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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!

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