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Clasps that Hold Tight: Archival Sources for Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Clasps that Hold Tight: Archival Sources for Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

In her 2008 novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks presents the fictionalized history of a single book through the lens of Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in rare books. Centered on the Sarajevo Haggadah, Brooks flips through its pages and offers her readers a glimpse into the book’s past using clues stuck to, drawn in, spilled on, and missing from the book.

Over the next few weeks, I want to provide readers of People of the Book with real-world examples from archives, libraries, and museums across the world. These examples should help you picture what Brooks is describing, contextualizing her novel and providing an introduction to the history of the book.

Other posts in this series:

Clasps appear to have developed in tandem with the codex, manuscripts bound together to form the first recognizably book-like books. Since these very first books were made of parchment or other organic materials, they were particularly vulnerable to moisture and fluctuations in temperature.

There are two ways clasps promoted longevity. First, clasps insured that books remained closed when not in use. The less a page is exposed to things like air, dust, humidity, or light, the longer it will last. Locking a book shut with a clasp meant that no matter where a book was, no matter what position it was in, it would remain closed tight.

Second, clasps provide consistent and even pressure, which was needed to keep a book’s pages flat. Parchment pages, for example, buckle at ambient room temperature with enough force to crack a wooden book cover. By holding a book tight, clasps prevented pages from warping, cracking, and becoming illegible.

Although clasps were very practical, they were also aesthetically important. The clasps on a book told you a lot about the values and social position of its owner. Weither they were made out of modest (leather straps) or expensive (gold, gems) materials, simple in design or extravagant, homemade or crafted by the world’s finest jewelers, reflected a book’s content and its owner’s wealth.

In People of the Book, the Sarajevo Haggadah’s clasps were definitely in the expensive-extravagant-world’s finest jewelers category. They were silver, carved with a “motif of flower[s] enfolded by wing[s].” (104) But rather than being luminous in gold or incrusted with jewels, it was delicately carved in silver.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, like most of its contemporaries, would have had two clasps, one near the top of the book and one near the bottom. This insured that the pages remained in place, and it was the dominant clasp style in Medieval Europe until the end of the 16th century.

There are two reasons clasps became obsolete. First, books were increasingly made out of cloth or rag paper. Made from leftover clothing fibers, like linen and, later, cotton, rag paper was much less venerable to changes in temperature and moisture. It was also resilient against dust and light, meaning it could be left out and open without any negative effects. Second, the advent of the printing press and a general increase in European literacy, meant there were many more books in circulation. Up until then, books were always stored horizontally, taking up a lot of room on shelves and tables. With the massive influx of material available, people had to start shelving their books vertically to save space. Not only did giant clasps get in the way, they were also just no longer necessary.

Regardless, they remain beautiful reminders about the complex and developing history of the book.

Below are a few clasps from the same period and in the same style described in Brooks’s book, all of which can be found preserved in archives and special collections:

  • Folger Shakespeare Library | If you scroll though the Folger’s online collection of clasps, you will get a great idea of the different types of binding from different places and periods. Although none of them really line up with the Haggadah in Brooks’s book, this blog entry does give a solid overview of the topic.
  • Hugging a Medieval Book (Leiden University) | On his blog, Erik Kwakkel, a book historian, explores a type of Medieval clasp, which was a popular contemporary to the Haggadah’s clasps. However, instead of a rose and wing, these clasps are meant to mimic clasping hands and arms. If you are interested, Kwakkel’s blog is a rich resource for information on all aspects of Medieval manuscripts and books.
  • The British Museum | These clasps, removed from their original book, are probably very similar to those in People of the Book. They are beautiful examples of detailed silver work, although Christian in origin and not Jewish.
Finding the Haggadah: Archival Sources for Understanding Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Finding the Haggadah: Archival Sources for Understanding Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

In her 2008 novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks presents the fictionalized history of a single book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–as seen by Dr. Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in rare books. Alternating between Hanna’s story and glimpses from the Haggadah’s past, Brooks pieces together the book’s history using the clues stuck to, drawn in, spilled on, and missing from it.

Over the next few weeks, I want to provide readers of People of the Book with real-world examples from archives, libraries, and museums across the world. These examples should help you picture what Brooks is describing, contextualizing her novel and providing an introduction to the history of the book.

To start us off, the Haggadah.

The Haggadah is a sacred Jewish book that sets out to fulfill the commandment to “tell your son” of the escape from Egypt. A blueprint for the Seder, or ritual feast at the beginning of Passover, the Haggadah is a very common book, one that can be found in almost every Jewish home. Although most are rather normal-looking, throughout the last eight-hundred years many have been designed with extraordinary attention to detail and a lot of money. Surviving examples in libraries, archives, museums, and private collections present scholars with insight into Medieval manuscript illumination, Jewish and Biblical art, and the history of the book in Europe.

The examples provided below are keeping to the general genre of Brooks’s Haggadah. They are from Medieval Europe, illuminated with human figures, made from expensive materials, and finely decorated by a master.

  • Sarajevo Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1350): This real book was the inspiration for Brooks’s fictional one, in name and design. Although it belongs to the National Museum, the Haggadah is currently on display in the main hall at the Sarajevo Parliament in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • The Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1320): Comparable to the Sarajevo Haggadah, both being created in the same area around the same time, the Golden Haggadah is different in two ways. First, although the Sarajevo one is illuminated with copper and some gold, the Golden one lives up to its name: gold covers almost every page of illustration. Second, the Golden Haggadah has almost double the miniature illustrations (56 to Sarajevo’s 34). In content and size, this version of the Haggadah is stunning in its overwhelming luxuriousness. Currently owned by the British Museum, it is available in full online.
  • The Birds’ Head Haggadah (South Germany, c. 1300): Quite possibly the oldest Haggadah in existence, the name comes from the bird-like features of the people in this book’s marginal illustrations. This style of drawing skirted the rules against drawing humans by giving them pronounced beaks, and it was very common in Southern German manuscripts of the time. This Haggadah is currently owned by the Israel Museum.
  • The Washington Haggadah (South Germany, 1478): Created more than 100 years after the Sarajevo Haggadah in Brooks’s book, the Washington Haggadah has a much clearer provenance (the history of who owned it, when, and where). We know, for example, that it was created by Joel ben Simeon and came into the possession of the Library of Congress as part of a large accession in 1916. Frequently on tour, this version of the Haggadah is one of the most accessible in person, having spent a long time at the Met and available in facsimile through Harvard University Press.
  • The Rylands Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1330): Most likely the finest Haggadah in existence, the Rylands Haggadah incorporates a variety of illustrative techniques with the text and includes a 13-page miniature cycle, which details Exodus from the burning bush to the Red Sea. As such, it is a pillar of Judaic and Biblical art and a standout example of the genre. Owned by the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, it was also displayed at the Met and available in facsimile.
A Creative Commons Primer for Graduate Students [GradHacker]

A Creative Commons Primer for Graduate Students [GradHacker]

My March post for GradHacker is all about the Creative Commons and how you can use it in graduate school!

Summers in North Carolina were always long, boring, and hot. In order to survive the humidity, my sister and I would spend the morning at the community pool and the afternoon stuck inside. While Kristin preferred to play with her Little People, I would take over the kitchen countertop, covering it with crayons, colored paper, scissors, eight kinds of markers, two kinds of colored pencils, glitter, beads, magazines, and cool leaves I found in the yard. Then I would take a giant piece of construction paper and create these elaborate collages, displaying all of my little treasures by gluing them together.

I still love collages, but I don’t really have the time to create glitter-covered art anymore. Instead, as a graduate student in a visually uncreative field (history), I seize every opportunity to do creative work–making posters, adding pictures to my dissertation, writing lectures, and building websites. I love riffing on preexisting art, borrowing images from the internet and either using them as-is or mixing them into something new.

Images from the internet–any work of art, photograph, graph, or any digital visualization–is the property of the original creator and under copyright protection. In order to stay on the right side of law, I make sure that all of the visual materials I use as a graduate student are posted under a Creative Commons license and are properly attributed.

Read the rest of the article over at GradHacker!

[Image by Flickr user Naomi and used under Creative Commons license. I recommend taking a look at the rest of her collages, because they are beautiful!]

A Toast: To My One Year Anniversary at GradHacker

A Toast: To My One Year Anniversary at GradHacker

As many of you might already know, I am a contributing author at GradHacker, a blog written for and by graduate students which is hosted by Inside Higher Ed.

This month marks my one-year anniversary at the blog, so, to celebrate, I am lifting a (metaphorical, since it is 10am) pint to GradHacker and linking to all of this year’s posts!

  1. Loving Your Back in Graduate School | May 5th, 2016
  2. Organize Your Computer with Help from an Archivist | April 24th, 2016
  3. Take Yourself on a Scholar Date | March 17th, 2016
  4. Analyzing Analytics at the University | February 14th, 2016
  5. Software for Adding Some Digital to Your Classroom | January 24th, 2016
  6. The 12 Days of an Online Class | December 23rd, 2015
  7. Ready for Your Close Up? | November 30, 2015
  8. Designing a Digital Classroom | October 4th, 2015
  9. Stop Feeding the Trolls! | September 14th, 2015
  10. Fostering an Active Online Discussion | June 23rd, 2015
  11. Learning Moments (Screen) Captured | April 30th, 2015

Each of those posts represents a lot of work and mental energy; however, they have also reinvigorated my love of writing and supported my attempts to think widely.

I have decided to re-up, so look forward to another year of how-to posts on everything from archival management and DH to writing a dissertation and finding a job.

This next year is going to bring with it a bunch of personal and professional changes, and I plan to write about all of them!

Reflections on my First Video Lecture

Reflections on my First Video Lecture

Creating a video lecture differs profoundly from producing a more traditional, classroom-based lecture.

Camtasia Screen Shot
Screenshot of the chaos.

This, in and of itself, did not really shock me–I mean, no duh. To do the former you need more stuff: a camera, (speedy) computer, video editing software, microphone, a quiet room. And this does not even begin to address the trauma of watching yourself over and over and over again on film. (I took a lot of speech classes as an undergrad where we had to film ourselves, which largely eliminated the trepidation I had about being on camera; however, editing the video and watching myself over again was more difficult than I had anticipated.)

What did surprise me was how much the content of my lecture and the style of delivery changed, while the process of writing remained largely the same.

For a classroom lecture, my process is pretty straightforward: First, I determine the purpose the lecture serves in the overall arch of the course. What is my rationale for writing it; what is my rationale for having my students experience it? Second, I generate two or three smaller lecture questions. This brakes the whole of the lecture into digestible, purposeful chunks, which students can use to organize their notes and study for their exams. The later I write specifically for the students; the former are only for me.

After I am satisfied with the general purpose of the lecture, then I fill in this structure with the lecture content. My final step is to find images or songs or video to present alongside my lecture material, augmenting the content and entertaining the students (a little bit, at least).

Nothing in this process is particularly revolutionary. In fact, I am sure most professors will claim a similar system in writing an individual lecture.

A few months ago the instructor for the online course I will be TA-ing for in the winter contacted me about writing and filming a video lecture for the course. I absolutely LOVE lecturing–the chance to talk about something I am equally passionate about and knowledgeable about? Yes, please!

Thankfully I did not need to worry about the content of my lecture, since I have thought about the history of zombies often. However, I was nervous about transitioning from analog to digital. I knew I need to make some changes (heavens, I’ve argued in favor of a uniquely digital pedagogy for years now), but I was uncertain about how to begin.

So, I began at the beginning.

First, after discussing my idea for a lecture with the instructor, I tried to frame my lecture in the course and then to generate some research questions.

Second, I produced and organized the content for the lecture.

Third, I found some images to entertain the eye and reinforce my lecture.

Fourth, I rehearsed the lecture on video, so I could see how it went, teaching myself Camtasia as I went.

And how it went… was an unmitigated failure. Not only was it far too long, I relied on hand gestures that could not be seen, gave too much detail about the films (films that I absolutely love and could barely contain my excitement about), and, in the end, my message had gotten lost among the technology.

The system was not broke, but my lecture was.

After a day or so of sulking, I began at the beginning. My confidence in the purpose of the lecture and the lecture questions remained; however, I needed to rethink how I conveyed that message. Instead of focusing on the structure of the content, I began by listing out exactly what information I felt the students needed to come away from the lecture knowing–in this case, the definition of a zombie, the origins and phases of zombie development, and that fear and monsters tell historians a lot about history.

From here, my workflow changed:

My next step was to put together images. In fact, I started with a straight-up Google Images search. Partially for inspiration; partially for connecting my thoughts together. Putting together the visual component first allowed me to frame my lecture more visually.

After I liked the structure of the visual component, then I wrote a lecture outline. This resulted in a much tighter, less detailed lecture. Because students can rewind and watch the lecture as often as they want, video lectures can move faster from topic-to-topic. In classroom lectures, I make sure to keep coming back to important points, repeating definitions, and restating difficult concepts for clarity. While necessary in classrooms, on video this wastes–your precious recording seconds, your students’ attention, and your ability to convey the pertinent information. On video brevity reigns supreme.

And it was done! By fixing those two issues, I turned a crappy first draft into a polished video lecture.

In the end there are things that I would change (I need to figure out some more interesting and variable ways of expressing the visual component of my lecture); however, I love how the technology fades away, emphasizing my message over my medium.

The takeaway:
1) Video Lectures, like those in the classroom, need to have a clear purpose within the scope of the course.
2) Emphasize brevity in writing your lecture outline, omitting redundancies.
3) Use the technology as a tool, one of many in your arsenal.

A (Brief) History of Zombies in the 20th Century

A (Brief) History of Zombies in the 20th Century

Zombies, like all monsters, have a history.

Exactly what that history means depends on the scholar doing the asking: scholars of film, media, popular culture, literature, fear, and on and on.

In this video, which I was asked to put together for an upcoming online course, I want to introduce undergraduate students to the fundamentals of zombie history: what is a zombie and how have Americans used this monster to express societal fears.

Over the last quarter, I have muddled my way through learning how to be an online instructor–from the technology to the pedagogy. Most of the time it has been a joy, but sometimes a struggle. So, I am trying to focus on the process of learning the software and the skills, instead of the frustrations and hard work. With that in mind, over the next few weeks, I am putting together a few posts on the lessons I have learned, adding my voice to the increasing numbers muddling through this too.

Thomason Tracts, EEBO, and Using Online Archives

Thomason Tracts, EEBO, and Using Online Archives

Untitled_Clipping_031114_033841_PMEarly 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.

“Datafied” Archives: Authenticity, Authority, and Illusion

“Datafied” Archives: Authenticity, Authority, and Illusion

Me, Microfilm, a Laptop, a Notebook; or, everything necessary to spend the day in the archive.
Me, Microfilm, a Laptop, a Notebook; or, everything necessary to spend the day in the archive.

Piggybacking off of my last post, Purple Ink, and last week’s CDH discussion led by the wonderful Jacqueline Wernimont, today I want to reflect on the concept of “datafied” archives, to borrow Wernimont’s phrase, and authenticity.

Unlike projects which create brand new archives, take almost any Tumblr for example, datafied archives are the digital versions of brick-and-mortar institutions with two major changes: the archival material has been scanned (digitized) and any text has been rendered searchable (datafied). A particularly comprehensive example of this is the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, where you can quickly search for articles within American newspapers from 1836-1922. Notice how the digital reflects the physical: you still read the article within the context of the whole newspaper page, the fonts and images remain as they do in the original newspaper, and you can browse the collection by year or publication as you would in the Library of Congress itself. Nevertheless, the archive is made up of individual pieces of abstractable data–phrases, words, and pixels.

Medieval European archives were originally meant to exclusively serve the needs of the king, to insure that he and his advisers had control of the charters and agreements within his realm. Authenticity was based on the literal proximity to the physical body of the king–he included the materials so they were authentic.

As early modernity continued on into the European Enlightenment, archives became less about this closeness and more about organizing, filing, and structuring knowledge. They still enforced the king’s authority, but now just having the documents was not enough–one had to be able to quickly access the stored knowledge. Across Europe competing methods of archival practice sprang up; however, all of these systems began defining authority and authenticity in the relationship between the item and all of the other materials in the archive. File folders and library cataloging styles define the physical place the item has within the archive and library, creating authority by exercising control and authenticity by comparison.

Authenticity for a datafied archive is similarly built, only in this case it is constructed in the digital’s relationship to the physical. Each of these archives are constructed from digital reproductions of material originals–records and documents, visual and written–which reside together online as they do in reality. If, for example, the Library of Congress has an archive of newspapers,  they carry the the LOC’s authority and the newspapers’ authenticity into their digital versions.

However, this slippage between the the digital/datafied and physical archives’ authenticity leads to a potentially huge fallacy: big data’s illusion of objectivity.

This illusion has two parts, internal and external. First, datafying archives leads to the assumption that all material inside the archive is available in digital form. I do not think this is intentional on the part of the archives, nor is it simply stupidity on the side of the users. Take, for example, the Getty’s recent launch of its digital library–a fantastic and fascinating project which I have already used several times. An uninformed user may mistake this site for the totality of the Getty’s collection, which is far from true. Not only does this increasing availability of datafied material replicate issues of access which affect physical archives, they create new lacuna within the collections themselves.

Second, big data in the form of a datafied archive abstracts the information from the human hand which constructs it, side-stepping questions which all digital consumers should always ask: who selected this information for digitization and why? What was not included and why? Who did the work and why? Why? Why? Why? Nothing is objective in the physical archive, and, likewise, nothing should be considered so in the digital even if it claims to be. The mission to digitize every book, for example, can clothe subjective choices in objective goals. The massive scale of big data scanning projects, most notably Google Books, masks real-world political and economic motives behind the datafied archive–take this example of the racial and class issues behind the scanning of Google’s books.

I cannot say that this shift in authenticity in the archive is necessarily bad, excepting the last example of Google Books which is deeply troubling. Instead I am saying that datafying archives and redefining authenticity is occurring all around us. In fact, we are participating in its redefinition every time we use these materials. What we, as scholars and members of the online public, must do is to be hyper-vigilant of our assumptions when using datafied or digitalized archives, to educate ourselves on how we are constructing “the authentic” within this new media. Several institutions are furthering such efforts, like the Centre for Digital Library Research and the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, focusing on the importance of digital literacy and education.

Above all, I want us to be self-aware as we live our digital lives, think about how our actions are constructing and reconstructing authenticity, and question the silences which continue to exist in our data.