Monthly Archives: May 2015

Twitter, the book historian’s friend

If you are reading this, you  are probably the converted who need no preachifying. And if you retweet or favourite the link to this posting (go on, you know you want to), you certainly do not need to be told. But it is still worth taking stock. For all the headlines of trolling and the column inches of free but inane copy provided to newspapers, Twitter – or at least a little corner of it – has become a valuable tool of scholarship.

Here is one tale of how it acts as a giant noticeboard for the virtual globe. In Special Collections at St Andrews, they have been working on a small find – flyleaves in an early seventeenth-century printed book, taken from an incunable by the St Albans printer. They did some painstaking work on reconstructing it and its context, and the post they have narrating the process is a testament to how research is done nowadays, using on-line resources, sending colleagues e-mails, circulating digital photos… the only surprise, perhaps, is that they also used a telephone (and probably a landline to boot). We, at the Centre for Bibliographical History, knew nothing of this, until, that is, a tweet from Glasgow’s Special Collections linking to the post caught our eye. At that point, @DrDavidRundle saw the photograph uploaded of the binding and thought the centrepiece was identifiable. A tweet to the St Andrews that evening and the next day there was confirmation – via a tweet, with close-up photo – that it is, indeed, centrepiece xxxiv as listed by N. R. Ker (and supplemented by David Pearson), an Oxford tool in use at precisely the period the printed book would have become available. There are further implications to this discovery which are discussed on the St Andrews website but why we tell this story now is to show how Twitter works like a gossip or a facilitator, online networks’ omnipresent weak tie. The importance of this role is not to be under-estimated when the internet can seem so crowded with information that you may feel you are struggling to pick your way through the rubble that was the Tower of Babel.

Of course, for most of us, the first recourse for ‘finding stuff’ on-line is to tap terms into Google and we cannot – however problematic it may be – dispense with that. But Twitter does have two advantages. The first is that, while Google directs one’s searching through its criteria for ranking of hits (and even though a Twitter feed can be infiltrated by adverts), the process of promotion tends to be much more grass-roots, a sort of a democratic anti-algorithm. Related to that is the undeniable truth that discovery on Twitter is happenstance but that is no demerit: serendipity has always been a scholar’s greatest helpmate and, like all our chances, we can assist ourselves in making them. Welcome to the world of #twitterendipity.

The use of the hash-tag introduces another advantage to Twitter to those of a bibliographical bent, like us. Both those institutions who have care of special collections and those individuals who are those institutions’ most avid readers are notably well-represented on the little blue bird’s site. Like any community, they have made the social media work for them, by creating their own threads: search, in particular, for #MarginaliaMonday and #FlyleafFriday (alliteration is the alternative to algorithms in this world). The mode of expression in a tweet requires a curt prose style which would have made Tacitus a model twitteratus, the princeps twitteratorum. But it also invites supplementing the 140 characters with an image, which is easy to upload (though a salutary warning: this morning we found we could not do so in the Centre’s favoured browser of Firefox and had to swap to Chrome). The threads that share these hash-tags make best use of this functionality, making images available which are intrinsically useful in their own right but which can also help lead us to further discoveries.

This is all by way of saying that, in the weeks ahead, as the project to digitize Harsnett fragments develops, we will be using Twitter to alert people and share with them some of our finds and hint at some of their wider implications. It is not the only social media we will use – but we will talk about Flickr another time. For now, we would welcome any comments suggesting other ways in which Twitter can be the book historian’s friend.

Finally, an update: thanks to all of those who have so far voted in yesterday’s poll. We have had several further suggestions – ‘Manuscripts Lost and Found’, ‘Texts and Paratexts’ among them. But we have no clear winner yet, so keep the suggestions and your preferences coming!


Lost Manuscripts? Or Fragments Reunited?

We need your advice. Can you help?

This is an exciting day for the Centre as one of its projects starts in earnest. Generously supported by funds from the University of Essex, we are beginning to catalogue and to digitize the fragments – pastedowns, tabs and strips – that survive in the early bindings of the books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now held in the University’s Special Collections. Today saw the first meeting with our web developer and in the midst of the discussion, a good question was asked: what’s the name of the project?

Truth be told, there has been some umming and more arghing over this. The one title which seems most obvious and descriptive is ‘Lost Manuscripts’ but there is a worry: is that too pessimistic? The fragments we are studying are witnesses to once-whole manuscripts but a key conceptual purpose of the project is to think how far we can extrapolate from the microcosmic element which is the fragment and reconstruct the macrocosm that once was the whole book. So, is what we are doing an attempt at creating ‘Books Reborn’? Or, as the intention is that this is a pilot for further cataloguing with the hope that disparate elements of one codex can be brought together, should we call this ‘Fragments Reunited’? This is your opportunity to help shape this project by telling us what you think.

That is not the only way you can help. We would also like to know what you would hope to see in a database like this. Why would you use it and what would help you find what you want from it? So, do send us comments, telling us these three things:

  • as [what type of user you would consider yourself to be]
  • I want [how you would use the site]
  • so that [what the purpose of this would be]

Your answers will really help us as we shape the architecture of the site – so thank you for your engagement.

The Centre and the Thrill of CHASE

Last week, the CHASE consortium of universities ran another of its successful workshops for doctoral students on Material Witness. This session took place at Lambeth Palace Library and, alongside its Librarian, Giles Mandelbrote, the Centre’s Co-Director, David Rundle, was one of the presenters. His theme was the material evidence books can provide for the journeys they have taken and consideration of what medieval and early modern catalogues can tell us about how the books were seen.

One of the students attending the session was our own Helen Kemp and she has provided a blog-post describing her experiences of the day. David and Giles engaging in a spot of biblio-archaeology (with thanks to @MatWitness)