Focusing on a Key Project in Digital Humanities: Book Traces

booktracesSometimes what makes a project interesting isn’t what it is, but what it has the potential to be. This is what drove me toward exploring the (I think it’s fair to say “fledgling”) Book Traces project. Book Traces is the brain child of Andrew Stauffer, an Associate Professor in English at the University of Virginia and the Director of NINES – Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online – a DH project interesting in its own right.

Like all great “inventions,” Book Traces was birthed out of necessity: In this case, a necessity for preservation. Specifically, the project is aiming to preserve those texts occupying an ambiguously-fated space on the copyright continuum – that of between 1800 and 1923. As Stauffer notes on the site, “pre-1800 books have been moved to special collections, and post-1923 materials remain in copyright and thus on the shelves for circulation.” The texts that fall in between – those in public domain, but still in general circulation – are finding themselves more and more the subject of value judgments. Does the library let multiple copies of a text live on a shelf for the occasional user to check out, or simply choose one copy to digitize and circulate it electronically, thus freeing up critical real estate for the next generation?

If it sounds like I am anthropomorphizing books, well…in a way I am, and for good reason. What Stauffer’s work has been highlighting is that books do have a life of their own: A life that reflects their existence as a member of a home, of a family, of a community. As Stauffer put it in a recent conversation, “The hand inscriptions and marginalia we find in books tell us something about what texts meant to everyday readers. Books become memorial sites.” This means that those three copies of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman living on the library shelf are not really three copies of the same book. The one containing sketches in the end pages of a study on the female nude has a different history than the one with marginal notes highlighting Sterne’s satire of faulty scientific reasoning, or the third containing a list of items to collect from the shops.

So how does one go about addressing the preservation of a corpus of texts that, every single day, face the threat of a post-scanning trash heap? By taking it to the streets (metaphorically). Stauffer’s project embraces crowd-sourcing as a method of collection and notation. Everyday individuals are welcomed to go into their library of choice, find texts from the specified time period, and review them for notations from the original, nineteenth century owners. This includes names, dates, poetry, inscriptions, drawings and diagrams – any physical marking that is not part of the original printing (though, differences in printings are worth exploring, as well). Should a person find an inscription, they then upload an image file (photo from a phone, scan, etc.) to the Book Traces website with meta-information about the text (library name, call number, etc.). This information then goes to Book Traces for review, and subsequently into a database. Though rudimentary in terms of what many of us have come to think of as digital humanities projects, it is highly effective in terms of capturing the uniqueness of individual texts.

The project, as I noted, is fledgling. Stauffer saw a need to capture these instances of life in a text before they were lost and so created a fast and simple response: Here is a website you can upload a picture to so that it is documented. But, as I also noted, the potential of Book Traces is so much greater. While it does not currently have a tagging taxonomy in place, for example, one goal is to create such a mechanism so that the archive is searchable. This would allow for some distant reading, if you will; for an ability to view trends in the way individuals interacted with their texts. It would also allow for a more forensic approach: Placing a text in time and place, exploring the biography of an owner in the context of the book and their interaction with it.

On a more activist level, the data collected from this archive could show trends in collections as well as highlight new areas for scholarship. Does a particular library happen to have a significant number of texts with marginalia? Does difference matter? Should more emphasis be placed on bibliodiversity than on check-out rates? Do we need to start considering archives for those texts living on the afore-mentioned continuum so that they are protected for future scholars?

This last question is one I think worth keeping in mind when we talk about humanities in a digital age. No matter how much we think we know today, no matter what technology we have at our disposal to help us unpack literature in various ways, we do not know what tools we will have in 100 years. In 50 years. Heck, in 10. And it behooves us to recognize that the scholars of our children’s and grandchildren’s era may be approaching their humanities studies in a way that is inconceivable to us today — and could very well be utilizing technologies that require the original, physical textual object and not a digital copy.

While it’s probably accurate to say that the individuals most likely to post to Book Traces are those already aware of the threats and/or are interested in nineteenth century literature, it’s also true that there is an activism of awareness taking place with the mere existence of the site. Hearing about the project makes one inquisitive. It plants the seed that there might be something interesting to find in our own libraries, to send us on a biblio-archeology hunt where we might otherwise have not been aware there was something interesting to find. It’s also true that in many ways one can get lost on Book Traces, just as one might on YouTube. Just like one cat video can lead to another, so can one photo of a text lead to others. In fact, it’s easy to start looking for trends yourself as a visitor, wondering if there are multiple entries for the same title or author, or from the same library location.

Stauffer’s project is unique, serving an important niche that, while it does not pertain directly to my own work, is incredibly valuable and interesting. Who knows — maybe by crowd-sourcing the project will raise awareness of these books-in-danger, leading to a critical mass that will work together to protect nineteenth century texts for the future.  The activist in me hopes so. In the meantime, I’ll assist as best I can in documenting what I come across…just in case that critical mass doesn’t happen.

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