demystifying bibliography

As Hélène challenged us yesterday, I have been thinking about how all of these pieces we’ve been wrestling with fit together, and fit in with the larger DH environment in which we’ve been operating all week.

I find myself unsatisfied with the conclusion that no facsimile or digital representation can replace the original. Not because I disagree with this–I don’t–but because I don’t think anybody seriously disagrees with this, in particular with respect to unique/rare/early materials. I think we all get this, and I wager that everyone else at DHSI does as well.

So for me, the focus is beginning to change: what can we do/express with digital technology that is useful to people, and a force for good in the study and appreciation of rare books?

I’m starting to be less concerned about things like images–libraries are already succeeding at capturing and sharing (with different levels of openness) absolutely stunning images of pages. I just don’t see the need to fret about this.

Where I think we can make real practical change, though, is with the conventional modes of description and expression that we looked at yesterday–the impenetrable collation formula, for example.

By way of analogy, I have been thinking about how scribal ligatures and abbreviations gradually fell out of use. In manuscript culture, these made it possible to save space/material, and all readers were trained in understanding them, so no problem. In the early days of print, these were maintained, but gradually, influenced by several factors, they fell out of use: saving space on the writing support became less important than the art and science of typography; at the same time, readership was expanding beyond the highly trained and learned, and doing away with ligatures/abbreviations meant that a sort of reasonably literate person, even if not a scientist or theologian, could decode the page.

I see a need and an opportunity now for something similar in bibliographic description. The collation formulas that we use now were developed in a world of printed catalogs, when saving space and expressing things concisely was necessary. It was also a world where only trained experts could ever hope to have access to these books.

In the world we’re in now, space for expressing this information is no longer at a premium, and there is reason to believe/hope that a general audience might be interested in understanding how a book is put together, if they can see fragmented representations of it online. (It’s easy to shrug and say that only bibliographers care about this stuff, but I suspect that’s in large part because only bibliographers can decode these entries). If we make them readable to the average human, we might be surprised to see what use people make of them.

As a side effect, I think human readable collation descriptions (and other bibliographic descriptions) will have the consequence of filling some of these gaps between the book object and the facsimile; of drawing people’s attention to what is not and cannot be represented online. If we just give them page images, and that’s all they have access to, it’s easy to start thinking that’s all there is to it. By describing in a sensible way details about how the book was assembled, we can make clear(er) to them what is missing from their online experience–if that just prompts them to visit the real book, all the better.

This seems like maybe a sort of dry approach–rather than trying to bring the experience of the book more to life, focus on the metadata. But I think there is real, practical promise here for reminding a user, “everything is not here, and here’s what you’re missing” in a way that you don’t have to be trained to interpret.

Simply being clear about what’s missing from any online version seems to me the first step–and gives us space to make use of the most beautiful, high res images and the crappiest scanned microfilm from EEBO. By not expecting or relying on the image to speak for itself, we have the freedom(?) to take what we can from all manner and quality of image or representation–nothing need go to waste, we needn’t necessarily start again. We just make clearer what each can tell you, and what it can’t.

I think I’ve wandered off my original path a little bit, but to return to it: collation formulae that are sensible to a reasonably literate (define as you will) person, seems to me a tiny but mighty step in dropping some of the contraints of the print world that keep high walls around bibliography. If we make it possible for the average person to appreciate the qualities of the book, they will. Oversimplifying, maybe, but I think it’s true.

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4 Responses to demystifying bibliography

  1. danawheeles says:

    Well put, Rebecca. I think the true value of digital remediation (even considering the aspects of the object we might lose in translation) is the possibility of multiple interfaces for accessing any given object. We are no longer bound (oh dear, there’s that pun again) to the codex as the primary form for our investigation and imagination.

  2. ihiggins says:

    Excellent reflections, Rebecca, that get to the heart of another issue (besides [re-]mediation) that the digital raises for us, and that’s scale. We can think about it in relation to digitized objects and images (how big, deep, heavy, etc. is that book? and does it matter that we might lose that sense in digitizing it? etc.), but also in the ways in which we record and store information. A collation is a code, and it can be presented for insiders or for others. When space is no longer limited by the book and its format, then information can be presented differently and for different users. This is another way into the larger question of what we want the digital to offer us, and that must surely be more than similacra.

    • Rebecca W. says:

      Thanks, Iain–yes, your last comment captures exactly what I’ve been trying to put into words (and what you’ve done very concisely): “This is another way into the larger question of what we want the digital to offer us, and that must surely be more than similacra.”

  3. Rebecca W. says:

    Thanks Dana, I agree, and think the value of trying to be more transparent about what’s going on with any particular interface can hardly be overstated.

    I find it fascinating that in all the guides to collation, etc. that I have seen, the author gives an example formula, and then explains it in plain English, such as “the formula A-­‐Z4 represents a book  of 23 gatherings signed in sequence from A-­‐Z, in which each of the gatherings has 4 leaves”

    It sounds really basic, but if we’re not printing these descriptions in a giant book, we don’t need this short hand. Why not just drop the obscure abbreviation and use the prose description (or include both)? It seems like such a small thing, but with the potential to just make this world accessible to “regular people”

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