Looking To The Future

On Facebook, my Aunt Gwen asked,

“Will archivists of the future still have copies of hard copy books and manuscripts or only electronic files or chips or wave surfaces?”

My response was,

If I have anything to say about it, the books and manuscripts of the world will survive well into the future! Digitisation is a hot topic right now, but I don’t think having a digital copy means the “real” thing is obsolete or that it should be locked up and kept away from people.

This is something friends and family have asked me about quite often. I have complex feelings about digitisation that I hope to fuss out over the next two years. On the one hand, I think digitisation is great. It can allow you to preserve and make available a copy of a fragile or unique manuscript on CD, as in the example of the Electronic Beowulf. These can give students and researches access to materials that are too vulnerable to be made available to the general public.

On the other hand, I think too often there is a feeling of “well, if you have it on CD, why do you need to see the real thing?” I have heard researchers complaining for years that the availability of manuscripts on CD has negatively affected their ability to get funding to travel and view these manuscripts in person. I’ve also encountered people who are reluctant to let me view a manuscript because “isn’t the CD good enough?”

No, in fact, it’s not. There are things that cannot be learned from looking at digitised images. Things like the texture difference between the hair side and skin side of vellum. Maybe you can see watermarks better when they’re digitised, but I found that half the fun was trying to puzzle out whether that was a star above that deer’s head or some kind of palm tree (it was a star). Or things like the fineness of laid gold leaf. Things like the simple extraordinary reality of holding a 600 year old book in your hand or placing your finger on the fingerprint of a medieval man’s.

Here we are back at this same image of a smear. Sure I can look at this on a computer screen and think, “Golly, how amazing.” But that doesn’t give me the breathless thrill of connecting with a medieval life across the ages, and that’s why I say no, for me, access to a digitised manuscript is not “good enough.” There has to be a balance where digitisation doesn’t mean a book is suddenly obsolete or that there is no value in helping a researcher travel to see it, while making the most of the wider availability of resources that digitisation facilitates. Finding that balance is something I hope to work on in the next two years.

My Life-long Love Affair With Books

To introduce myself to this, the wide wide Internets, I thought I’d start out my blog with a few posts about who I am and what my background with books is.  I hope this helps you all understand the perspectives I bring to thinking and talking about books as physical objects and repositories of knowledge.

I think the love of books and reading is genetic. Just like some people are right-brained and some people are left-brained, I think that the capacity to devour books (… figuratively) is something you have or you don’t. My parents are both voracious readers. My great-grandmother and namesake, Lydia Stark, was also a lifelong reader and I like to think some part of her love for books came to me with her name and the few books of hers that I have.

To be honest, I never really stood a chance, even if I had wanted to. I grew up in a house full of books. Even though the overall number of permanent denizens on the shelves is less now than it was when I was a kid, I still think of my parents’ house as bursting with books. My grandparents also had countless numbers of books on hands for those hot summer afternoons when we were forced out of the pool for fear of sunburns. I was constantly being read to or encouraged to read, and the love of books seeped into my skin and bones and has never left me. I hope it never will. By the time I was in high school, I was semi-famous among the faculty for being the only student reprimanded for reading too much.

But many people can claim to be great readers and not really be interested in the rare, delicate codices I adore with heartfelt passion (and spend far too much money on). What I want to talk about for my next few posts is why I want to do what I want to do; why I want to repair broken bindings and read medieval scrawls.

It all began with this book: The Two Dianas, Vol. II by Alexandre Dumas.

My mother discovered this book among the many volumes in the family library when I was 14. It had belong to that same Lydia Stark I mentioned earlier. Being a second volume, it began in the middle of a story that captivated my mother and I and caused us to learn about and hunt down (thanks to the kindly interlibrary loan librarians at the Chapel Hill Public Library) every other book in the roughly chronological series of historical romances produced by Alexandre Dumas. There are many: at least 26 (27 now that Dumas’ lost adventure has been published) that span French history from François I to Napoleon. I read them all over the course of one summer — to say that I devoured them is a bit of an understatement. I know at the time I could read one in a day, and even now that I read more slowly and think more thoroughly it doesn’t take me that long to get through them.

Occasionally as we were interlibrary loaning books in the series, we would get a copy that was part of the same series as our Two Dianas. This was always very exciting, but as this was the early days of Internet shopping and probably pre-Amazon, (and I was a 14 year old with slim financial resources) I never seriously considered trying to find the rest of the set until one day it fell into my lap thanks to Alibris.com. For $214 (plus shipping), I bought the entire set of 25 novels published by P. F. Collier & Son in New York in 1910 that matched my single, orphaned volume.

Thus began my personal rare book collection and my fascination with books with crumbling spines and rubbed gilt titles.

Next time I will talk about my undergraduate degree, exposure to palaeography as a discipline and how I became a medievalist.

Binding and Sewing

And now: the binding.

I’m binding my book by the coptic method, which involved using two different strings and sewing.  I am bad at sewing, so this was quite an endeavour.  The first step was to punch holes in the pages using an awl and a guide sheet:

After which I sewed each set of pages in:

In retrospect, I wish I had chosen other colours than sage green and blue, but oh well.

The Last Word

Last word, ink still wet.  I’m kind of sad now to have finished it, but the binding and leaf-laying are still to go.  Still, perfecting my pretty faux Anglicana was fun and I enjoyed how much effort it took to scratch out the words.

The Final Push

“And for as moche as in the wrytyng of the same [book] my penne is worn / myn hande wery & not stedfast myn eyen dimmed with ouermoche lokyng on the whit paper / and my corage not so prone and redy to laboure as hit hath ben.”

From Caxton’s Epilogue to Book III of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.

 I first came across this quote while writing on Caxton for my master’s dissertation at Oxford and as I struggled through the final days of writing that, these sentiments remained uppermost in my mind.  They’ve come back to me again as I make the final push towards completing my scrivening of this project ahead of my meeting with my bookmaking instructor Tuesday, when I will finally makes the cover boards for the codex and sew the binding.

One Sheet Down, Eighteen To Go

My first finished full page.  Writing is a lot harder than I first thought it would be.  Even with the sizing, the fibres in my paper tend to catch on the nib of my pen and there are several black blotches where the ink filled in the space behind the fibre.  Still, as slow as the going is, I am enjoying it very much.

In manuscript studies, we use stemma to illustrate the “lineage” of a text.  Starting from the authorial original, new variants to the text are created by changes made (intentionally or not) by scribes.  There are many different ways scribes alter the text, but one of them is errors of omission where a scribe accidentally leaves out a word or a line.  Having worked on my manuscript for just a bit, I can completely understand how manuscripts get “corrupted” in this way.  I’ve already made a couple of “homeoarchy” errors, but I’m getting more careful as I go and I hope I won’t make many more.

For those interested in the palaeography of my manuscript, the basis for my script is the British Library Additional MS 59678, better know as the Winchester Malory.

There are a few reasons for this: first, it is my very favourite manuscript hand.  I’m not sure why.  There are many more elaborate and formal, or easier to copy, but the Winchester scribes’ hands are, to me, the perfect choice for this project.  Second, there are a great number of excellent digital images of the Winchester available from both The British Library’s Treasures In Full page and from the Malory Project.  This gave me a complete spectrum of letter forms (something difficult to find in the scattered few pages of other potential models available to me through Google) with which to work and the images were high-enough resolution that I could print them out and carry them around with me as needed.

The Ruling Problem: Solved

In the interest of time, I’ve settled on a very un-medieval method for getting my lines straight: I’m using a lightbox and a sheet of clear plastic that I ruled with a permanent marker.

It is working wonders!  My lines are beautifully straight and leave no marks.

ALL The Paper

Over the past two weeks I’ve managed to pull almost 50 sheets of paper, most of which have been affixed with red squares, but some of which I’ve left blank or completely painted red for the inside covers.  One very large sheet has a very secret design worked into it for the cover, but you’ll have to wait to see that. :)

I’ll be missing the last class, in which my classmates will sew their bindings.  I’ll be visiting my Canadian BFF in Ottawa, and will be binding my book in early August.  I’ve found I need the extra month because writing this is very slow going.

More Roadblocks: Leaf-laying and Ruling

I took one of my first pages and experimented with gold leaf and ruling.

On one of my initial mock-up pages I tried out ruling with a stylus — this is a method by which you “prick” a manuscript with a knife or sharp point and then “rule” it with a stylus to create the impression of lines that can be written along.  Apparently I am fundamentally unable to to do this without completely messing it up.  My initial mock-up ruled lines were all over the place and in order to make them visible I had to push them so hard that they were visible on the other side.  Normally this wouldn’t be so bad, except my lines don’t need to be the same on each side and that would mess me up later.

My next experiment was with pencil ruling, but this provided some obvious problems: first, the lines were far too dark and obvious for my liking, and second, erasing the lines at all completely ruined the paper by pulling the fibres and destroying the texture.

So, neither of those are a go, and I guess I will have to devise a new method or practice more with the stylus.

The gold leaf turned out much better, but there were a couple of problems with THAT, too.

For one thing, the leaf lays on the page with a much higher profile than I expected.  It’s quite prominent, which is not what I expected considering the medieval pages I’ve seen with leaf on them.  The leaf also stuck to the opposite page when I folded it, which will cause problems for me later.

So, although it looks gorgeous on the red squares and will be awesome when finished, right now it is causing me some headaches.


Paper Success!

My red squares turned out beautifully, and I am thrilled to bits with the overall weight and quality of my paper.