Technologies of the Book

There would be no digital humanities without archives. As a literary critic and a digital humanist trained in textual studies and scholarly editing and who worked as an Assistant to the Curator of the SUNY Buffalo Poetry Collection, I regard the archive both in concept and in practical manifestations as significant for DH research and, as I have written elsewhere, for teaching. For literary critics, the codex historically has and will likely persist, even in its future iterations, to serve the field as a primary document or site of evidence. The book, a remarkably resilient technology, is a meaning-making object.Technology, with its root techne, signifies art, craft, or skill. A poem can be a techne. Speech is also a techne. To consider the technologies of the book is to investigate a mixture of new and old forms, from incunabula (books printed in the 1500s during the first era of moveable type) to ebooks and electronic literature. Therefore study of the codex and its contents involves study of old and new objects with old and new methods of inquiry.

“Technologies of the Book,” a course I offered in Spring 2017, explored the history and future of the book, print technology, the way books are made, shared, collected, preserved, and discarded, and the status of the book within larger information systems—archives, libraries, and private collections—in the digital age. I conceived of the course as informed by the interests of book historians as well as digital humanists. Practically speaking this means that we explored the status of print and digital ephemera from broadsides to social media and how these old and new forms of textual production challenge the monograph’s authority. Asking, “how do we reconceive the book and its place in the increasingly digital cultural archive?” critical readings were drawn from the fields of book history (Robert Darnton, for example) and scholarly editing (Peter Schillingsburg, Ken Price, Terje Hillesund and Claire Belisle, to name a few) as well as significant new digital humanities work––––Lauren Klein and Matt Gold’s edited volume Debates in the Digital Humanities and Lori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces.

This course is intended to be an introduction to a wide variety of specializations within digital humanities. Therefore, the course incorporated collaborative lab exercises as well as site-visits to a print shop and the ODU Special Collections and a collaborative writing assignment for Media Commons. I introduced students to extensive markup language (TEI) and the JUXTA tool in order to explore the revision history of Marianne Moore’s  “Poetry,” guided them through creating digital representations, the basics of computational text analysis, desktop frabrication, as well as micro-computing with Arduino.

There are four ways the archive is of central interest to the future of digital humanities: 1) forensic/micro-analysis as a species of close-reading as found in the continued practice of textual and genetic criticism, 2) macroanalysis or large scale assessment as performed by Tanya Clement, Matthew Jockers, and Franco Moretti, 3) prototyping the past or fabricating new old things—as Devon Elliott, Robert MacDougall, William J. Turkel and Jentry Sayers have done and 4) preserving imperiled material and making it newly accessible to ever broader publics.

The six commentaries that follow are written by graduate students enrolled in “Technologies of the Book.” Often polemical, these responses range from discussion of methods to materials and rally optimistically to DH as a promising means of equitable and socially-just critical practice. In “The Infusion of Digital Humanities in the Secondary Education Classroom: The Possibilities and the Concerns,” Yvonne Santos and Shannon Anderson address pedagogy and education policy, specifically extending DH to high school curricula and finding ways to link STEM and humanities through DH. In “Response,” Angel Kidd imagines the future of the ebook. In “A Look into Distant Reading,” Adam Flores considers the famous exchange between Kate Trumpener and Franco Moretti, arguing for the value of combining quantitative and qualitative methods in archival research. Ava Meier and Kimberly Goode attend to the importance of recovery of historically-marginalized voices. In “The Archive, Digital Tools, and Copyrighted Texts” Megan Thompson and Lori Hartness remark that the opportunity to “ re-evaluate who can archive and what gets archived [means that ] DH has the opportunity, at its start, to be inclusive—invite and involve the tinkerer, the homebrewer, the marginalized, the novice, the expert.” As Meier writes in “Focusing on the ‘Humanities’ in Digital Humanities,’ “we must ensure that the ‘humanities’ of digital humanities is represented by including the recovery of writings by marginalized groups, and the restoration of their experience to the narrative of human experience” because it would be all too easy to reinscribe “the inequities embedded in older methods steeped in white Western supremacy.” In a similar social justice vein Goode notes in “Blending Photography and the Diorama: Virtual Reality as the Future of the Archive & the Role of the Digital Humanities,” the importance of black digital humanities as a critical perspective that can examine “how the “‘material realities of blackness’ are replicated in [virtual] spaces.” 


Thanks for this great post, Margaret. I really love this course and would love to see how you might teach a variation on the course at the undergraduate level. 

I have a longer question about the centrality of textual studies approaches to archives in DH — as opposed to media studies and cultural studies approaches. Textual studies approaches absolutely have their place in the digital humanities and it doesn't have to be a choice between the fields, but sometimes I worry that the centrality of textual studies pushes out other approaches to DH. To be sure, your post and your course don't unproblematically valorize textual studies, but their subject reminded me of a larger disciplinary question I've been pondering for a while.

Apart from how these conflicts parallel some of the debates about decolonizing the archive, I feel that the discourse surrounding technology in DH as a tool and not a medium creates many problems. For instance, tool discourse makes it easier to see technology as an "add on" to traditional literary studies rather than (as you say in the post) showing the history of the codex within a larger media history of technological change that includes social media, etc. So, technology isn't added on to the book, but the book is already technology. My sense is that the discourse of humanism also does this. Humanism posits an essence to what beings can be considered human, almost always essentializing white heteronormative bourgeoisie subjectivity, and this subjectivity gradually accepts others as "add ons" once they are deemed similar enough to this essence. 

Ava Meijer — drawing off of Kim Gallon's piece — has a really powerful way of articulating this tension: "the future of the archive is in acknowledging 'humanity' as not being a fixed category and the creation of tools representing that." What's interesting here, for me, is the way a posthuman argument might recast this issue. Humanity has traditionally been a category of exclusion, even if this exclusionary category has changed over time. The issue may not be inclusion, but deconstructing the human and showing how it is the product of many different technosocial assemblages that make specific experiences seem naturalized. Perhaps it is a question of merging textual studies with media and cultural studies to construct the archive as not a bourgeoisie artifact, but as something else?

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