Sarah Werner is a book historian and digital strategist based in Washington, D.C. She worked at the Folger Shakespeare Library for nearly a decade, teaching book history to undergraduates and building a scholarly communications strategy. Among other publications, she has written “Digital First Folios” for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s First Folios (2016), “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline” with Matthew Kirschenbaum for Book History (2014), and “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities” in the Journal of Digital Humanities (2012). Her latest book, Studying Early Printed Books, 1450-1800: A Practical Guide, will be out from Wiley Blackwell this spring.
Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts Aaron Pratt spoke with Werner in advance of her Pforzheimer Lecture on February 21.
AP: What exactly is a digital facsimile?
SW: A facsimile is something that is (or attempts to be!) an exact reproduction of something else. We use it primarily for texts, so you can think of it as something that looks like the material text that it’s copying. Facsimiles have been around for a long time, at least from the eighteenth century, when engravings of manuscript hands were made, but the comparative ease of taking and distributing digital images has really made the world of facsimiles explode in the last couple of decades. The simplest definition of a digital facsimile is one that has been produced with digital tools. That mostly means digital images, like the images you find in the Ransom Center’s digital collections. But maybe there are other digital means for creating facsimiles: do they have to be two-dimensional? Could we have facsimiles of book bindings? We’re certainly not done developing digital resources and I bet we’re not done with creating new types of facsimiles!
With digital facsimiles of books and manuscripts increasingly available online, it is no surprise that scholars today rely on them to access historical sources—I certainly do—but what is it that led you to study facsimiles themselves and not just the books they purport to represent?
I think it was probably EEBO! Early English Books Online is a collection of digitized images of black-and-white microfilms, most of which date back to a mid-twentieth-century imaging project. If you work on early modern England, EEBO is invaluable. But when I was teaching undergraduates at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I was spending a lot of time articulating why reading books in person was important even when you had images of them online 24 hours a day. From thinking about the problems of digital facsimiles, I soon became curious about what those objects actually were—what information they made visible and what they didn’t, how they were chosen and created and disseminated, and how we choose to use them and discuss them. It’s like any other object that’s usually in the background: once you start looking at it carefully, it becomes more and more strange.
What things should we be paying attention to when we access early books via online facsimiles? Why?
This is so obvious, but do you know what you’re looking at? Libraries tend to be good about identifying what is imaged, but other providers can be much more sketchy. It’s nice if there’s a title and an author, but does it give the correct imprint? If the work exists in multiple editions, does it state which one this is? Do you trust that metadata? If you’re studying early black authors in America, there’s an important difference between reading the version of A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant that Marrant himself authorized or one of the versions transcribed by William Aldridge without Marrant’s input.
But there are other important questions to ask, such as how do these images present and shape this textual object? For instance, do they show single pages or openings of facing pages? Since books in your hand are read as openings, does looking at only single pages at a time change the experience of reading that book? The Nuremberg Chronicle has illustrations that cross the gutter, and many editions of Aesop’s Fables and emblem books are carefully designed around images and words on facing pages. Seeing only half of that designed image at a time alters how you might respond to it.
Or what about other book features? Bindings, endleaves, blank pages, textures, chainlines, watermarks? It’s possible to create images that show these aspects of books, but we’ve gotten so used to seeing pictures that don’t that we forget they might be important pieces of information for our work.
One way of studying digital facsimiles is to examine the quality of the images and metadata associated with them. Another is to ask questions about the selection process that precedes digitization, questions about what gets digitized and what doesn’t. Digitization and online repositories promise more access to more early books, but institutional resources are finite, and places like the Ransom Center have to set priorities about what to photograph and put online. What recommendations do you have on how collecting institutions should proceed?
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. It partly depends on how institutions conceive of themselves and what they imagine is the role of digital images. It definitely depends on what types of things an institution collects and what type of community it serves! Having said that, probably the most important thing to ask is how your institution fits into the digital ecosphere. Most libraries and archives have a pretty good sense of how they fit into the larger world of collecting institutions, where they shine with exceptional holdings, where they have a small but deep holdings, where they are attention-grabbing and where not. There’s no better or worse in this; small collections are just as important for what they do as large and famous ones. The online world has similarly small and large players, digital collections that are diverse and that are tightly focused. If another institution has already imaged all of their French revolution pamphlets, does it make sense for you to do all of yours, if yours largely replicates theirs? Maybe it’d be better to focus on your smaller collection of German theological tracts, if there isn’t another collection available online.
I would definitely encourage looking closely at how your institution can collaborate with others. For much of the history of digitization, libraries went about doing their own thing according to their own standards, and so we ended up with lots of little pots of treasures that can’t be put alongside each other and often can’t be found. There are now efforts like Digital Public Library of America and Europeana that strive to pull together one-stop-shopping for browsing the records from many institutions; will your library be contributing to those places? And the growth of interest in the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) means that users can pull images from different IIIF-compliant collections into a single viewer to work with them regardless of institution. Granting agencies increasingly prefer collaborative projects across multiple institutions, so that a single collection of, say, eighteenth-century natural history books can be created from the holdings of five different libraries. Your lovely fifteenth-century Book of Common Prayer can have more of an impact if it’s part of a collection than if it’s off on its lonesome.
And for the love of pixels, think before you act about how you’re going to get the word out! There’s no point in creating beautiful images of the perfect items if they aren’t discoverable and reusable. Will images be connected to online programming? Linked from your catalog? Appear in union catalogs? Will they be allowed to spread through social media and online publications? Will they be findable through web searches? The questions of discovery and licensing aren’t add-on issues, but integral to the planning for and creation of digitization.
What’s a book or group of books that hasn’t yet been digitized but, in your opinion, should be? Why?
Given the amount of time I spend haranguing about this, I should probably have something ready to point to. My own field is early modern English literature, and I’ve come across books that I am genuinely gobsmacked I can’t find as good digital facsimiles. There aren’t copies of either of the 1591 editions of Astrophil and Stella! And where are the early editions of Tottel’s miscellany? Those are such important works for the study of English literature and texts that are so valuable in their early printed forms that I’m truly shocked they aren’t available as high-resolution images.
But the undigitized group of books I’m most interested in are those texts that were so plentiful in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, but that are now nearly impossible to find online. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in 1678 and the complete work in 1684; it went on to be published nearly every year through the end of the 18th century in locations not only across the English-speaking world but in translation across the globe—and that’s before the explosion of the machine press and colonialism. But good-quality accessible facsimiles of the work are scarce today. The earliest decent ones I’ve found are a 1717 French edition, a 1741 English edition, and a 1754 German edition. Similarly, the collection of traveler’s phrasebooks and dictionaries we now call Berlemonts were popular and widespread, expanding from French-Flemish editions to eight-language ones (French, Flemish, Latin, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese). By my rough count, we know of around 150 editions to have survived from the period between 1530 and 1650, but there are only around a dozen that are freely available online, and only a few that you can see as high-resolution color images.
Imagine how interesting it would be to have such a cultural object to study, something that was nearly ubiquitous for so long over a widespread area. It’d be hard to make the case to a single institution to image an entire run of either of these texts, or of something similar. And most institutions don’t own more than a handful of any one of these in any case anyway. So such a digitization project would be a real lesson in collaboration, not only in management but output. I’d love to be able to compare lots of copies of Berlemonts, which also tend to be still in their early bindings and so offer owners’ marks and other bookish bits of interest. That’d be much more useful than yet another copy of a famous book that we already know a lot about.
Beyond remote access, what is something that digital facsimiles can provide to researchers? There are so many things to be careful about when studying early books via surrogates of any kind, but is there anything that digitization is good at that in-person access isn’t?
Oh, there’s so much digitization could do, if we wanted it to! I find it a lot easier to see tiny details blown up in high-resolution digitizations than in-person with a magnifying glass. Sometimes it really helps to play with the contrast and color of digital images to bring out details that can be hard to see otherwise. If imaging was done with raking light, it can be much easier to bring out the texture of a page so that you can see blind type or variations in texture and type bite. Multi-spectral imaging can reveal what lies underneath layers of ink—scribbled over inscriptions, for example, or scraped-out palimpsests. There’s amazing new technology that can reveal what is printed on binders’ waste even while it is still bound under the pastedown. And if we were to push further with what we considered digitization, we might find even more is possible: 3-D imaging of a codex might help us explore binding structures, or we might be able to reverse engineer how volvelles were constructed and then reconstruct them without having to take them apart and reassemble them. We are so wed to thinking about facsimiles in terms of showing us textual marks on the surface of a page that we’re blinding ourselves to the many other ways in which books make meanings and how digital tools can capture those and represent them for us.
The publication of your new book, Studying Early Printed Books, 1450–1800: A Practical Guide, is imminent. I know that I’ve been waiting for it to come out, but could you tell our readers about it?
The first part of the book is a guide to how books were made in the hand-press period, taking you through an overview of printing books and then in-depth into aspects of the process, such as how paper was made, what imposition is, and how the press works. The focus is on making books, not on the book trade or on textual studies, but I regularly ask “Why does this matter?” and provide examples of how knowing how bindings work can be helpful for research. The second part of the guide focuses on using books today: how can you tell what parts of a book are the result of early printing practices and what are later changes? how do you look closely at a book and understand what you’re seeing? how do you read a catalog record? what’s the difference between using digital facsimiles and books in-hand?
It’s intended to be an introduction to what will hopefully be an on-going process for readers learning about bibliography, so I promise the book is written in as friendly a manner as possible, with lots of images, a glossary, and a detailed list of further reading. Plus I’m just wrapping up the creation of a free companion website that will have lots of pictures of books with the sorts of features I discuss in the book. So if you don’t have ready access to a collection of early books, you can still get a sense of what the development of title pages looks like, or what plate marks are, or just the wide range of appearances of books in this period. The site will have a host of teaching resources as well, just in case you want to teach this stuff but are feeling a bit nervous about how to go about it!
The book should be out this spring from Wiley Blackwell, and the website (www.earlyprintedbooks.com) will launch around the same time. It’s been great fun working on both, and I hope folks find them useful and enjoyable too!