Manuscripts and bookbinding

I came across a video on making an illuminated manuscript and binding it into a codex. This video has some interesting closeup action shots of people making vellum, trimming quills, applying gold leaf, sewing sheets together and applying boards to the book.  It’s just over six minutes long.  It looks as though this site has some other interesting videos, apparently at least partly driven by the resources of The Getty Museum.




Filed under Book binding, History and Future of the Book, Illuminating, Physical book construction

Things that were said about what was read

Elizabeth Eisenstein raises some interesting points about scholars having to be careful how they intepret who was using particular books.  She points to a useful distinction between “audience” and “public,” where audience is the documented set of users or purchasers of books and public represents the “hypothetical targets” of the producers of books (241). Eisenstein equates audience with “actual readers”, but I would shade that even farther, since a catalogue or subscription list may prove ownership but not consumption.

Eisenstein further suggests that scholars have made unwarranted assumptions about audience and particularly publics for books such as cooking books, or manuals of etiquette for young ladies. That is to say, while the etiquette might have pertained specifically to the young women, those interested in reading about it might very well include tutors or parents. This difficulty in deducing demographics reminded me of  a current dust-up over Google’s demographic assumptions based on your search interests. A group of self-described women geeks found that Google had uniformly classified them as young men, apparently based on their searches and click through patterns.

Another nuance that Eisenstein raises has to do with questions of literacy versus reading. She rightly points out that being able to read does not mean that one read, and that while Latin literacy might have held high status, that does not mean that those of high status would restrict themselves to Latin, or even prefer Latin over the vernacular.

Eisenstein draws attention to the use and dissemination of illustrations within printed books as significant. Reliable reproduction of those images made developments in science and engineering easier to share.

Although she doesn’t mention them in particular, printed anatomies (books showing anatomical details of human bodies) were an important part of medical education in England in the early modern period, because human dissection was illegal in England until quite late. People had to go to one of the universities on the continent where such things were permitted to see an autopsy. Printed works filled some of the gap, although there were some omissions in those texts as well.

Eisenstein discusses “job” printing, the production of advertising ephemera, official publications and the like as opposed to more speculative printing for general sale. While these are not always studied, they made up a large portion of the print volume for many printers.  It would be interesting to know more about the audience and public for these types of printing. How were they being used? A large chunk of EEBO consists of crown proclamations printed by various printers. How many of them were actually read?

An  article in The Economist in December compares the use of cheap print, including and especially woodcuts by Martin Luther to the use of social media by protest movements today. The author draws attention to the importance of timeliness and interactivity (that is, Luther and his opponents quoting each other and responding to each other quickly) in both cases.


Filed under History and Future of the Book, Reading, Technology

History of the History of the Book

Thomas Adams and Nicolas Barker raise some interesting questions and comparisons in  their discussion called “A New Model for the Study of the Book. They compare bibliography to anthropology and archaelogy. They make a key point that one of the  sources of the lack of respect given to the discipline of bibliography is the very ubiquity of books. They are not seen as “artifacts,” unique and worthy of study.

In an attempt to broaden the subject of bibliographers’ inquiries, the authors propose a new term, “bibliographical document” and definition: “something printed or written in multiple copies that its agent, be it author, stationer, printer or publisher, or any combination thereof, produces for public consumption” (51). They deliberately include ephemera, but restrict their definition to that which is done on paper or a paper equivalent. That is, they exclude digital works but include printed matchbook covers.

This made me think about a phrased used with respect to corporate documents, “This document transient when printed.” For many large entities the “documents of record”  or “official” copies of handbooks, procedures, and rules are electronic.  They are maintained, cited, and disseminated electronically. Precisely at the point when they enter the physical realm, they lose their validity as documents of record. They become transient, working copies and unofficial. Should these be included in Adams and Barker’s definition of bibliographic documents?  I think the answer would be no: at the point when they are being printed, they are not for public consumption. But even this could be complicated. What if someone prints multiple copies for a meeting?

The other question that I’d like to raise is whether their definition is too broad. If we define ‘bibliographic documents’  this way so as to include ephemera, do we lose sight of an essential and useful difference between books, magazines, newspapers, brochures and miscellaneous ephemeral documents? Does length matter? Does the serial nature of magazines and newspapers matter?  I want to rule out advertising as a difference; some magazines have no ads, and some books do.

Roger Chartier in “Labourers and Voyagers” addresses my first point when he insists that texts must have material form, but allows the possibility that that form could be electronic. “Authors do not write books,” he says. “Rather they write texts which become objects copied, handwritten, etched, printed and today computerized” (91). He describes a triangle, “defined by the intricate relation between text, book, and reader.” (91). This allows him to discuss how the different physical implementaions of the text into book can also transform the reader’s relation to the text. This is useful, I think, both in the context of physical book and text history (like the 1608 King Lear which had scenes but not acts, but has been printed in 5 acts to correspond with the 1623 Folio and later editions) and in the context of digital works which may be presented as simulacra of physical books, as individual screens, or broken into file sizes that have to do with system limitations rather than authorial intent.

Articles found in The Book History Reader, David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, eds.

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I’ve been reading about books, physical books, recently (Greetham and Ong) and about the act of reading (Ong, Birkerts). It’s made me think even more about the ways that we interact physically and physiologically with our texts. Ong and Birkerts, in particular, made me think about different ways that we experience books. If we listen to an audiobook, how does that differ from reading out loud to our selves or from having a book read to us? Reading aloud to an audience is an interactive performance in a way that audiobooks are not (live theater versus filmed). As reader, you can respond to your audience’s discomfort or lack of attention or increased attention to help convey meaning. On the other hand, audiobooks have the luxury of retakes if something’s not right and the reader cannot be distracted by the audience. As audience however, how do we receive these performances? Is it more meaningful that the performance is live? I’m curious whether, for example, people remember more of a book that’s read aloud to them in person (by a stranger) than from an audiobook.

I emphasize stranger because in practice in our society reading books aloud to one another is commonly an intimate act. A prime example is of a parent reading to a child. My mother read to me and my brother at bedtime well after the age that we’d started reading. The Hobbit, for me, was first an oral work (with pictures shared) and only later one that I read as text on a page.  Since we would have happily made her read all night long, my mother had to pick stopping points in the books that we read. Chapter endings were the logical choice, both structurally (most authors end chapters with some kind of intermediate conclusion, even if it’s a cliff-hanger) and psychologically in a way that even a pre-literate[1] child can understand (there’s white space, a break in the text; it’s okay to stop reading here). That rhythm of reading is deeply part of me even now, and I will find myself falling asleep, eyes crossing and book drooping, because I have to finish the chapter before I can set a book aside.  Intellectually, I know that I’m not getting much from reading when I’m that groggy. But if I’m not at that “official” stopping point, it’s hard for me to stop.

Contrast that experience with audiobooks, or with that of my young nephew, who’s experiencing many of his books through the medium of an iPad. On an audiobook, there is usually a delay, a pause, at the end of a chapter. It is not a long one, however, since silence loses the audience’s attention. Many electronic devices (whether computers or CD players) capture the exact location that you stop or pause and without any intervention from you beyond the act that stops it. You do not have to mark the text with a bookmark or dogear a page to get to the place that you were. Chapter breaks become less meaningful, unless the author (or possibly reader) manages to build in an obvious structural break to suggest stopping here rather than there.  In a play, the end of one act is not always all that different from the end of a scene, and yet we usually break our reading at the ends of acts.

It is hard to slow down reading when you have become accustomed or trained to read quickly and to read to completion, even if that completion is only a chapter or an act. I have to pay attention to unconcious speeding up and practice setting a work aside uncomplete, so that I can pay as much attention to the ends as the beginnings and middles.



[1] The word that came to mind was “pre-literate” and after hesitating, I left it. I’ll define it as unable to independently get meaning from words on a page, even though we knew words and knew that they had meaning.)

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danah boyd’s blog is one place among many that talks about why many sites went dark on January 18, 2012.

Here’s another article on the reporting about this issue and why it’s problematic.

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Textual Scholarship – background

Well, I now know why the Folger Shakespeare printing facsimile program is called “Impos(i)tor.” That program, if you haven’t seen it, lets you print out a sheet as if it had come from the printer, before being bound.  It uses facsimiles from the Folger and a “standard imposition scheme” but it’s an interesting aid to visualizing book creation. You have to be careful to start at the right page in order to get the sheet right, but it’s interesting to play around with.

I’m intrigued enough by technology to find the details of the development of printing processes interesting. Like frozen pieces of language, some of the features imposed either by limitations of earlier technology (the need for standard widths of type) or by happenstance (the prevalence of 12 point font) still linger in our work today.

I wrestle with my own desire to get at the “original” version of a text. I like to do close readings, but then I doubt myself when I look at alternate versions that suggest that my reading is based on a word that is an editorial, rather than authorial choice.  Then I doubt myself further, asking what it really matters.  Greetham helps provide us with vocabulary to talk about what an “original” text might mean and also illuminates some of the tools that scholars have used to examine specific works.

On page 106, Greetham mentions Caxton’s edition of the Morte Darthur (one of the most famous fifteenth century English literary works) and references the Winchester manuscript. This is one of those battles amongst scholars, like the date of the composition of Beowulf, that can seem almost incomprehensible to those outside of the argument.  For a long time, as Greetham mentions, Caxton’s printing of this work was the earliers version known. All the multiple printings and reworkings of this particular Arthurian tale depended on Caxton’s printed version, so although authorship is attributed by Caxton to Sir John Malory, we knew it as “Caxton’s Malory” .  Then a manuscript was discovered that had some significant differences from Caxton’s version.  Eugene Vinaver (we’ll see more of him later in Greetham) created the dominant scholarly version of the text for the mid to late twentieth century, based on the manuscript rather than the printed edition, suggesting that the printed version was derived at best at second hand from the earlier ms.

A scholar named Lotte Hellinga upended some of the arguments about authorial identity when she proved that the Winchester manuscript (that particular physical copy) had been in Caxton’s workshop a couple of years before he printed the Morte Darthur.

She was able to do this because when she examined the manuscript, she noticed printer’s ink on it (which is greasier than pen ink, as Greetham mentions).  Once she looked more closely, she realized that some pages had faint offsets where a printed page that was not yet completely dry had come in contact with the manuscript. With the help of Scotland Yard’s imaging machinery (the research was done in the 1970s), she was able to identify two specific fonts in the offsets, known as Caxton Type 2 (see Greetham p 239 for an example) and Caxton Type 4. Caxton  used Type 2  heavily until 1482  (not at all after 1483) and he was the only printer who used it.  Since the Morte was printed in 1484, that meant the manuscript had been in Caxton’s workshop before he set up and printed the Morte. Caxton Type 4 only started to be used in 1480, so that gave a fairly specific range, 1480-1483, during which the manuscript was there.

This didn’t end the arguments about authorship and composition but it did refocus them onto Caxton’s choices as printer.  It could no longer be argued that Caxton did not know about the Winchester manuscript and was merely setting up more-or-less exactly what was in his source text.  Hellinga suggested that the Winchester ms. might have been used as  a source text for a revision, copied and amended in the workshop to another manuscript that was then used for setting up the printing formes.

See Lotte Hellinga, “The Malory Manuscript and Caxton,” in Aspects of Malory  (Toshiyuki Takamiya and Derek Brewer, eds. 1981) for more details.

D.C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship. Garland, 1994.

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Filed under Digitized works, History and Future of the Book

New ways to look at academic publications

The Citeology project offers a new, visual, way to look at connections between articles.    The current project is limited to papers from Computer Human Interaction conferences.

What underlies the network of citations for each individual paper is itself a visual representation of articles. One axis is time (1982 to 2010) and it’s interesting to see the peaks and dips in the volume of papers. Volume went up and down through the 90s and actually seemed to maintain a slide down from 97-98 to 2002. After that, the volume of articles went steadily upward.

In order to make the images maneagable, the most-cited articles run down the center of the images. I wonder what the patterns would look like if the y-axis was based on citation frequency high to low (or low to high)?

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I’m sure this isn’t the only article on this story about the University of Michigan making a deal for ebooks for its students, but this is the one that I read today.  It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that the U of M would be interested in electronic forms of books given it’s involvement with other forms of digitization (the HathiTrust, among others).

Some of the comments were more productive than the article, and (as of the point where I was reading), most of them were civil and constructive.  One person argued that the inability to highlight or comment on electronic forms of textbooks would be problematic and someone replied to them pointing out that many digital texts allow for commenting and marking up.

One aspect of ebooks that I think is often ignored in articles like this is that implementation matters. Because an ebook could have annotation features does not mean that it does.  Because it could have bookmarking or split screen viewing dose not mean that it does. One of the comment exchanges pointed out that the pilot program involved “renting” the ebooks for a single semester, rather than owning them permanently or long term.

Unfortunately, better functionality does not always (or even often) win the marketing and distribution battle. Token ring was better technologically than ethernet, but ethernet won the wired networking battle. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying to identify what it is we want our tech to do and which applications and devices do it for us.

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Filed under Digitized works, Technology, textbooks, Usability

Only for Apple. Sigh.

So.  Amazing looking new digitzed works available from the British Library. With a catch.  You have to use an iPad, iPhone or iPod to view them.

Well, this is annoying.  Because why would I want to be able to look at The Luttrell Psalter, William Tyndale’s New Testament or Sultan Baybar’s Qur’an on the large monitor on my desktop (hooked to a Windows PC) </sarcasm>?

Following the links to the site turns up the following comment from the FAQ:

“Why is this just for Apple devices?
We believe that, for now, the iPad and iBooks combination provides the best way to experience these amazing books. We’re keeping a close eye on both the Kindle, Android and Windows tablet offerings, and when something compelling emerges, we’ll support it.”

On the other hand, the Royal Manuscripts catalog, also from the British Library, is at least available for Android as well as Apple.

Either way, they don’t mention desktops.  And I’m sure that my Windows 7 tablet could, from a hardware point of view, display the works just fine.  But I suspect that it has to do with maintaing control over the images rather than my viewing experience and Apple’s restrictive tendencies work well for that.

The pretty:

Luttrell Psalter

Luttrell Psalter on iPad

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Filed under Apple, British Library, Copyright, Digitized works, Manuscripts

What lasts?

Interesting article about a bookbinder.

There are two aspects to Michael Greer’s work that catch the attention.  The first is his work doing leather bindings/rebindings for books.  The other is a specific book that he created, namely Genesis in “binary.” I wondered when I first read the article, ASCII,  EBCDIC or something else?  Binary is a system for representing numbers, not letters, so you have to have another layer of interpretation.  The comments cleared that up (it’s ASCII).

Greer said, “I liked the irony, but I also liked what it said about the longevity of a book as a repository of information. ”  So really it’s a hardcopy backup of a text, that, given the lack of people who can sight-read binary-encoded ASCII, would have to be scanned (or typed) into a computer system in order to display it as English.

Why not? In some far off time when quantum computers are the only kind around, it could turn into a Rosetta stone that allows the walk between Roman letters and stored bits found in old media archives.  And it’s prettier than punched cards.

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