An Analog Humanities? The Case for Material Technologies

As a scholarly product of my time, I am the first to admit the advantages of the digitization of the humanities: after all, that’s what gives me EEBO and ECCO, transhistorical word searches, our web-based community of fellow Romanticists, and even the ability to edit my dissertation chapter with my old friends, Copy and Paste…

These advantages are not to be scorned lightly, so it is with some trepidation that I pose the following question: what role can an “analog humanities” play in our digital landscape? When, how, and why does the materiality of the literary text give the contemporary scholar a new lens for interpretation? And how can we expand our definition of “technology” to include the technologies that have (silently) accompanied literary studies all along?

I have recently been investigating these questions by going back to the physical foundation of the book—the pre-verbal stage in a text’s life—as a member of the Pine Tree Scholars, a collective sponsored by the Pine Tree Foundation and hosted through Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This brand-new organization brings together students with an interest in the material culture of books, and introduces us to an exciting range of book-making practices in the New York City area.

The Works of Lord Byron (1816)
The Works of Lord Byron (1816)

Our first excursion, to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in April 2013, gave me an incredible glimpse into the world of rare books. The Fair’s many sellers hailed from around the world, and they displayed an almost overwhelming range of manuscripts, printed posters, antique maps, handwritten letters, and, of course, books. In some ways, what impressed me most were not just the first editions—there were some very beautiful Jane Austens—but also the more esoteric, non-paginated artefacts, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s walking cane and a large and chilling collection of glass eyes. Following the Fair, we had lunch at the Grolier Club, New York’s club for book collectors, which also features a library of rare materials, fascinating exhibits based on members’ personal collections, and a very becoming portrait of the young Walter Scott. For me, this excursion was an unquestioned success: I scored an 1816 five-volume set of The Works of Lord Byron which I then read in preparation for my qualifying exam (probably to the poet’s ghostly dismay).

More recently, the Pine Tree Scholars have delved into more specific practices of book-making, especially where material production crosses into artistry. Last fall, we visited a letterpress studio—Woodside Press, in Brooklyn—which operates letterpresses, wood-block printing, and also a variety of antique print machines, including Linotype and Monotype systems from the late nineteenth century. To my great pleasure, just as we visited, the printers were working on a special commission to print Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I was also excited to see that the arrangement of letters on the “keyboard” of the 1890s Linotype printing press followed Sherlock Holmes’s account of the most frequently-occurring letters in English, documented famously in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (etaoin shrdlu). At Woodside Press, I also learned the crucial difference between a “type” and a “font”: a “type” refers to a “typeface,” or a specific design of the letters of the alphabet, while a “font” is a mass noun that describes the necessary quantity of pieces of type required for printing a book manuscript. Woodside’s metal fonts included many familiar names—Garamond and Palatino, among others—but also a number of unusual typefaces, of which some were of the Press’s own design. And I was astonished to learn that one letterpress expert can distinguish between typefaces just by looking at their punctuation marks!

Handmade paper (Dieu Donné Papermill)
Handmade paper (Dieu Donné Papermill)

We next visited Dieu Donné Papermill in midtown Manhattan, where I produced several (very experimental) sheets of handmade paper. Dieu Donné is a workspace for artists, art therapists, and their clients, as well as members of the public interested in learning paper-making techniques. Here, paper-makers create their artworks by processing linen, cotton (including old blue jeans and medical gowns), hemp, wood pulp, abaca (used to make tea bags), or other natural fibers, in a watery solution; the cellulose within the fibrous mixture allows the sheet of paper to fuse together when the pulp is laid on a screen and the water drained or pressed away. I was very interested to learn that the artistic technique we were using—creating sheets of paper individually on screens—was still the dominant commercial way of making paper from cotton and rag fibers during the early Romantic period; the first continuous paper-making machine was invented in France in 1799 and introduced to England in 1803 and the United States in 1817, replacing the earlier practice of making sheets by hand. Now to determine whether my Works of Lord Byron is printed on handmade sheets…

My latest foray into the material practices of book-making was a bookbinding session: the artist and bookbinder Susan Mills visited the Columbia Library and instructed us in the practices of sewing together the bindings of books. To me, this was an especially remarkable experience, since I was quickly and easily able to produce my own 96-page chapbook using extremely simple tools—in addition to sheets of paper, I needed only a paper-knife, an awl, a needle and thread, and a scrap of linen. During the Romantic period, book-binding would have been done by hand, by (usually) anonymous craftspeople, whose contributions are often only recorded in tiny holes in the pages near the book’s spine (where tiny drops of blood, from pricked fingers, decayed the paper more quickly). And readers would normally have cut the pages by hand; I note, with admiration for an anonymous previous reader, that my Byron‘s pages are cut perfectly cleanly. (Later addendum: they were probably “guillotined” by the printer.)

Hand-bound Chapbook
Hand-bound Chapbook

As I return to the question about the value of the “analog” humanities—that is, a deliberate return to the material technologies used in the production of literary texts—I think that experiencing the physical processes of making books, as I have been so lucky to do, can offer a unique and valuable pedagogy for the contemporary Romanticist. Having seen printing presses, paper-making, and book-binding in action, I have such an affective appreciation for the meticulous craftsmanship of my little 1816 Works of Lord Byron. The volumes’ ink is still vivid, the pages don’t crumble, and the tightly sewn bindings remain unbroken. The many type settings, ranging from the bold Gothic lettering of the title of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to the tiny typefaces, italicized passages, and Greek fonts in the glosses, testify to a material investment in the text that extends beyond the poet. From my “analog” adventures, I’ve learned that such small details as printing errors—like the notorious misprint in Austen’s Persuasion that “Lady Russell loved the mall”—are not just criteria for editorial footnotes; they are also reminders of the book-making process and the unseen but tremendous effort of Romantic-era craftspeople to support, in material fashion, what they saw as literary inspiration worth recording.

(All photos—and the textual materials depicted therein—belong to Arden Hegele)

2 thoughts on “An Analog Humanities? The Case for Material Technologies”

  1. I love this post, Arden! Dieu Donne is one of my favorite paper places – so neat that you got to visit there!

  2. Your title and your ending are making me think about current definitions of “analog.” So I’m thinking out loud for a little bit here — thank you for this! I just OED’d the definition of analog and learned that it has roots in zoology and botany but also that it is defined as just the opposite of digital media. Excerpts from the OED def —

    (Technical defs): “Zool. and Bot. Originally: an extant species which corresponds to a fossil form. Later more widely: a species or group of organisms in one region, ecosystem, or geological period which has the same general form and role or occupies the same ecological niche as a different species or group in another region, ecosystem, or period.”
    (General defs): “A thing which (or occas. person who) is analogous to another; a parallel, an equivalent.” and
    “B. adj. Typically contrasted with digital.
    a. Of a computer or calculator: that operates by the manipulation of continuously variable physical quantities (as voltage, spatial position, or time) which are analogues of the quantities being computed. Cf. digital adj. 2b. Now chiefly hist.”
    “b. Of technologies, media, etc.: making use of analogue computers or devices; involving analogue signals or data. Also: of or relating to such technologies or media.”
    “c. Of signals or data: represented by a continuously variable physical quantity, such as voltage, spatial position, etc.”

    The general definitions are all very interesting because they tend to use “analog” to describe a technology whose output is the same kind of “stuff” as its input. Related to the technical defs, the input and output are, metaphorically speaking, fossils. So – if we’re moving toward a realm where born digital technologies and data are the input and the output, and if the def of analog is based on comparison and the analagous, does book technology and bibliography study of rare books and older bookmaking processes as by definition analog disappear? What does it get replaced by?

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