Digital history and early modern studies

A few bloggers have recently been posting their thoughts about two works on digital history:

Two points stood out in particular when I read them. The first was on how digital sources shape an audience’s experience of them. As Patrick Gallagher put it:

Oral and video histories, understood as artifacts, have become very important for bringing visitors closer to the reality of a story. (JAH, 109)

The discussion in the JAH was mostly in relation to the wider public accessing historical sources. But can digital sources also alter the reality we as scholars reconstruct from a source? This is not something really considered by the JAH discussion. By contrast, contributors to the Companion were very alive to this, with Bertrand Gervais asking:

Does a literary text retain the same status once it has become virtual? What is the status of any text in today’s era of hypertexts and linked computers? What type of materiality are we dealing with? What forms of reading, what forms of knowledge? (Companion, ch. 9)

The second was the training graduate historians will need to thrive in a world where digital history is commonplace. As Steven Mintz put it:

Many search committees are favorably impressed by graduate students who hve developed online resources or an electronic portfolio. We have a responsibility to give our grad students the training support they need to meet these rising expectations. (JAH, 216).

Both points have made me think about how they apply to the digital source that, without a doubt, I use the most: Early English Books Online.

EEBO is a tremendous resource. It preserves sources that are fragile and which risk deterioration in the coming years. It greatly broadens the accessibility of early English printed works. It makes it far quicker to find and read texts. The power of its search engine makes it possible to carry out in minutes analysis that would previously have taken days – particularly with the increasing number of e-text transcriptions being produced by EEBO-TCP. As a part-time student, I would find it difficult to do my Masters without it.

But for anyone studying written communication in early modern England, EEBO brings with it its own historiographical and epistemological challenges.

First, the sheer convenience of EEBO might risk distorting our perception of early modern written communication. The last ten to fifteen years have seen a huge expansion in interest in print culture, particularly in cheap print. But work by a number of literary critics and historians – synthesised by Harold Love in his Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England – has also reminded us of the importance that manuscript retained in English culture during the seventeenth century. So one question that the rise of digital history throws up is what impact might the relative availability of sources have on future critical and historiographical trends.

Secondly, digital reproduction of a text inevitably changes the way that we approach it. Texts cannot be fully understood without reference to those who wrote them, those who produced them, those who read them, and to the form that the texts took. As Joad Raymond has put it:

The meaning of a text is the transitory product of a particular relationship between a reader or group of readers within specific circumstances, who encounter not texts but books. In this creative encounter the material construction of a book, its typography, binding, the feel of the paper, the situation in which it is read, whether silent or out loud, in a library, a crowd or a secluded room; in youth or in age; patiently or urgently; in a cloistered or revolutionary world; all these play upon the meanings which a reader and a text can produce between them. (Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper, pp. 2-3).

In reading physical copies of early modern pamphlets, we are already many steps removed from the experience of contemporaries reading them. We can perceive the range of meanings they might have carried only through a glass darkly. But does removing the physical, material interaction with a text further distance us from the ability to reconstruct those meanings? The quality of paper, the size of sheet used, the colour of the ink – all of these are factors which can influence how a text is read or perceived. Reading them on a screen today is inevitably a different experience to reading actual copies.

None of this is to diminish the importance of EEBO and other pioneers of digital early modern history. But it does make me wonder how best to assess the impact of digital history on early modern studies. It is likely that it will push historians in some directions rather than others. If so, it will be important that today’s generation of grad students are equipped not only with the right programming skills, but also with the right skills to engage with the implications of digital history for historical and critical theory.

7 Responses to “Digital history and early modern studies”

  1. This is a very interesting post, which raises some intriguing questions. I just wonder whether the development of electronic resources has itself encouraged engagement with the ‘public sphere’ and print culture in ways that would not otherwise have occurred. It certainly puts postgraduate students and scholars from outside the United Kingdom in a better position to influence the course of historiographical developments. However, there is a danger that advanced studies based on manuscript sources may be marginalised to a degree. I hope not but your comments give me the opportunity to flag up this possibility.

  2. Thanks for the comment. My feeling is that interest in print culture – which is a tricky phrase in itself – predates developments like EEBO. EEBO launched in 2001 and interest in print (from both English and History faculties) was already well established by then. I think that historians’ interest in print was more influenced by developments in other disciplines, eg sociology (particularly the translation of Habermas’s “Structural Transformation” into English in 1989) and literary criticism. But electronic resources might well help to continue the trend.

    That said I think the direction the historiography goes in is likely to be to look at how print interacted with manuscript, and with other forms of communication such as oral culture. Equally a number of historians (eg Jason Peacey) are looking at the interactions between print, high politics and popular culture, which is starting to produce an interesting synthesis.

  3. This is a fascinating post throwing up some very intriguing – and possibly unanswerable – questions. I relied on EEBO heavily for my BA dissertation and found it an exceptionally useful resource, but as print is ultimately a public medium (assuming that the printed work is intended to be published, whether anyone read it or not) I also dug through a lot of the HMC’s publications, although letters of the seventeenth century were by no means entirely private, either. Without the uploading of printed texts, of the printed reproduction of manuscript texts, I – and most undergraduates – would have been deprived of these sources.

    But it is a completely different experience reading the originals. I was able to view some original pamphlets in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and have recently spent a couple of weeks in the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum, reading manuscript sources for the MPhil I’m about to begin. I’m still incredibly excited by physical contact with the ‘substance’ of history, if you will, so I have a different reaction to the actual ink-and-paper to a computer screen. Besides which, the quiet of a library induces a different state of mind to one’s own desk. You might be able to reprint manuscript texts, and to upload those reprints onto the internet (as has been done at the Internet Archive with some HMC volumes) but this won’t capture the aspects of the manuscript itself. And printed sources uploaded will suffer the same effect.

    Are these aspects really important, or is (as according to some literary theorists) the text itself, that is the words, the only important thing? I don’t know that seeing the original can induce completely different revelations than a typescript, provided the latter is accurate. But I enjoyed finding that Admiral Sir William Pennington’s writing faded towards the end of his journal – as, I presume, he ran out of ink onboard his ship – or that Algernon Percy, Earl of Northumberland, had broad, confident writing compared to Pennington’s neat, almost scrupulous, hand. Perhaps they can offer something on an implicit level, impressions rather than anything else.

    And of course, these are useful, provided that we understand them for what they are. I think this is the conclusion of the ramble: students and researchers have to be aware of the layers to what they are reading, whether it is an original, a reproduction, a typescript, or an upload of any of these. The increasing reliance on the digital world is highlighting these issues, and may change (to some extent) our positions; but I think it’s a relevant concept to bear in mind when beginning to read any source.


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