All posts filed under “Quires & Clasps

Rare Book School in the News

I have just completed my first summer as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School. While I was in Charlottesville for a course on analytical bibliography with Stephen Tabor, Lee Powell of the Washington Post was in town filming for a short piece about Rare Book School. Though I’m not convinced that my own appearances in the clip helped things, the finished product turned out pretty well. You can find the video and a short article here.

I’m posting the video here in part because it should give readers of my site a glimpse into the kind of things that happen at RBS. (I promise it’s not as quaint as the video sometimes makes it seem.) The main reason, though, is that I’d like to build off my comment that appears near the beginning. As I began to suggest in the clip, and as I suggested to Lee in the longer interview he did with me, my sense is that the real strength of Rare Book School is its ability to bring together a community of scholars who share a commitment to books as material objects, but who come from a wide range of backgrounds and who engage with books in a range of capacities. The mix includes traditional humanities scholars, special collections librarians, library catalogers, binding and paper conservators, professional booksellers, and collectors. The publications that arise from academic research in departments like my own tend to have only one name attached to them, but, from start to finish, they are almost always products of conversations and collaborations. And often the best work, especially in bibliography and book history, is work that engages with the experiences and knowledge of those who sit adjacent to and outside of the academy. The coursework at Rare Book School is more or less unique in its ability to generate the kind of critical mass necessary for this, and I am grateful to have been invigorated by my experiences so far.

Flipping EEBO

The other evening, I had a provocative—if (because?) vaguely charged—exchange on Twitter with Whitney Trettien, a very sharp PhD candidate at Duke. You can find the central strand of my discussion with her on Storify, here. It began after Marissa Nicosia, who studies at Penn, solicited stories about researching with EEBO for a talk that she’s soon to give at the Rare Book School, stories illustrating both the opportunities and the challenges that the resource presents. In a post responding to the request, Whitney (if I may) expressed her frustration with the fact that EEBO (and the UMI series before it) very frequently obscures the material forms that early modern books take. And she is surely right that by taking the edition or issue rather than the individual volume as its unit of organization, EEBO demonstrates a disinterest in the kinds of juxtaposition and packaging that scholars have increasingly looked toward in an effort to understand reception and use. Material that sits outside the boundaries defined by an edition’s collation formula doesn’t usually make it in, and when it does, it often appears to be by accident. In fact, the focus on editions demands this kind of exclusion as a matter of principle; if EEBO is to be consistent with the way it has been designed, it can’t give us more. As a result, in addition to having to skip much of the material that makes books, well, books, EEBO has to leave out reappropriations of printed materials that in some cases constitute the creative labor of women and others traditionally excluded from the publication mechanisms of the book trade. When Whitney made a version of this point during our discussion, I suspect that she had in mind, at least in part, the Gospel Harmonies of Little Gidding, which she’s been doing exciting work on for her dissertation. These volumes contain what is almost exclusively printed material, but it would be quite a distortion to treat them in any straightforward way as copies of an edition or set of editions. Because of this, there’s no room for them in EEBO as it currently imagines itself.

The question about what EEBO should include and how it should organize itself can usefully be reframed as a question about what we should take “Books” in “Early English Books Online” to mean. As I’ve already indicated, what EEBO currently has in mind is the very same thing that the STC and Wing meant when they used it in their titles: distinct editions and issues published in print. An individual “book,” for EEBO, is a abstraction used to refer collectively to a set of actual copies made from, largely, the same setting of type. Yes, this is the stuff of Bibliography 101, but it’s worth spelling out in this context because it can be hard to tell what EEBO is in fact up to; its practices sometimes seem to border on incoherence. Still, when EEBO returns search results, it’s pointing more to ideas of books than particular, physical ones—even, awkwardly, as it turns around and displays images taken from specific copies. Like the concept of the edition itself, EEBO’s results emphasize a degree of sameness while washing over the differences that materiality almost necessarily entails. The paradox, as I just hinted at, is that EEBO organizes itself around abstractions at the same time that its facsimiles derive from objects quite particular and material. When using EEBO, as I wrote in reply to Marissa’s initial query,

Bibliographers and observant readers know that no truly representative copy of a given edition exists; even the most carefully planned and printed editions result in copies with formes in different states, and we should always expect different patterns of inking, shifting type, variations in paper stock, and, of course, different histories of use (and disuse). But as long as we understand that individual copies of an edition are necessarily individual and remain cognizant of the errors that multiple remediations might introduce (from original to microfilm and from microfilm to digital), EEBO remains an invaluable resource, one that has for years now made research possible that was impractical before it—at least for those researchers who have access to it. (Do remember that The Renaissance Society of America has secured access to EEBO for its members.) Since I’ve digressed somewhat into a discussion of best practices, I might as well repeat this here:

OK, so EEBO as we know it thinks of “books” as editions and issues, and continues to digitize in an effort to make available at least one instantiation of each, both of which produce and continue to produce the blind spots described above. But what would it mean to turn EEBO on its head—to flip EEBO—and make its primary unit of organization the individual extant volume, the physical “book”? The sense of “book” as a copy you can in fact hold in your hands is arguably more intuitive than “book” as an abstraction, an edition or issue, and would allow the database to include all types and components of print that circulated in the period—the Little Gidding volumes; images of books’ bindings, pastedowns, and endpapers; complete composite volumes (sammelbände); etc. It would also avoid the problem of asking individual copies to masquerade as something they can never be, while in no way prohibiting searches by reference to STC, Wing, and ESTC numbers. EEBO currently subordinates individual copies under a larger category, but it would be relatively straightforward, both conceptually and practically, to include any possible classifications within copy-specific entries/listings. That is, such an EEBO could easily continue to facilitate the kind of searches we have come to expect—and very frequently want—from it. And if EEBO were to emphasize the particularity of its digitizations by branding itself as a database of volumes and not editions, it could retain this old functionality while simultaneously discouraging the temptation to think of a digitized copy as an ideal representative of its edition. The quality and reliability of the digitizations themselves would remain an issue until they’re replaced, but they would fit without a problem into the new database schema that the flip would require. It may even prove possible to piece together some sammelbände from the images already available.

Obviously, all of this is just a preliminary proposal, and does not work through the serious challenges that conversion from the existing system would pose. That said, though, I think this is probably the best way forward for EEBO—or its replacement—and would in fact make the database more consistent with many other repositories of digitized books now available.

One final note: while we were chatting, Whitney suggested the possibility of an object rather than a relational database, an idea that I entertained while thinking this through, but it turns out that the move I describe in this brief post wouldn’t necessitate a complex structure at all: a traditional SQL database would do the job just fine, and would actually be quite extendable and scaleable. Each volume could have a general entry in a table that contains all of the fields relevant for describing it, and there could be another table containing specific entries for each constituent text (even if the book only includes one) that links back to the volume. This latter table could contain any relevant catalog citations, including STC, Wing, and ESTC numbers. Of course, I’m simplifying a bit, but an actual implementation of even a fairly large database like EEBO wouldn’t need to be much more complex.

* The featured image comes from an EEBO copy of Hic mulier: or, The man-woman (London: John Trundle, 1620. STC 13375.5), sig. A3v. It’s the copy taken from UMI 839:14. Hopefully my use here will be considered fair. As you may know, Hic mulier is itself a book about “flipping,” though it’s far less keen on the idea than I am.

An Alvearie of Wishful Thinking

Just in time for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, booksellers George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler have begun publicizing an annotated copy of John Baret’s An alvearie or quadruple dictionarie (1580) that they believe to have been the poet and playwright’s own. As part of this effort, they have launched a rather impressive website, Shakespeare’s Beehive, and have published a lengthy book making their case. Several news outlets have reported on their copy of Baret with some excitement—a book owned by Shakespeare should indeed provoke excitement—and the best piece to date is Adam Gopnik’s measured essay for the New Yorker: “The Poet’s Hand.” It explores both the particular story of this volume as well as, more generally, the unrelenting desire we have to know and have material contact with the man that was William Shakespeare.

In my seventh- or eighth-grade science class, a patient Mr. Morris spent a full period explaining the concept of “significant figures” to us—”sig figs,” he liked to call them. He did so just as we were beginning to work with chemicals, mixing and measuring them. What I gained most from his lecture, and what has helped to keep my thinking in check well beyond novice experiments with chemistry (ones that burned my fumbling hands), was the reminder that conclusions based on observations can only be as precise as the least precise of them. I seem to remember that our graduated cylinders could only measure volume to the nearest milliliter, meaning that my lab group would have misrepresented the quality of our data if we tried to move past that small yet bold decimal point. There was quite simply no honest way for us to get to a result of 96.7ml—or anything like it—even if our calculators returned it. Now, of course, applying the concept of significant figures to the situation of the Baret volume is something that can only be done very loosely. Nevertheless, there was at least one lesson I took away from Mr. Morris that’s relevant here: no matter how much you have, you can’t erect precision (let alone accuracy) out of material that lacks it. In Gopnik’s report, Wechsler explains that “it isn’t any one” piece of evidence that makes the case for Shakespeare’s ownership of An alvearie, “it’s the totality of them.” The challenge, though, is that each piece of evidence has to be independently compelling if adding up all of them is to get us very far.

As Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe indicate in their post on The Collation, it is important that the booksellers be able to show that their annotator was interested in language that can be identified with Shakespeare in particular. They ask, “How many of the words underlined or added in the margins of this copy of the Alvearie are used by Shakespeare and Shakespeare alone, as opposed to other early modern writers?” At least one answer the sellers hope to give appears in a set of annotations present on a blank leaf at the end of the book. The leaf, which, based on wormhole evidence, was almost certainly with the text in an early binding, is covered what are in all likelihood the notes of a seventeenth-century reader. (In a series of posts on Twitter, Grace Ioppolo has weighed in on the date of handwriting in the volume and the likelihood of it being Shakespeare’s.) In their study they call it the “trailing blank,” and see various bits of the “word salad” inscribed on it as clinchers for their attribution.

“Buck-basket,” a compound meaning “washtub,” appears a full six times in The Merry Wives of Windsor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary and EEBO-TCP (a database containing the full-text of approximately 35,000 early English books), this play is the only place it appeared in the entire early modern period. Claims of Shakespearean originality are usually overblown, but if these resources are representative, we might fairly call this compound a genuine coinage. Given this, the appearance of “buck-basket” in the dictionary would certainly make for strong circumstantial evidence. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, “buck-basket” is precisely what the sellers suggest that we find in it. Following the lead of Koppelman and Wechsler, Gopnik writes, “The annotator has written … the word ‘Bucke,’ with a hyphen connecting it to another word, ‘bacquet’ (basket), and turning it into ‘Bucke-bacquet.'” As described there, the evidence comes across as fairly straightforward and quite suggestive, the basic difference between English “basket” and French “bacquet” notwithstanding. Fortunately, the sellers’ website makes it possible to evaluate what they claim, and I really must emphasize the fact that we can only applaud them for this kind of transparency. Here’s an image of the annotation in question:

beehive_trailing_blank

I’ll go ahead and cut to the chase: what the booksellers read as a hyphen is a smudged “t” in the annotator’s 17th-century hand, a “t” that completes the word “Bucket,” which, as just hinted at, is English for the word “bacquet” that follows it. Compare it with the “t” in “bacquet” itself; they’re very similar in shape. The horizontal line at the end of “Bucket” may be comparatively thick, but the fact that there’s a vertical attached to it eliminates the possibility that the word is merely “Bucke” and points toward the more obvious conclusion that the writer allowed a bit too much ink to flow. Notice, too, that the there remains a large space between the crossbar and the “b” of “bacquet.” What we have, then, is what we might expect a reader to record in their multilingual dictionary: the word in one language followed by the word in another. And this is the same format that we see in the left-justified annotations on the same page (in a darker ink). Gopnik states their “buck-basket” claim matter-of-factly, but Koppelman and Wechsler (at least in the draft I’ve seen) back off from their reading at the same time that they offer it up in the first place: “‘Bucke’ looks to have a hyphen mark at the end of the annotation” (my emphasis). For all their hesitation, though, they seem to have no problem taking “buck-basket” as a starting point for making a series of further connections between annotations on the page and Merry Wives. I’m tempted to make the obligatory reference to Matthew 7 here, but doing so would concede that the house built on the foundation of sand is in fact a house at all, and not just more sand. As I wrote on Twitter yesterday morning, if you approach almost any early printed book asking, “Was this Shakespeare’s?,” I’m confident you’ll find reasons to say that it was.

This all said, a single botched example doesn’t mean that Shakespeare didn’t own the Koppelman and Wechsler volume—I haven’t worked through all of their claims—but I would suggest that the wishful thinking we can detect in it is indicative of what we see in the wider study. To get to “buck-basket” from “Bucket bacquet,” they had to have Shakespeare firmly in mind, using him as a lens for focusing (and bending) their data. When Gopnik was at Yale’s Beinecke Library examining the William Henry Ireland forgeries for his essay, David Kastan told him that the annotated Baret “was probably worth ten thousand bucks or something,” and I hope against hope that it will ultimately enter a research library at that price. It really is a fascinating copy of an important title, whether or not it was graced by the hands of any famous author. I suppose it is only fitting that it is to Shakespeare that we must give our final thanks: without his cult, the annotations would not likely have come to light.

* The images are from Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of John Baret, An alvearie or quadruple dictionarie (1580). Please see their website for the book, Shakespeare’s Beehive. I do hope that my use here will be considered fair.