After this morning’s big blowout pedagogy panel, I skipped over to wear my other hat as a book historian/bibliographer/textual studies hat (it’s a big hat) — a panel that Sarah Werner organized after some interesting conversations from last year’s MLA.

MLA 2012 Panel: Old Books and New Tools Roundtable

The Accidental Digital Archivist

I blame David Greetham for my ongoing bought of “archive fever.” And Jerome McGann for issuing a challenge to embrace Digital Humanities. But, that was back in 2000. I still find myself to be an accidental archivist, even today!

At the outset of my graduate work, I already knew that my dissertation would focus on a literary genre that straddled the British Romantic and Victorian eras. The genre, though, was a messy heap of multiple authors, literary genres, editors, publishers, painters, and, engravers, in addition to a multiplicity of sizes, bindings, and papers. The most difficult aspect of studying this particular genre was its number: from 1823-1860 more than 3000 volumes were published in Great Britain with a dozen or so titles gaining the most prominence in the early years. Each volume held approximately 10-12 engravings and upwards of 30 pieces of poetry, short stories, travel narratives, landscape and architectural descriptions, famous authors’ correspondence. Some volumes claimed to invent new typefaces while others heralded popular landscape paintings. All of them professed virtue and a didactic agenda. Most employed well-known contemporary authors to bolster sales. Others took on a decidedly religious, juvenile, or feminine overtone. Some of the writings in these volumes were profound, while others (such as “Epitaph on a Gnat Squashed in a Ladies’ Album”) signaled, let’s say, cultural value. This genre, the literary annual, was beautifully adorned and decidedly valuable. Patrons were encouraged to collect the same title each year and gift other volumes to their family, friends, and lovers. American, German, French, and Spanish authors peppered the pages. And the genre hopped across borders to enjoy both critical and popular success.

When I began working on the annuals, my queries were rooted in traditional humanistic inquiry: Why wasn’t a comprehensive and continuing history of this genre created? Why did the existing histories seem divided on the genre’s importance – most of them citing commentary by 19th-century vituperous reviews.

The primary impediment for offering such a literary history, at least in 2001, was that no scholar (graduate student or senior scholar) had been able to assess the entire genre due to lack of access. Since the literary annuals were eventually deemed inconsequential by reviewers in 19th-century England, 20th-century critics took them at their word, as did special collections curators and archivists. Any scholar would be hard-pressed to find a continuous run of, say, the Forget Me Not across all 25 years that it was published (1823-1847) – let alone in its original binding. Scholars, instead, had implemented case studies typically of only 1 or 2 volumes or entered into the conversation through a single canonical author across multiple volumes and titles. However, other than the initial studies in the 1920s and later feminist recovery efforts in the 1970s & 1980s, most scholars had ignored the physical object itself – the gorgeous gilt-edged, silk-covered duodecimo volume that could fit into the 19th-century literary woman’s skirt pocket. By ignoring the artifact, scholars erased the book history facet of literary annuals. And this is where I thought I would rectify the situation, at least for my graduate work in the field.

When I discovered these volumes in libraries scattered around New York City, and subsequently began building my own collection, my dissertation soon became a defense of the literary annual’s authority, validity, and place in the British Romantic and Victorian era. Critical analysis of the writings and engravings within were relegated to the last chapters (7-10) while I struggled to formulate a coherent and comprehensive literary history of the early annuals. Even in using my own fast-growing collection, I found it unrealistic to keep track of the connections across various volumes, titles, and decades. So, I did what any good graduate student would do: I heeded the call of my dissertation chair and created a digital version of 9 literary annuals – scanned at home and built into a frames-contingent environment.

With Greetham’s help, we determined that I was building an archive. With Jerry McGann’s encouragement (in an article, not to me personally), I built the digital archive that he had requested. But, that was simply one chapter of my very long dissertation. And then the whole thing went live. Since I had already been trained as an archivist while working at Fales Library, NYU, I understood that the architecture of an electronic project (as we called them in those days) was the most important aspect of the project. Kitty Ledbetter and Terry Hoagwood had just produced an electronic edition of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s work and accompanied the page images with essays explaining the value of the literary annual genre. However, Kitty’s project did violence to the book itself – at least in digital form. There was no rendering of the artifact, the material object. Once again, the literary text was privileged. In my opinion, that was the best way to guarantee that the genre would remain invisible, outside the purview of literary studies.

By 2005, when I hesitantly submitted my dissertation (only because I got a job!), the electronic edition had not yet gotten to TEI mark-up, databases, or the dynamic edition (a la Martha Nell Smith or Ray Siemens). Since it’s one of those underfunded projects, the Forget Me Not Archive sits in perpetual frames existence, but not without use.

To facilitate progress on the project’s architecture, the metadata and transcripts of the Forget Me Not Archive have become part of the Poetess Archive Database, which is primarily a database in TEI. It’s not an edition. And, it’s much wider in literary scope. We haven’t yet figured out how to successfully combine the aesthetics of the Forget Me Not Archive with the rich data in the Poetess Archive. Do we preserve the connections that I’ve made or do we present raw data?

What we really need to do is count: count the number of poems in each volume, the number of pages allotted to each short story, the number of portrait vs. landscape engravings, the repetition of important words and concepts (such as virtue or botanical identification), the editorializing annotations appended to some literature, the male and female authors, etc. But we can’t do that because we’ve digitized and rudimentarily marked up only 20-25 volumes – out of 3000.

These little books never quite leave me. In fact, I introduced them to my graduate Romantics Gustatory course this semester.


We spent an evening noshing in my apartment and gathered around my coffee table of only half my private collection. The only imperative was to read, wander, query through the books and talk to one another. To focus some of their searching, I supplied them with two bibliographies (one with a list of authors, the other with bibliographic descriptions of literary annuals).

They read through my Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America article on femininity and the material object as well as a draft of the introduction for my forthcoming collection of Gothic short stories from British literary annuals. I lamented the fact that we don’t have an adequate database of all the poetry, fiction, non-fiction, engravings, inscription pages, title pages, authors, publishers, etc. of the literary annuals. Looking at the books sitting on my coffee table was daunting. Where do they start without the benefit of that gateway?

We used the Poetess Archive Database and the Forget Me Not Archive to search for famous authors or other poetry of the same theme. One student found a very unflattering engraving of Byron (which dashed all of their thoughts about his attractiveness). Others found references to Shakespeare within a severely truncated playbook of Romantic-era productions. Yet others found silly poetry and insipid engravings. We were traversing these literary annuals as a moment to decipher this concept of aesthetics, taste, pleasure, leisure in the Romantic Era. Who decides the literariness of Literature? Are there some gems buried in the annuals? (My answer is, yes, unequivocally.) And what’s the difference between reading these poems and writings in an anthology versus read them in their original?

What could we do with access to these materials, both the printed word (those linguistic codes) and the bibliographic codes (spines, etc.) and allow for semantic searching of the images across all of these other projects ranging from the 15th Century to early 20th C to see how the literary annual genre resonated with earlier and later versions as well as its impact on, say, the short story genre. It’s a type of book that’s just begging to be digitized but isn’t because it lacks a) a single author, b) respect in libraries, c) is swept in with other genres, namely the periodical and the anthology.

While I wait for the annuals to be appropriately digitized and then re-presented with digital tools to aid in their study, some would call me a foolish scholarly editor, textuist, and Digital Humanist. But this is where our new-ish tools have and will continue to alter the Humanities: I ask a question based in humanistic inquiry, the question that has plagued and empassioned my scholarly work. It is a question that cannot be decided through case study. It is a question that is inherently involved in both close and distant reading. It is a question that requires careful study of old books, digital surrogates, data, codes, and patterns.

What is the value of the literary annual?

About these ads