, and allows us to make empirical claims about the information content of a text without having to deal with the slipperiness of meaning so much. But we still have to find meaning in those statistics, and a table of figures can be quite uninspiring. A word cloud presents the data in a way that inspires new interpretations and gives us a completely different way of reading a text. Making one used to require some computer programming skills, but Wordle has made it easy and fun.

Wynken de Worde said...

These are some great suggestions--thanks, all! I hadn't considered how mashups have forced us (and copyright law) to rethink authorship. And that ties, as does Wordle, to Bavardess's point about the importance of the rise in connectivity. I'd say that not only has increased broadband access shifted the possibilities for research, so has the wider amazing increase in computing power over the last decade. Without powerful computers we wouldn't be able to run programs that allow for text and image and sound editing and analysis in the ways that create the sort of output that all of you are pointing to. And those tools can be used for analysis and creation--or, as in the best mashups and word clouds, both at the same time.

More for me to think about--an excellent way to start the new year!