Early English Books Online (EEBO) is a fantastic online database of scanned English language books from 1450-1700 and is comprised of 125,000 unique titles—a staggering resource by any measure!
For early modernists interested in print during the English Civil War, one of the most important collections included in EEBO are the Thomason Tracts, a collection of documents (pamphlets, manuscripts, journals, and books) which were collected, organized, and annotated by George Thomason between 1641-1661 (for more on the man and the collection).
This work’s value, besides its near completeness, lies in the remains of Thomason’s own hand, scrawled in the margins of nearly every page he obtained. Just like modern readers take post-it notes and highlighters to their materials, Thomason took his pen. English historians and literary critics have creatively used these remnants to reconstruct topics as disparate as reading habits, archival and library methodologies, political radicalization, and ideological transmission.
According to Jason Peacey (his new book is AMAZING-good) and since collaborated by several scholars and my own snooping, many of these annotations are missing from the digitized version of Thomason’s Tracts. Some were too faint to make out in the scan, and others were rendered completely illegible by it. This seems to me to be a profound loss of valuable historical documentation, of a unique epistemology which he created as he read and stored these written materials.
In a book talk with Dr. Peacey late last week, he suggested that this failure to correctly digitize Thomason’s Tracts was a failure endemic in the impulse to digitize archives at all. The process, he argued, inherently decontextualizes documents, making them easier to abstract as individual texts or bytes of information from the rich historical context of his creation.
For example, if I were to view the first page of William Prynne’s 1644 A true and full relation of the prosecution, arraignment, tryall, and condemnation of Nathaniel Fiennes… (an excerpt of which heads this post) in a photocopied form, then I would be less likely to abstract the text from the document. This means that, because of the feel of the paper and the heft of the book, I would be reminded of the tactile and visual experience of the original. Conversely, if I were to view this same page online, Dr. Peacey argues, then I would be more likely to think of the document as lines of text which I could cut-and-paste without ever thinking about the original book from which it came.
On one hand, Peacey is absolutely correct that the missing annotations from Thomason’s Tracts are an example of how digital archives can lead less-than-critical historians astray. The act of flipping through bound copies of his collection within the hallowed halls of the British Library is a completely different experience from me, alone, in my tiny studio apartment on a huge computer monitor. Much of Thomason’s original structure and the sensorial experience cannot be recreated.
Following this logic, on the other hand, leads me to question his two conclusions. First, if one is looking to replicate the experience of using the Thomason’s Tracts, how can photocopies be any better than the digitized version? Abstraction takes place the moment a document is inscribed into a new medium—copies will always be copies, no matter if they are photocopied, scanned, or some super cool future technology. The moment the smell of the paper or the feel of the page is missing, the scholar using the material has to be cognizant of recreating that aspect of her document. (My antiquarianism is showing a bit, no?)
Second, I am unconvinced that the missing annotations tell us anything about the failures of technologically recreated archives. Instead, I see one poorly digitized set of documents. Scholars are versed (though not explicitly instructed) in the culture of physical archives. They know how to use the materials, move around in the space, and conduct the “work of the archive.” Digital archives require the same literacy. Only since postmodernism forced us to confront the hidden systems of power inherent the archives, have we been conscious of how scholars can perpetuate these power systems or negate them. Perhaps this should carry over into our use of online archives—interrogate the silences, recreate the materiality, and be proactive on both of those fronts.
To their credit, EEBO has written many of the illegible annotations into the catalog records. Though not perfect, in doing so EEBO is acknowledging a shortcoming and correcting it. Yes, it is not like reading Thomason’s original annotation as he wrote it, but it is a start.
I think this is what scholars need to do when it comes to using online archival information more broadly: be aware of the selection bias and limitations of digitized technology, make sure you know the materiality of the original document by effectively employing the catalog information, and use these items with as much intellectual rigor as you would any other source.