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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.

The “hallmark of the free”: Reasons for Literacy

The “hallmark of the free”: Reasons for Literacy

Map of the 13 Colonies copied from an early 20th Century map book found, for some reason, in my desk drawer.
Map of the 13 Colonies copied from an early 20th Century map book found, for some reason, in my desk drawer.

From the earliest stages of American colonization through the Revolution and into the new republic, one thing was accepted almost universally: literacy was the foundation of a good life. So-called “traditional literacy,” which E. Monaghan roots in the British and Protestant inheritance of the American colonies, was an established, almost prescriptive formula for childhood education before 1750—reading (memorization) followed by writing (penmanship). It was not until the mid-eighteenth century when childhood became distinctive from adulthood and educators introduced the spellers, two developments which paralleled changes occurring in Europe and Russia at the same time, caused the colonists to reevaluate this system. She takes to task scholars of literacy who establish literacy and illiteracy as binaries, as something achieved or not. Instead her work shows that in the colonies there was an established, educative program which some students completed, some students started, and some students never even began.

Monaghan argues that the goal of this program was two-fold. First of all, children were expected to be literate enough to read their Bible. The act of reading the scriptures was the same as saving one’s soul, a common theme in both the Anglican and Congregationalist strands of Protestantism popular in the colonies. Second, literacy was the “bulwark against barbarism.”[1] Especially when coming into contact with new peoples, the Wampanoags being an excellent example, literacy preserved the colonists’ civilized identity against the threat of the uncivilized. In addition it was a main vehicle for conversion—culturally and religiously. However, these explanations seem to take at face value justifications which the people themselves purport. They are ideological; they are justifiable. What about more pragmatically? What political or economic reasons could the colonists, not to mention Britain and Protestantism, have for supporting literacy?

In Ben Eklof’s (excellent) study of peasant schools in post-emancipation Russia, he argues that the state, on one hand, wanted peasant children to learn how to be better citizens of the motherland, both morally and ethically. The children’s parents, on the other, only wanted their children to achieve a level of practical literacy and ignored the rest of the school’s instruction. In a population where education was new, let alone literacy, parents considered the act of reading aloud from the prayer book and keeping one’s own accounts enough education for a peasant farmer—it was their own “peasant pedagogy.” Here, like in Monaghan’s work, the family was central to literacy; however, Eklof adds the state as well. In fact the familial and the political were combatants, fighting over the minds of these children. Though there was not a state at this point in America, there was a government and a certain social structure that may have benefited from this focus on literacy, an avenue which Monaghan does not explore. Perhaps pragmatic rationale are outside of her scope, although she does occasionally touch upon the political impact of literacy. For example, teaching the Wampanoags how to read served a religious purpose, missionary work, and a civilizing purpose, the introduction of Western modes of thought. However, concluding similarly to Eklof, Wampanoags did learned to read—most rejecting the religious and civilizing message, but some did not. There are profound political implications here which Monaghan does not explore: why, for example, target this particular group? Was it purely the desire to Christianize? Or could the educators have a more pragmatic reason?

Enslaved, literate people offer an interesting reversal of this message. Monaghan takes what is usually seen as a political reason for not educating slaves—educated slaves, it goes, run the risk of using their literacy to contemplate their own freedom—and makes it familial. Some families educated their slaves and some did not; some families educated some of their slaves and some slaves educated themselves. Meanwhile the Quakers in Pennsylvania connected slavery and literacy in a different way. The abolition of slavery was a reason for white school children to learn how to read, so that they could speak out against the practice. Connecting the family in this way to literacy while also acknowledging the role of the state is when Monaghan’s argument is at its strongest. Like E. P. Thompson’s clock, literacy was a regulator of modern life, a “hallmark of the free”[2] which, as Monaghan argues, was the basis for self-identity in colonial America and, I would add, the nation.



[1] E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Worcester, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 367.

[2] Monaghan, 8.