Digital history and early modern studies

by Nick

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.