Book History and Digital Humanities: SHARP at #MLA 14 #s738

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The recent MLA 2014 conference featured numerous sessions dealing with digital humanities in its various incarnations. More than a few of those sessions dealt with the interrelationships between new and old technologies, including Session 738, a stimulating roundtable sponsored by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) and organized by Lise Jalliant (University of Newcastle). Unfortunately, Lise was not able to attend MLA as planned, so Eleanor Shevlin served as chair in her stead.

Designed to “shed light on the digital future of book history and the bibliographical roots of digital humanities” (MLA special session proposal), the “Book History and Digital Humanities” roundtable featured six projects that attest to the close interrelationships between the two fields. The presentations were delivered in the chronological order of the projects. Not only did these projects illustrate the ways in which the digital and book historical are tightly intertwined, but they also demonstrated various technological advances as they highlighted what a new generation of digital capabilities and thinking are affording scholarship.

Greg Hickman, head of the University of Iowa’s Special Collections and Archives, opened the session by discussing the Atlas of Early Printing, an interactive map that provides a visualization of printing’s spread during the incunabula period. The 2013 version Greg demonstrated offers a technological advance over the map’s flash-based design launched in 2008 and has been primed to operate effectively on mobile devices as well as desktops.

Atlas of Early Printing

Atlas of Early Printing


Unlike the two-dimensional print maps from which it draws its inspiration, the Atlas contains information related to the spread of print such as the locations of paper mills, universities, trade routes. Users can select all or any of this additional information to create specific contextualizations about the ways the press and printing took hold throughout Europe in the decades leading up to the sixteenth century.

Interested in using technology for purposes beyond gathering, organizing, and explaining information, Michael Gavin, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, discussed using computer simulation to create a more generative way of working with information. Specifically, Gavin, drawing from Joshua Epstein’s work in agent-based computational simulation to model early modern print culture and to “grow information” about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century book trade issues including censorship and the effects readers exercised on printers and booksellers. The use of such computer modeling focuses on simulating social behavior to generate and test information; if the model is right, then it should not crash.

The director of NINES and professor of English at University of Virginia, Andrew Stauffer, made a cogent plea for the imperiled status of nineteenth-century printed books. Individual copies of nineteenth-century books, often still in the stacks or in the process of being de-accessioned (if not already removed), possess rich, layered histories and the evidence of their multiple temporalities. In an effort to preserve the histories of these works “hidden in plain sight,” In addition to advocating for the primacy of the printed work as a site embodying distinct, irreplaceable data, Stauffer is developing a crowd-sourcing project that will ask academic institutions, other holding bodies and individuals to use Instagram and other forms of technology to capture digitally this heritage and make it accessible.

Matthew Laven, the Associate Program Coordinator of the Mellon-funded “Cross Boundaries: Re-envisioning the Humanities for the 21st Century” at St. Lawrence University, addressed the question “What is a digital bibliography of a book?” through his work on a dynamic, visually-enriched publishing history of Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927) for the Willa Cather Archive. Acting as a case study for the digital representations of both various material artifacts (e.g., manuscripts, printed translations, unusual editions) and textual variances, the project also seeks to convey the bibliographical ties among the various artifacts and is informed by a Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR)-based ontology.

Hannah McGregor, a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, spoke about constructing an innovative methodological approach to studying periodicals that she and Paul Hjartarson, professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, have been developing in collaboration with the Editing Modernism in Canada research group. A key working hypothesis of this project is that periodicals are ideally situated for digital remediation as relational databases because they themselves resemble databases (that the word “magazine” also meant a storehouse bespeaks this similarity). While middlebrow magazines serve as the project’s focal point, McGregor drew her examples from the Western Home Monthly and Pictorial Review. The issue of labeling—what to call different items, the problem of categories and categorization—has been a vexed point and one no doubt complicated by the multiplicities of genres and the nature of periodical materials (think of the Burney 17th and 18th Century Newspaper Collection). This issue of labeling underscored the ways in which coding is important intellectual labor.

The final participant, Elizabeth Wilson-Gordon, professor of English at King’s University College in Alberta, presented the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP). A collaborative effort involving Canadian, U.K. and U.S., institutions, the project seeks to advance research in the history of modernist presses and publishing. Wilson-Gordon used Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press to illustrate the capabilities of MAPP. The Hogarth Press offered an especially rich example because of the insights its history affords about Woolf and her work but also because of its importance to interwar publishing and its longevity throughout the twentieth century. Like many of the other projects discussed, MAPP illustrated the importance of collaboration and communities of scholars working in tandem. The launch of the Hogarth Press open-access portion of MAPP is slated for 2017.

The Book History and Digital Humanities session was one of three excellent panels sponsored by SHARP. SHARP’s liaison to MLA, Greg Barnhisel has written a full account of the other two, equally invigorating sessions for the spring issue of SHARP News: the official SHARP panel, Session # 501 Books and the Law, and Session #398 Virginia Woolf and Book History, co-sponsored with the Virginia Woolf Society.

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One Response to “Book History and Digital Humanities: SHARP at #MLA 14 #s738”

  1. pozdRaf Says:

    Reblogged this on Filologia cyfrowa :: Mediewistyka 2.0.

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