The Book to Come
In 1986, the National Research Council released the white paper Preservation of Historical Records. It is an anxious report, penned at a pivotal moment for archival technologies. It begins:
Until very recently, historians worried about the scarcity of sources. Each bit of writing, a unique record from the past, had intrinsic value; and much of the historian’s task required the tracking down of a unique manuscript and the recovery of incomplete files. But to compensate, the surviving documents were durable—whether inscribed on clay tablets or written on parchment, vellum, or rag paper. Resisting deterioration, they came down through the centuries intact, many being almost as legible as when written or printed. The custodians of these materials had a comparatively simple task. They could preserve with relatively little difficulty what the accidents of time had randomly selected.
Twentieth-century conditions reverse those of the past. The volume of materials is immense—3 billion items in the National Archives alone, and as many more in state and local archives, in historical societies, and in process. But, by contrast with the past, the materials themselves are fragile; whether comprised of paper made from pulp in the past century, or tape, or disks, they are subject to eventual deterioration due to such factors as humidity and heat as well as frequency of handling. In the absence of energetic preservation programs, these valuable resources for understanding the past will crumble away.1
There are good reasons to raise a brow to this description; but hold objections and stay in this pivotal moment. Here, at the brink of a digital revolution, a committee of top engineers, scientists, and archivists gather in print to name a crisis. The problem lies in the materials themselves. Medieval parchment or early papers might accrue other matter, like marginalia, insect dirt, or oils from human skin, but they endure unchanged within the stable environments of most libraries and archives. Their durability determines the historian’s task, which is, extrapolating from the report’s rhetoric, to peel back these accretions to recover the object as it once was and thus discover the time of its creation. Under this paradigm, to write history is to negotiate the gap between the object as it is in the present, detached from its own time and set starkly alone on a reading room table, and the fullness of its reconstructed past, bristling with the ghosts of what has been lost. Contemporary materials, though, challenge the conventions of historiography. Packed with acidic fillers and copied in volatile inks, these rapidly accumulating documents deteriorate on their own even when kept in a climate-controlled closed stack. This “slow fire,” as a prominent documentary of 1987 described it, not only threatens future historians’ ability to understand the near past, but undermines the foundational assumptions of a national archive. Once, humans could trust that what the “accidents of time” had left would remain intact, “almost as legible as when written or printed.” Now, autonomous chemical processes were corroding archival objects before they had even been catalogued, and were doing so in ways that were alien to conservators. In such an environment, how could the National Archives or any other ensure the historical record?
Punctuating the report’s technical discourse are twenty-two photographs that illustrate this nationalist theory of archives and lay bare the threat to its survival. Ballasting the title page is an image of the founding documents of the United States in situ at the National Archives, the texts themselves washed out under encasements of marble and gold. A photograph of Robert Aitken’s contemplative statue Future at the steps of the building sits opposite a second title page, followed by a shot of the Archives’ imposingly Grecian entrance. “In addition to famous documents,” the caption informs, “millions of other historical records are stored there”—an invitation to enter the building and bear witness to the institution’s work, as we do throughout the rest of the report. We are brought inside the research room, where clerks and scholars jostle wheeled carts brimming with documents. We peer into stacks sagging with leather-bound folios or hung with rolls of magnetic tape. Some of the photographs depict these records already broken, like that of a cracked folio, splayed and spilling its loosened sheets, while others gesture ominously toward possible future damage. One image has the reader peeking nervously over the shoulder of a researcher as he handles a tattered sheet (“Condition of the document illustrates the need for preservation”). Another zooms out to show the skyline of Pasadena, California, under ominously heavy smog (“Outdoor pollutants contribute significantly to the deterioration of historical records”).
Taken together, this visual decay indexes the report’s fundamental anxiety: a fear of fragmentation and loss, of incompleteness and ignorance, that the past will inevitably become broken beyond repair, that it is already through uncontrollable mechanisms. With this anxiety swells the urge to stem the tide of destruction. And so, interleaved are other photographs that document acts of conservation. There are hands carefully encapsulating records in mylar and treating documents in a lab. The reader watches operators microfilming pages to make copies for future generations. By shoring up the past, the job of conservation and preservation in turn makes possible the work of researchers who, now seen safely riffling through microfilm cabinets or sitting before reading machines, stitch back together the fractured stories these items tell. Thus the twin poles of archival labor (conservation, preservation, cataloguing, curating, storage) and scholarly labor (narrativizing, elucidating, reconstructing, compiling, publishing) twist the thread of history.
While this conservative theory of historiography holds sway throughout the report, one striking photograph bursts through. It is by the photographer Yoichi Okamoto, and it shows the Library of Congress’s head conservator, Peter Waters, cradling a handful of acidified paper fragments, one of the major threats targeted by the report. “[Okamoto] was talking about what he’d been told about brittle books,” Waters remembers in an interview about the photoshoot resulting in this image, “and he said, ‘Is there some way you can demonstrate this?’” Waters crumbled up a page, and Okamoto responded, “Well, supposing you blew it?”2 Just as he did, setting aloft bright shards of paper, the snap of the camera shutter captured this image: an ironic, iconic portrait of a conservator destroying the very materials he is tasked with saving. If the rest of the images signify metonymically—one crumbling page standing in for 530 million other documents deteriorating—here the camera turns away from studious documentation and instead stages the drama of history’s destruction. This drama is a fiction; it is not true that acidic paper spontaneously splinters to pieces, with “a hefty puff mak[ing] confetti of deteriorated pages,” as the caption suggests. (More often the fore-edge turns brown and becomes brittle where it comes into contact with water vapor in the air.) Nor was the photograph spontaneous. As Nicholson Baker reports, Okamoto was not satisfied with the first session and had to return to get the final photograph.3 But the image is all the more powerful for being a parable. In a flash, the force of Waters’s breath exposes the material text as frail and frangible, words that share an etymon with “fragments,” those scraps flying from Waters’s hands. The photograph’s composition holds forth this fragility not in fear, but (flipping the report’s conservative rhetoric) in suspense of its potential. That is, if corrosive substrates threaten to annihilate archives and traditional historiography, here the mediating technology of the camera binds the scattered pieces back together in a brilliant constellation. Like engineer Doc Edgerton’s strobe light capturing the moment a bullet pierces fruit, or Todd McLellan’s images of machines carefully disarticulated and flung in the air, Okamoto’s photograph reveals and revels in the beauty of destruction.4
It is the task of the present book to track how the past is constantly being de- and re-composed by the present, and I find a piquant figure in Okamoto’s photograph. A succession of hefty puffs have made confetti of literary studies’ shared archives, brittle as they had become, from the linguistic and material and digital turns that have opened the canon and pushed some work closer to media studies or sociology, to the postcolonial and global turns that challenge the division of departments along national lines. When we consider the place of the discipline within the humanities today, then, we do so from within a fragmented field where the center no longer centripetally holds.5 In both the form and subject of this book, I propose that we, like Okamoto in this striking photograph, seize this moment of creative destruction as an opportunity to shift into a new register, one defined not by minute clefts between theories or methods, but by a renewed commitment to how we compose and share our work, most specifically, how we publish, how we use technologies to make public the stories we spin about texts and their lives. For, it is not new ways of reading that are restructuring the field from within—close versus distant versus surface—so much as a new kind of writing, a new awareness of scholarship’s mediation in its relation to fragmented collections and the event of publishing as itself a staged drama. This change is prodded on by the emergence of digital platforms that now manage the ebb and flow of our scholarly fragments, pushing images and partial thoughts and in-progress writing outward toward new audiences. But it is not contingent on any false binary between print and digital, paper and bits, new media replacing the old. As the 1986 white paper makes clear, from the standpoint of archival sciences, acidic paper is as corruptible as magnetic tape. What defines this moment is not a crisis of technology, but the ways our changing media environment is, like Okamoto’s camera, recentering new narratives, binding together anew what time has pulled apart.
Cut/Copy/Paste is an attempt to take seriously this shift and investigate, creatively and critically, its potential for the future of writing and publishing in the humanities. It does so from two angles. First, I come at these questions historically, excavating prototypes of radical publishing with fragmented collections of media. The long history of Western literacy provides many examples of writers cutting and pasting found materials into new assemblages, stretching back to ancient Greek and Latin cento poems, patched together from snippets of other texts, and forward to the collage aesthetic of Riot GRRRL zines in the 1980s and 90s. While these examples inform this project, my primary case studies are drawn from England between the 1630s and the 1710s: a media ecology close enough to seem familiar yet distant enough to bring into relief our own assumptions about print, publishing, and historiography. Looking back to a time just before the formation of state archives and modern practices of conservation, before the large-scale editing of the canon in print, before English and history departments or the advent of digital technologies, I scout out makerspaces and collaboratories on the fringes of the book trade. In the pages that follow, we enter the Concordance Room at Little Gidding in the 1630s and 1640s, where Mary Collett and her family sliced apart printed Bibles and pasted the pieces back together into elaborate collages now known as “harmonies”; the domestic printing atelier of Edward Benlowes, a gentleman poet and royalist who rode out the English civil wars by assembling boutique books of poetry at his rural estate; and the coffeehouses haunted by John Bagford, a shoemaker-turned-bookseller who foraged fragments of old manuscripts and printed waste to produce a material history of the book. Working across a century of upheaval, when England was reconsidering its religion and governance, these marginal figures saved fragile, fragmented bits of culture and made from them new constellations of meaning. Their hand-assembled volumes offer a vision of the book as a synthetic publishing technology that materially gathers and processes the past for future readers. This is the codex as both curiosity cabinet and binding thread, as a bespoke library before the existence of libraries as we know them, as a staging ground to marshal fragmented media into powerful new reading machines. By highlighting amateurs, outsiders, and their radical bookwork (a term I address below), this study makes visible the experimental current coursing beneath print culture just on the cusp of modernity, when the book as platform, form, and format was charged with potential. It does so in the hope that these early speculative models of publishing might energize us to seize upon the opportunities of our own transitional moment.
Because these case studies are rooted in seventeenth-century England, this project joins early modern literary and book historians in their ongoing efforts to better understand the period’s media. This work began as early as 1979, when Elizabeth Eisenstein, witnessing the rise of computing and inspired by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, took a fresh, comprehensive look at the impact of movable type on European cultures of reading and writing.6 However, the pace of research on early modern media has accelerated in recent years, as digital networks change both how we study the past and what we find interesting in it.7 Our understanding of textual circulation has been most transformed. In the two centuries after printing presses arrived in England, we find print not replacing manuscript, as was once assumed, but in fact supporting a robust culture of scribal publication, as texts migrated fluidly from printed editions and pamphlets to manuscript miscellanies and commonplace books.8 Readers participated in these dynamic circuits of reproduction by copying lines of verse, fragments of scripture, images, and recipes into new books for print or personal use, sometimes even literally cutting and pasting these paper fragments onto other media, as we will see.9 The digitization of Peter Beal’s Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450–1700, databases like Early Modern Manuscripts Online, and DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts, projects like Lost Manuscripts, and dynamic digital editions like The Pulter Project have supported research in these areas while opening up entirely new modes of inquiry, like quantitative or social-network analysis.10
Early modern binding practices, too, encouraged active engagement with paper media. Books were likely to be bought stab-stitched or in sheets, rather than in the standard publishers’ binding familiar to us today. Readers could and often did compile these loose materials from disparate sources into single bespoke volumes known now as sammelbands (Sammelbände).11 In some cases, these bound gatherings reveal conceptual links between texts; others function as merely convenient containers for storing books in the same format. Purchasing printed sheets unbound also allowed readers to interleave their books with other materials. For instance, blank paper stitched into bibles and scholarly treatises enabled the copious note-taking now associated with early modern learning, while portraits or engraved illustrations might make a plain book more ornate, as examples in the British Printed Images to 1700 database attest.12 Thus book historians have come to understand the codex of the hand-press period as a form of social media, customizable to individual tastes and needs within the physical constraints of the platform.
Even more recently, scholars have turned their attention away from texts and toward the wide range of visual, tactile, and sonic media that circulated in the period. Cheaply printed bits of popular culture known as “broadside ballads” composed of recycled woodcuts, anonymous verse, and snatches of song might be hung on a tavern wall or purchased outside a playhouse, as digital projects like Early Modern Songscapes,English Broadside Ballad Archive, and Broadside Ballads Online have shown.13 Sermons in St. Paul’s churchyard reverberated off stone and wood as auditors transcribed them in shorthand to disseminate in letters or printed pamphlets; today, scholars can hear a virtual recreation of what John Donne’s sermon on Gunpowder Day, 1622, might have sounded like in such an environment.14 Engraved plates were packaged and sold at print shops alongside kits for copying these images onto fabric, embroidering them in silk thread, and assembling these needleworks into small cabinets or mirrors, an instructional task for girls and young women.15 Even pilcrows can be dramatic.16 Unbinding the assumptions that have obscured these manifold processes of mediation and reconstructing what Scott Trudell has called “a more synthetic media history” of the early modern period (often aided by digital technologies) has produced a fuller sense of the interweaving of print, manuscript, sound, image, codex, broadside, text, and textile in the Anglophone world at the moment before the emergence of mass media.17 Cut/Copy/Paste contributes to this collective undertaking by using new methods to unpack densely intermedial objects that challenge the presumed opposition between print and manuscript, text and image, domestic handicraft and mechanical reproduction, or the uniquely assembled copy and the repetitious run of an entire edition.
Even as Cut/Copy/Paste is in conversation with a specific period, to confine our histories of early modern media objects to a single moment would be to obscure much of what they teach us today. Thus an important part of this project’s historical work is to track the afterlives of these assembled books as they traverse very different media environments. As Kathryn Rudy, Zachary Lesser, David McKitterick, Bonnie Mak, William Sherman, Martin Foys, Michelle Warren, Laura R. Braunstein, and others have emphasized—and as curators, librarians, archivists, and conservators I consulted on provenance know—rare books and archival materials are not static, but come into our present moment having already been manipulated by multiple hands.18 Or as Kari Kraus puts it:
Books, like other physical objects, are already lo-fi sensors in their natural state, detecting and reacting to information about external stimuli and events. A moldy book, for example, registers the fact that there is excess moisture in the air through a multimodal output that takes the form of a musty odor and foxing stains. A book read by candlelight is likely to retain telltale drops of wax on its pages. These traces function as a form of metadata that is materially coextensive with the book itself: a type of on-board provenance.19
Hybrid books like those at the center of this study—which themselves promote remaking the past—have been particularly vulnerable to the incursions of future readers, who often found inspiration in their call to gather and reassemble found fragments. Thus the harmonies of Little Gidding motivated later women to paste together their own responses, while the engravings that Benlowes whimsically interleaved in his poetry books were cut out and repurposed by nineteenth-century bibliophiles. Collecting habits that privileged whole books and clean exemplars of an edition over messy individual copies also led to the rebinding and reconstruction of nearly every extant copy of Benlowes’s major book of verse, Theophila, rendering it nearly impossible to make any definitive claims for his original intentions. John Bagford’s collections have suffered most, as curators at the British Museum mined his portfolios of waste, bits of manuscripts, and specimens of early printing to pad their own collections.
Nor do these objects fit neatly into the library classification and cataloguing systems that arose at the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. At the British Library, three of the Little Gidding harmonies are held with printed books, while another is with manuscripts. One of Benlowes’s books is part of the Spencer Collection at the New York Public Library, rather than the Rare Book Division, and must be consulted in the Print Room. And Bagford’s books are, again, scattered, with some of his materials at the British Library under the care of Manuscripts, others in Printed Heritage Collections, and many more fragments in the Map Collections or the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings. Because the objects at the center of this study so often slip between the cracks of modern infrastructures of archival discovery, the research for this project has necessarily involved a great deal of detective work both online and on-site at dozens of libraries, in collaboration with conservators, curators, librarians, students, and staff. And surely more specimens still eluded us. The result of these efforts is a much clearer understanding of how seventeenth-century bespoke publications were not only made, but unmade and occluded by later categories of interpretation that their designers could not have anticipated. It is my hope that, taken as a whole, my work reading their “on-board provenance” may provide a roadmap to other scholars and library professionals who seek to understand how the near past has shaped our knowledge of earlier and more idiosyncratic media.
Before networked digital technologies, a project built entirely around obscure, dispersed historical materials—which are, truthfully, the bulk of all materials in rare books libraries and archives—would face significant obstacles on the path to publication. The physical constraints of a print monograph, further tightened by the precarious economics of scholarly publishing, do not cheaply accommodate image- and data-rich content; and even if the author were able to find a publisher willing to take risks on a design-heavy book, it would likely require a subvention to defray the high costs of printing.20 With the spread of the web and personal computing in the 1990s, though, it became possible for scholars to recuperate understudied or unedited materials, especially by women, people of color, and queer or immigrant communities. This unleashed a spate of small-scale digital projects aimed at opening the canon and overhauling historical narratives. As Amy Earhart has shown, these sites have not had the effect anticipated: the English literary canon continues to center largely on white, cisgender, heteronormative, and Anglocentric perspectives, as do many of the longest-running and best-funded digital archives.21 Yet the change that seemed within reach in the 1990s remains scintillatingly possible today, and in fact is currently being brilliantly realized in what Kim Gallon calls “the black digital humanities.”22 Inspired by recent digital scholarship in Africana studies, Native American and indigenous studies, and race and technocultures, I remain stubbornly committed to the idealism of these early experiments and in fact see digital “methods of revisionary recovery, rereading, disembedding, and recombining,” to borrow the words of Nicole N. Aljoe, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Benjamin J. Doyle, and Elizabeth Hopwood, as more vital and urgent than ever, across all fields and periods.23 When discussing the structure, formatting, and visual design of little-known objects made by women, amateurs, and working people on the margins of print culture, as the present book does, such digital historical methods are not supplemental, but central to one’s argument.
Which brings me to the second angle from which this project addresses the future of publishing in the humanities: in practice. Stitched into the text of the present volume you will find access points to a variety of digital resources, data, and assets hosted on a dedicated Manifold Scholarship page (https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/cut-copy-paste). These include digital editions, photographs and high-resolution facsimiles of many of the books I discuss, curated datasets of sources, booklists identifying the location and make-up of different copies, publishing maps, social-network visualizations, charts and graphs, websites comparing different versions of a text, and videos introducing specific books and printing technologies. Online readers of the book will readily see these many assets populating the left side of the text as they proceed. In print, a marginal icon (as seen at the beginning of this chapter) indicates the presence of a particularly significant digital resource and should be read as my own suggestion to visit the Manifold site to explore further. Whether approaching the book online or in print, readers are invited to follow the thread of my arguments or veer off onto different paths, exploring the riches of each virtual reading room for themselves.
Collectively, these hand-curated digital assets and resources comprise what Katherine Bode has described as a “scholarly edition of a literary system: that is, a model of literary works that were published, circulated, and read—and thereby accrued meaning—in a specific historical context, constructed with reference to the history of transmission by which documentary evidence of these works is constituted.”24 Specifically, they model diverse perspectives on three seventeenth-century communities and their creative/critical publishing practices, with contextual data that situate their work within longer histories of libraries, collecting, and reading.25 By integrating this model into the body of my argument, I have attempted to demonstrate how web-based platforms might be used today in tandem with a print monograph to recuperate marginal, neglected practices, decenter patriarchal histories of print, and do so in ways that are increasingly sustainable, technologically stable, and effective at shifting a field’s focus. While the time, money, and materials needed to build these resources are not negligible, either for authors or publishers, the payoff can be high: in the case of this monograph, I argue, nothing less than the wholesale transformation of how we understand the past and its relevance to us today.
Beyond being necessary for my argument, though, I see sharing one’s research data, source materials, and process as the obligation of historical scholarship. The terms “open” and “open access” have been rightly challenged by indigenous, queer, and trans activists, scholars of surveillance and disability, and others working with vulnerable communities who may not wish their data, representations, or cultural artifacts to be digitized and publicly accessible online.26 These critiques have been a necessary corrective to the libertarian ethic that has dominated digital humanities and media studies. Yet our responsibilities as stewards of human data are not in tension with our commitments as humanists to participate cooperatively and conscientiously in knowledge production: to share what we have come to know and how we came to know it. Digital technologies offer our best means of doing so today. With that in mind, I have, where possible, incorporated into this book existing digital collections from institutions with a robust open-access policy, like the Folger Shakespeare Library, the British Museum, and the Library of Congress. In turn, I have attempted to plug the data this project has generated back into large-scale aggregators and databases so that my research can contribute to the broader effort to remediate the past. All of the digital resources, assets, and code in this book are freely available to download and use.
In the process of gathering data for this project, collaborating on the design of digital tools, and sharing my in-progress and completed research on open platforms, I have been guided by a number of principles adapted and remixed from recent intersectional feminist work in book history and digital humanities. These include Catherine D’Ignazio’s and Lauren Klein’s data feminism, Kate Ozment’s framework for a feminist bibliography, Jamie “Skye” Bianco’s creative investigation of the term “tool,” Liz Losh’s and Jacqueline Wernimont’s #FemDH pedagogy, and the efforts of Moya Bailey, Gallon, Safiya Noble, and Roopika Risam to foreground Black feminist theory in digital practices.27 These principles are designed to hold myself to account to my scholarly communities, to the past, and to the people whose stories I tell here, and they include:
- to embrace plural approaches, forms, and formats when sharing and disseminating digital resources and source materials, knowing that my readers will approach the past through different access points and bring to it different knowledge, strengths, and abilities;
- to elevate emotion, embodiment, and affective experiences when designing digital editions and resources that mediate material objects for digital screens, especially by engaging readers’ delight and curiosity, as many of my subjects intended their books to do;
- to challenge the whitewashed, patriarchal, heteronormative brand of historicism still dominant in bibliography and literary studies that sees questions of identity as irrelevant to early modern Europe, and to do so specifically by promoting objects, histories, formats, and arguments that evince a diverse (in many senses of that word) past, freely and across multiple platforms;
- to publicly share and maintain on the open web any research outputs associated with this project for as long as possible by making use of sustainable technologies and open-access repositories;
- to always view digital facsimiles and data not as objective or transparent representations, but instead as one link in a long chain of mediations that together make up the materiality of any artifact;
- and to make the labor of those who helped build these resources visible, not just those who worked directly in collaboration with me (assigned coauthorship where possible), but all who have collected, curated, bound, conserved, catalogued, encoded, scanned, and uploaded my primary source materials in the nearly four centuries since they first entered the world, providing a foundation for their mediation today.
As these principles should make clear, open-access digital publishing is, for this project, not a fad but a responsibility. It is part of a feminist practice with a deep history stretching all the way back to the Concordance Room at Little Gidding, where the Ferrar women used scissors and glue to remix printed books. Like the harmonies they pasted together, the books Benlowes stuffed with prints, or Bagford’s scrapbooks, I offer this assemblage of media as an open invitation to cut, copy, and paste different histories. For, as the form and argument of this book assert, there is no singular way to tell stories about the past; others may find new constellations in the fragments gathered here.
When Waters and Okamoto met in a hallway at the Library of Congress to document the “brittle book problem,” they did so as two figures intimately familiar with the surge of creative energies that come from dislocation and deterioration, from occupying a space just outside the frame. Both had originally come to their work tangentially, in the whirlwind of the late 1960s: Okamoto as a Japanese American photographer once denied admission to the army after the Pearl Harbor attacks who later became the official documentarian of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency; Waters as a craft-oriented British bookbinder who later founded the Library of Congress’s first conservation lab.28 In the wake of these pivotal moments, both would go on to redefine their respective fields. During his tenure as presidential photographer, Okamoto spent up to sixteen hours a day at the White House, ever present at the edges of power but rarely noticed behind his camera. In total, he amassed around 675 thousand candid photographs of President Johnson’s daily life—an unprecedented number that changed how future documentarians approached their task. For his part, Waters came to conservation science after moving to Florence in 1966 to help rescue muddy, waterlogged rare materials from the Arno River’s devastating flood.29 There, working with conservators from Ghana, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere around the globe, he began to devise a low-cost, less interventionist mode of conservation known today as “phased conservation.” Rather than restoring damaged books to some fictive wholeness or imagined historicity, Waters’ method largely leaves traces of their use and remaking over time as found, redirecting the conservator’s energies toward protecting the most fragile items and stopping further damage.30 The product of their coming together was an image that speaks, in its own way, to the experience of moving from the margins to the center, as well as the responsibilities that come with that shift. It is a photograph that does not fear technology’s potential, but elegantly embraces its role in mediating the entropic mess of human knowledge. By finding other objects in the past that exploded with new potential, this project aims to enrich our understanding of early modern media while summoning these earlier experiments in publishing as generative prototypes for future practices.
Running parallel to the crisis in archives, outlined in the 1986 white paper, was a crisis in scholarly publishing. In a 1999 New York Review of Books essay titled “The New Age of the Book,” the book historian Robert Darnton took stock of the situation. Sales were declining in print among academic presses, and budgets were tighter than ever. At the same time, pressures were increasing on younger scholars to publish, leading to a glut of expensive, little-read, and increasingly specialized monographs. In such a tenuous publishing economy, e-books seemed an appealing alternative. Not only were they potentially cheaper for publishers to produce and disseminate and for academic libraries already pinched for space to store; they also held out the possibility of transforming scholarly writing by bringing historical arguments into contact with a richly interlinked repository of sources. As Darnton writes:
Any historian who has done long stints of research knows the frustration over his or her inability to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past. If only my reader could have a look inside this box, you say to yourself, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could follow that trail in my text just as I pursued it through the dossiers, when I felt free to take detours leading away from my main subject. If only I could show how themes crisscross outside my narrative and extend far beyond the boundaries of my book. Not that books should be exempt from the imperative of trimming a narrative down to a graceful shape. But instead of using an argument to close a case, they could open up new ways of making sense of the evidence, new possibilities of making available the raw material embedded in the story, a new consciousness of the complexities involved in construing the past.31
Darnton’s hypothetical e-book takes its place in a long line of imagined electronic reading machines: poet and publisher Bob Brown’s “readies,” which turns microtexts into scrolling films (1930); engineer Vannevar Bush’s Memex, a desk where readers might cut pathways through a thicket of knowledge on microfilm (1945); Spanish educator Ángela Ruiz Robles’s mechanical encyclopedia housing interactive drums of content (1949); or the Incipit of Italian architects Franco Crugnola and Isabella Rigamonti, an e-reader shaped to fit the reader’s hands like a scroll (1992).32 What these prototypes share is a sense that writing could be something more than a series of words strung into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and monographs. That is, twentieth-century audiovisual media, interactive interfaces, and technologies like microfilm held out the potential to dethrone the codex form and printed formats, making room for radically new kinds of texts. And new kinds of texts would, Darnton points out, “elicit a new kind of reading,” with each individual experiencing a historical argument differently: some would follow an “upper narrative,” others might read “vertically,” drilling “deeper and deeper into the supporting essays and documentation,” while still others would “navigate in unanticipated directions, seeking connections that suit their own interests or reworking the material into constructions of their own.”33 By the end of the essay, what began as a crisis in scholarly publishing has become, in Darnton’s overwriting, an opportunity to rethink the very foundations of historical argument and its relationship to the archives that ground it.
Even as Darnton was imagining a digital future for scholarly publishing, others were working to make this vision a reality. In 1999, the same year as Darnton’s essay, the journal American Quarterly published an experimental hypertext issue accompanied by a printed “Forum on Hypertext Scholarship: AQ as Web-Zine: Responses to AQ’s Experimental Online Issue.”34 Both were edited by digital humanities pioneer Roy Rosenzweig. Built using static HTML links and embedded images, the issue still functions today much as it did over twenty years ago, and one can sense, clicking through each article, historians’ excitement about the possibilities of web-based publishing at the turn of the century. That same enthusiasm electrifies the early issues of Kairos, a journal founded by Mick Doherty around 1995 in conversation with Becky Rickly.35 Kairos exclusively publishes digital creative/critical scholarship that cannot be realized in print, which it calls “webtexts,” described by current editor Cheryl Ball as “research-based artifacts that enact an author’s scholarly argument through a web-based design,” and it has continuously done so since its first issue in January 1996.36
But it was not just the web that scholars were experimenting with in the 1990s. In 1994, the bibliographer Randall McLeod, writing under the name “Random Cloud,” played with the conventions of scholarly writing in his chapter “FIAT fLUX,” a tour de force on the history of editing George Herbert’s seventeenth-century pattern poem “Easter Wings.” Calling into question the stability not just of the poem’s printed form but of print more generally, McLeod (and his willing editors at AMS Press) manipulates the design of his essay, tweaking page numbers and draping images over the gutter to gesture at the resonance between books then and now. His Tristram Shandy–like interventions continually draw the reader’s attention back to the materiality of scholarship itself, to how the codex shapes and contorts it.37 Even earlier, a working group on Electronic Books at the Research Centre Karlsruhe used the now obsolete software HyperCard to transform a 1989 lecture by the philosopher Vilém Flusser on “Writing for Publishing” into a multimedia network. Readers could listen to the recorded speech and read the transcript while following explanatory links that branched outward.38 The “Flusser-Hypertext,” which still lives on an Apple Performa 630 held by the Vilém Flusser Archive, was reconstructed by Claudia Becker in 2010. Thus the 1990s were a moment not just of speculation but of action, as scholars seized on the possibilities of digital media and the web to reimagine their work.
It was also a moment that laid the foundations for the digital publishing infrastructures emerging today. Roughly a decade after Kairos’s first issue, Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson founded the Vectors journal as a platform for media-rich digital writing. Emphasizing form as much as content, each article paired an author and their proposal with a designer who would work to realize an interactive essay in Adobe Flash. As a dynamic, collaboratively written “Editorial Statement” puts it, in language that might be used to describe the seventeenth-century books examined in the present book, the Vectors projects
do not stand still but shimmer and shift, refusing stasis and fixity. Our focus on process encourages versioning and mutability, privileging revision, rethinking, addition, and change. Projects escape the physicality and limits of the binding, expanding and contracting via their own internal logics. They are both done and undone at any moment, always moving toward another version, deploying the vast storage capacities of electronic media toward new understandings of the “edition.”39
Vectors thrived for seven issues before collapsing under the weight of its gloriously bespoke design. Its thinking, propelled by McPherson’s feminism, was folded into the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture and the development of Scalar, an open-source platform on which anyone might author nonlinear, media-rich scholarship.40 Scalar has since been used to stage a variety of digital publications, both self-published and attached to presses, including: Alex Juhasz’s Learning from YouTube, compiled from YouTube videos with design by Craig Dietrich; Surfacing, a digital companion to Nicole Starosielski’s print book The Undersea Network, designed by Erik Loyer; and The Making of a Broadside Ballad, edited by Patricia Fumerton, Andrew Griffin, and Carl Stahmer for the EMC Imprint, a venue for born-digital scholarship on early modern media and culture.41 The Manifold Scholarship application, used in the present project, has a similar trajectory to Scalar, having developed out of the process of creating a web edition for the Debates in Digital Humanities series published by the University of Minnesota Press. Efforts to devise a more sustainable, accessible environment for experimental scholarly publishing continue in scholar-led initiatives like Open Humanities Press, punctum books, the Radical Open Access Collective, and the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) partnership.42 It is a core argument of this book that each of these interventions is part of a much longer history of amateurs, outsiders, designers, and visionaries imagining a more intimate relationship between archive and argument, and making it material in the books they design.
A comprehensive history of digital and experimental publishing, though desperately needed, is outside the scope of this project.43 What I would like to offer instead is a term to help ground the deep, recurrent urge to remediate scattered collections as argumentative publications: that is, bookwork.
The concept of bookwork pushes simultaneously in two directions. On the one hand, it gestures toward all the conceptual labor that springs out of books, pushing off from the material text—the work of reading, composing, annotating, note-taking, thinking, doodling, sharing, orating—and especially the ways these bookish pursuits propel readers back into the world. This meaning surfaces clearly in the first attested use of the term in English, a hapax legomenon in Wulfstan’s early eleventh-century text outlining the duties of all members of society, now typically titled Institutes of Polity. In it, Wulfstan defines a “Bisceopes dægweorc [a bishop’s daily work]”: “ðæt bið mid rihte his gebedu ærest and ðonne his bocweorc, ræding oððon rihting, lar oððon leornung [that is rightly, his prayers first, and then his bookwork, reading or writing, teaching or learning].”44 Here, bocweorc tethers together the activities that hover in and around the book as an engine for producing knowledge: reading or writing, teaching or learning. A similar definition emerges a millennium later in relation to artists’ books, first in the work of Ulise Carrión, who calls artist-designed publications that attend to their own materiality “bookworks,” then in Garrett Stewart’s study of conceptual book objects in contemporary art, which takes Bookwork as its title.45 In his monograph, Stewart pursues the aesthetic repurposing of what he describes as the “orphaned codex form” across a range of unreadable book sculptures: Matej Kren’s grand towers made of bookish bricks; Ann Hamilton’s ball of yarn made of text carefully sliced, boustrophedon, from a printed book; or Brian Dettmer’s surgical extractions from encyclopedias and dictionaries pinned open to reveal new perspectives on their innards.46 By demediating the book, by blocking its function as a transmitter of content and rendering it pure form, these artists frustrate our expectations that books are for reading, and so ironically foreground their social and literary functions as machines for, as Wulfstan might put it, reading or writing, teaching or learning.47 From one angle, then, “bookwork” names the conceptual pressures the codex continues to exert and the textual, archival practices it continues to inspire even after its familiar physical dimensions have evaporated beneath our hands and eyes. Put simply, it is the book’s intangible halo of cultural presence. In this, “bookwork” is similar to what Jessica Pressman calls the “bookishness” of twenty-first-century novels and digital literature, what N. Katherine Hayles names as the “postprint condition” of contemporary publishing, or what Leah Price calls the “bookish” impulses of nineteenth-century readers and writers.48
On the other hand, a parallel meaning of bookwork brings us forcefully back to the actual labor of making a codex—namely, the physical processes of composing type, imposing a sheet, folding bifolia, and binding a gathering of leaves. By the nineteenth century, a flood of new genres, formats, and ephemera had vastly expanded the variety of tasks that a printer might do. In addition to books and broadsides, there were newspapers and journals, visiting cards and playbills, labels for consumer goods, colorful stamps and children’s books, telegraph code books and annual registers, posters of all shapes and sizes, and paper money to be printed. A wide range of new technologies rose to meet the challenges of modernity and consumer culture, from the massive, steam-powered rotary machines pressed into service for large print runs to the tabletop platen presses that any shopkeeper might use to publish local advertisements. As the industry diversified, it coined the term bookwork, or sometimes “book-work,” to refer to the actual type, format, and workflows required to print a codex, as distinct from job-work, news-work, press-work, machine-work, or the many other types of “work.” Printing manuals like Joseph Gould’s popular Letter-Press Printer detailed the specifications of each job and its mechanics, while industry journals like the Inland Printer advertised the state of the trade in various cities and the rates offered for composition, book-work, job-work, and other kinds of labor. Type specimens reveal the level of specialization required for each form of “work.” In Charles Reed’s and Benjamin Pardon’s Specimens of Some of the Printing Types for Book-Work (1850), for instance, each page matches a layout and typeface to a genre of book, from two-column Bibles in close-set type to the more spacious page necessary for a book of poems, while Henry Gold Bishop’s Specimens of Job Work (1890) offers completely different type samples for “Business Cards, Letter Heads, Bill Heads, Circulars, And All Kinds of Display Advertising.” As computers began to take over basic word-processing tasks in the mid-twentieth century, “bookwork” persisted as a technical term of art for the imposition needed to digitally typeset a printed codex. As a 1976 encyclopedia entry on “Computer-Aided Composition” puts it, such work required “very close cooperation between typographer and programmer,” since “the typographer must define the style needs of the classes of bookwork” and “discuss with the programmer how these can be achieved.”49 Here, the book’s tangible presence returns forcefully into view as the product of a specific class of labor.
What strikes me about these two definitions, appearing in very different contexts, is that the text fades out of focus in both. It is deferred in the book art that Stewart discusses, vaporizes into actions in Wulfstan, and rematerializes as pieces of type or formatting distinctions in nineteenth-century printing manuals and specimens, still present as a critical element of a book’s work, but decentered. By nudging content out of purview without reducing a text to brute thingness, the word bookwork helps us hold in mind the book, any book, as a force field of competing desires and agencies. It is both an assembled product of knowledge and itself an engine of knowledge production; it crystallizes ideas through historically contingent processes of labor and disperses them back into the world as particles for others to gather. It clots within a particular cultural or technological milieu that leavens its social status and persistence, but it does not represent these systems neatly; rather it has the unwieldy power to change them once it becomes entangled with readers and storage infrastructures. More, its meaning changes over time as its authored and designed content moves through new media environments. Bookwork thus gives name to the ways that books (again, giving a wide berth to that word) mediate the past for imagined futures. In so doing, it opens a space for us to consider how and why the book has been and remains the locus of scholarship and public life: what work it did before us, and the bookwork to come.
In his essay “The Book to Come,” Jacques Derrida (whose prescient, fecund writings on materiality, textuality, and archives have seen a minor renaissance among book historians lately) theorizes bookishness in terms that help elucidate what I am calling bookwork.50 Originally delivered in 1997 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France as a preface to a conversation with cultural historian Roger Chartier and media theorist Bernard Stiegler, Derrida’s piece might today be read alongside Darnton’s essay or contemporaneous experiments in scholarly publishing as part of the broader millennial conversation about the death of the book and the future of reading, writing, and libraries. In it, Derrida articulates a growing tension between, on the one hand, the printed monograph as a centripetal force meant to gather together knowledge encyclopedically (a role it began to take on in the wake of the Enlightenment), and on the other hand, the electronic book to come as dispersing this aggregated knowledge, dislocating its origins and disrupting its coherence. Deconstructing this tension, he argues that the diminishing the printed monograph’s importance does not signal the end of the idea of the book so much as the reinscription of its end, its telos, into a new mediascape. Thus the digital fragmentation that, according to contemporaneous debates, seems to be exploding any sense of the book as a closed totality is actually producing
a constant reinvestment in the book project, in the book of the world or the world book, in the absolute book (this is why I also described the end of the book as interminable or endless), the new space of writing and reading in electronic writing, traveling at top speed from one spot on the globe to another, and linking together, beyond frontiers and copyrights, not only citizens of the world on the universal network of a potential universitas, but also any reader as a writer, potential or virtual or whatever. That revives a desire, the same desire. It re-creates the temptation that is figured by the World Wide Web as the ubiquitous Book finally reconstituted, the book of God, the great book of Nature, or the World Book finally achieved in its onto-theological dream, even though what it does is to repeat the end of that book as to-come.51
Home in on one word at the still center of this swirling, circuitous passage: desire. What Derrida offers us here is a generative model for that slippery thing, the book, as a desiring force that continually regathers together what time dissipates. That force often presents as being in crisis—the “brittle book problem” in the 1980s, the crisis in scholarly publishing in the 1990s, the digital turn today—but as Okamoto’s photo teaches us, the constant return of catastrophe might be productively reframed as the continual state of historical being.52 The book, then, is always coming into being differently as the medium through which fragments of past knowledge come together and collide with the future. This is its work. The power of this formulation is that it decouples the book from a physical form, technology, or substrate, untethers it from the burden of storing all human knowledge, and instead locates bookwork in our collective will to recenter, assemble, and so understand. From this angle, Okamoto’s photograph performs the work of the book as much as a Little Gidding harmony, and the constellated digital assets of this project share something with Bagford’s late-seventeenth-century portfolios of waste. All serve as desiring machines pulling together a particular vision of what the world is, and could be.
This book proceeds by way of three historical case studies. My approach to reading the past is broadly influenced by media archaeology, the current name for a nebulous method skirting the edges of media studies, science and technology studies, and book history. The term specifically names an approach to the history of technology that originated in German media theory toward the end of the twentieth century, knitting together Michel Foucault’s genealogical historiography and McLuhan’s media ecologies, and then trickled out into Anglophone media studies with the translation of key works by Friedrich Kittler, Cornelia Vismann, Siegfried Zielinski, and Wolfgang Ernst.53 From there, media archaeology influenced a range of humanists and social scientists: English-trained media historians like Lori Emerson, Lisa Gitelman, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Jentery Sayers, and Rita Raley; artists and practitioners like Judy Malloy and Bianco; and media theorists like Wendy Chun, Jussi Parikka, David Parisi, and Grant Bollmer.54 It has also inspired new labs and makerspaces where vintage computing technologies meet and mingle with mobile phones, typewriters, analog radios, and other old media.55 While the method assumes subtly different forms, media archaeologists on both sides of the Atlantic reject an evolutionary or deterministic model of technological change that sees only the past marching inexorably into our present, one innovation leading to another. Instead, they dwell on the looped temporalities of imaginary prototypes, machines that persist in obsolescence, or experimental technologies that, like many of the books found in the pages that follow, failed to transform the dominant culture in the ways that their makers intended. The mechanism for recovering these lost objects is often an unapologetic presentism that uses the terms, conditions, and obsessions of our own moment to sift through the striated accretions of the past. Thus the digital landscape becomes a map for excavating the diversity of earlier forms and practices. In my own work, I bring media archaeology into contact with studies of the material text and what D. F. McKenzie has dubbed the “sociology of texts,” concurrent movements in book history and editorial theory that emphasize the agency of books in constructing literary history, to explore how digital tools and technologies are transforming not just libraries and collections themselves, but what we see in them. Thus the currency of a concept like “remix culture” helps make visible a forgotten history of cutting, pasting, and assemblage, while our contemporary enthusiasm for “collaboration” has fundamentally changed how I and others describe authorship across all periods.
Over the duration of my research for this book, some aspects of media archaeology have fallen out of my favor, peeling away under cogent criticisms of being too masculinist or materialist, too ignorant of human agency and subjectivity.56 I am particularly committed to Gitelman’s definition of media in her own gentle critique of media archaeology as “unique and complicated historical subjects” that both “represent and delimit representing,” that both document a historical moment and set the terms of its documentation.57 Into these fissures have seeped other approaches drawn from a range of sources. Theories of queer temporality, decolonial book history, and the promiscuous touching of different moments, for instance, have guided me in prying open the time frame of this study to bring early bookwork into contact with nineteenth-century archival infrastructures and later readers.58 I turn frequently, too, to archival and conservation studies, whose theorists and practitioners understand the burdens of institutions and infrastructure in a much more concrete way than most historians.59 The interventions of feminist digital humanities and feminist data studies are baked into the design and curatorial strategies of this project’s digital components, which are rooted in collaborations with students, colleagues, and engineers; I present them now as open-ended invitations for further work in the spirit of what Kathleen Fitzpatrick has dubbed “generous thinking.”60 Feminist materialism, with its deconstructive insistence on human–object entanglements, has proved a productive counterweight to the overemphasis on the thingness of technologies in media archaeology and studies of the material text. Its practitioners have also encouraged diverse writing styles, and I find in the experimental publishing of Marisa Parham, Sarah Kember, Gabriela Aceves-Sepúlveda, Janneke Adema, Carla Nappi, and Dominic Pettman a model for the bookwork of both this project and its subjects.61
Above all, though, I find myself always returning to philology, a hybrid field that attends to language in all its material forms and semantic richness, synchronically and diachronically, through porous barriers of media and culture. Across philology’s many recent incarnations (queer, pata-, “shimmering,” “new,” “in a new key”), my greatest inspiration comes from a short, generative essay by Vismann, “The Love of Ruins.”62 In it, Vismann deftly deconstructs philology’s foundational assumptions to argue that it is not the urge to reconstruct the past in its wholeness that drives historiography so much as our attraction to a text’s ruination, to its literal and figurative tears, to its scattered remains. In short, it is our desire for the fragment that gives birth to historical inquiry. From this dazzling perspective, to do philology is to both study and practice bookwork.
Whether named as media archaeology, as a new mode of philology, or as materialist and archival, this book’s aims are fundamentally recuperative. That is, I intend to recover forgotten individuals, communities, and books whose creative labors have sunk—have been caused to sink—from our purview and to stitch them back into broad, not-strictly-linear histories of literature, media, making, and technology. One well-annotated passage has guided me in this process, remaining at the center of my work. I first encountered it over ten years ago in Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media, a guidebook for media “anarchaeology,” as he calls his more anarchic historiography, and it is worth quoting at length for the clarity and potency of its expression:
If we are to understand history as being present not only when it demands to be accepted as a responsibility and a heavy burden, but also when there is value in allowing it to develop as a special attraction, we will need a different perspective from that which is only able to seek the old in the new. In the latter perspective, history is the promise of continuity and a celebration of the continual march of progress in the name of humankind. Everything has always been around, only in a less elaborate form; one needs only to look. Past centuries were there only to polish and perfect the great archaic ideas. This view is primitive pedagogy that is boring and saps the energy to work for the changes that are so desperately needed. Now, if we deliberately alter the emphasis, turn it around, and experiment, the result is worthwhile: do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old. If we are lucky and find it, we shall have to say goodbye to much that is familiar in a variety of respects.63
“Do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old”: in this I find a mantra not only for this project, but for all who wish to turn over history with digital technologies in search of answers to the big-picture questions facing the humanities today. This work not only speaks to narrow academic debates confined to specific fields, but puts pressure on the entire formation of departments, schools, and universities, changing our curricula and our modes of working, both together and apart.
But reclamation as a means of transformation is more than my approach toward my subjects; it is in many ways the subject of this project. Everywhere we find individuals reworking the fragments of the past into new assemblages, we bear witness to the creativity of repair, rescue, and rediscovery. Little Gidding, and in particular Mary Collet, recovered monastic, scribal production techniques for a religion newly ordered around the printed book. Benlowes salvaged woodcuts, engravings, and handicraft production to rework poetics in Little Gidding’s wake. And of course Bagford built an entire career around recuperation, trafficking in scraps of old manuscripts and antiquities for collectors. In their own unique ways, each of these individuals’ projects functioned like a historiographic black hole, absorbing fragments of the past and reordering them into new galaxies, new constellations of meaning. Over time, those galaxies would shift, and their gravitational pull would loosen, once again scattering the scraps they recuperated to the winds of time. But by serving, for a moment, as that locus around which the past was recovered, their bookwork bursts from the past with the force of Okamoto’s photograph, offering a radical vision for what publishing might look like again.