Archive for September, 2010

Classification and Interpretation, and the Construction of Digital Resources

September 28, 2010

In “The Alchemy of Turning Fiction into Truth” (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, [July 2008]: 354-372), David Henge examines the LC classification system and its treatment of “historical” works. Noting that works catalogued under the LC classification system’s D-DX, E and F categories are generally assumed to be factually based, Henge demonstrates the error of this assumption. He opens by discussing four types of works devoted to studying the past—“history based on solid evidence and argument, history based on less acceptable forms of these, pseudo-history, and counterfactual history” (354)—but his key concern is with the cataloguing of the last kind of history. Counterfactual histories or “pretend histories”

immediately and unabashedly depart from accepted versions of the past in order to hypothesize about what the course of the past and present might have been., if only different events and outcomes had taken place. They never quite pretend that these alternative histories did occur, but they clearly often wish they had. (357-58)

Despite addressing themselves to a past that never occurred, these counterfactual works are more often than not given LC designations that place them among works of actual history. Such placement seems all the more odd if we consider that the LC system does have other categories that would better signal their status. For example, the HX806-HX811 call numbers represent Utopias, the Ideal State, and these categories often seem a far better fit for the titles Henge discusses (368). Although most of these works end up in history, a few have been correctly placed under the classification designations for fiction. That some do end up in fiction ironically boosts the factual nature of those fictional works that remain classified as history. Further clouding the status of these “pretend histories” is their frequent adoption of the trappings of authoritative scholarly work—the appearance of “maps, footnotes, numbers, and pictures with false captions” (362) as well as the imprint of a university press.

While Henge identifies general readers as the population at greatest risk for viewing titles bearing D-DX, E or F designations as credible and factually based, his study does address issues relevant to the creation of scholarly digital resources. Henge notes that although “guides to the LC classification scheme spend considerable time classifying history, they ignore the equally important task of defining it” (363). Similarly, building digital resources entails designing classification schemes, and it is important to make the logic of those systems transparent. Henge’s article usefully reminds us that classification is an exercise in interpretation and that users must understand the rationale and assumptions behind the interpretative processes employed in the various classificatory designations. Even a cursory look at the description of the TEI header on the Text Coding Initiative’s website makes the link between classification and interpretation abundantly clear.

From another, less technical perspective, the desired feedback sought by Julia Flanders and John Melson for “Exploring Reception History in Women Writers Online” represents the type of forethought necessary for anticipating users’ needs and assumptions effectively and for creating the type of supporting contextual documents that will help lay bare the thought processes involved in creating a digital resource. In the process of discussing visionary failures of the LC classification designers, Henge points out that its originators assigned the essentially the same amount of classification space to the history of Asia as they did to the history of gypsies and labels this case “the most egregious example in the D-DX (history properly speaking) classes of the failure to anticipate growth” (360). While this decision seems inexplicable, generally it can be very difficult to predict future needs and build a resource capable of growth. This difficulty is compounded by the potential of digital resources to create new perspectives and new areas of inquiries not yet imagined.

The cataloguing of “pretend histories” as actual history that Henge identifies underscores that even accepted authorities like the LC classification scheme are not infallible. A parallel to Henge’s critique, work by Jim May, Stephen Tabor and others on problems with the ESTC have already received attention on emob, and both cases suggest a healthy dose of skepticism is often warranted even when dealing with respected and well-established resources.


Exploring reception history in Women Writers Online

September 16, 2010

We’re delighted to have been invited to contribute to the EMOB blog. The Brown University Women Writers Project has a strong interest in the issues raised here and we hope to learn a great deal from EMOB’s readers about how scholars work with digital collections.

In this first posting, we’d like to announce an upcoming project for which we just received funding, and solicit the attention and thoughts of this community as we start planning. Once the project gets started, we’ll have more concrete things to seek feedback on and also opportunities for contribution.

Many readers of this blog will already have seen the announcement of the WWP’s most recent NEH grant, “Cultures of Reception: Transatlantic Readership and the Construction of Women’s Literary History”. This three-year project will begin in January 2011, and its overall goal is to gather and study materials that can help us grasp the reception history for texts in the WWO collection. We’ll be focusing on published reviews from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but also including other sources such as anthologies, early literary histories, and manuscript materials like diaries, letters, and commonplace books.

Our plan is to digitize reviews and contemporary critical responses to women’s writing, in a way that enables us to mark explicitly for study a set of key points for analysis: for instance, the author of the review, the text being reviewed, the evaluative language used, any other texts with which the reviewed text is being compared, the terms of the comparison, as well as information needed to enable us to trace geographical and temporal connections. These source materials will be published through an interface that allows readers of WWO to examine the reception history of a given text (or textual exchange), and also to get a broader view of the terms in which women’s writing was being read and evaluated, both publicly and privately.

There will be opportunities for participation of various kinds, including contributions of contemporary reader responses to WWP texts, and also input on the design of the interface for working with the source materials. We will also be very glad to hear from anyone who is working directly on reception history, who might be interested in working with us more closely (for instance, using the collection to prepare an article that we might publish with WWO). At the outset, though, we also have a few issues on which we’d be very glad of people’s thoughts:

  1. What does one need to know about reading and reviewing practices in order to make a meaningful study of reception history? What are the potential blind spots in this project?
  2. What opportunities for new questions and approaches might a collection like this open up? For instance, how might geographical information affect our understanding of readership and reception? What kinds of interface tools would best facilitate working with these materials?
  3. What other kinds of research questions might arise out of these materials? Are there larger purposes we should be bearing in mind for this data that might affect how much detail we capture, etc.?

We look forward to following the discussion and learning more!

best wishes,

Julia Flanders
John Melson

Women Writers Project, Brown University Center for Digital Scholarship

Wynken de Worde on Teaching Book History

September 15, 2010

Wynken de Worde is always a pleasure to read, but two recent posts by its administrator, Sarah Werner, Program Director for Undergraduate Teaching at the Folger Shakespeare Library, will be of particular interest to those teaching book history.  In these posts, Werner discusses her undergraduate research seminar, “Books and Early Modern Culture,” taught at George Washington University and the Folger, and even includes a syllabus.  She writes of having reshaped the course this summer; it currently falls into three parts: books as physical objects; relationships between books and culture; and books as vehicles for texts.

She discusses her interest in incorporating more ephemeral work, like news sheets, in the course, and in her most recent post, she even provides a printable news sheet with numbered folds, together with clear instructions addressed to advanced undergraduates for how to understand the folds.  This news sheet can be printed and distributed for use in class.  Werner’s posts will be helpful both to those beginning their careers as teachers of book history and those who would like to refresh their approaches to teaching such a course.  They also show the way for how blogs can serve as valuable archives for the most ephemeral of printed texts, the course syllabus.

Readers interested in discussing Werner’s posts should go directly to Wynken de Worde, where a valuable discussion is underway.  But on this blog, we might discuss more generally how such blogs can enrich the teaching of book history.  One thing that comes to mind is the ease with which manuscripts might be made available as pdfs, thereby facilitating a discussion of the interplay between printed and manuscript texts.

The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794

September 5, 2010

Among the very fine presentations I enjoyed at Material Cultures 2010 in Edinburgh this summer was a demonstration of The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794 database. As the project’s subtitle, “Mapping the Trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel” indicates, this tool uses the business records of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publishing house to map the output and flow of the works it published and disseminated across Enlightenment Europe. When the project is completed (target summer 2011), it will be made freely available, affording a significant resource to those working in literature, history, Enlightenment Studies, print culture, and bibliography. As the project description notes, previous scholars have studied these archives, but prior projects have tended to focus on segments of the available material; this project and its database “charts the totality of the STN’s trade with all of Europe.”

The project director Professor Simon Burrows (University of Leeds) and his colleague Dr. Mark Curran who has been based in Switzerland to extract and prepare the input of data also demonstrated the database at SHARP 2010 in Helsinki, where I had the opportunity to speak at length with them. I soon saw not only immense value in the project for students and scholars whose work involved this period, but the database’s structure offers an ideal model for creating other digital databases of publishers’ business records and archives.

EMOB will be keeping abreast of this project’s progress, but one can also follow their work directly at the French Book Trade project’s blog.