The Defining Concept of Digital Book History?

The following are comments shared by Kyle Roberts, Director of the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, at the American Historical Association Annual Conference on 4 January 2019 on “Digital Approaches to Book History,” a roundtable sponsored by SHARP. 

Problem: What is the defining concept of digital book history?
The title of my contribution to this roundtable – “The Defining Concept of Digital Book History?” – invokes an important argument by historian of the book, David Pearson. In his presidential address to the Bibliographical Society — published in The Library in 2012 — Pearson argues that today,

the defining concept of book history is around understanding the social impact of books; we have moved on from the emphases of twentieth-century historical bibliography, which had a strong focus on enumerative and textual bibliography and the need to establish the record of what was produced, to wanting to understand what influence these things actually had on their contemporaries and on subsequent generations.[1]

As a historian of the book who has focused on library history for the last decade, I am sympathetic to Pearson’s exhortation to explore the influence that books have on their contemporaries and subsequent generations.

I am also a digital humanist, a scholar committed to using computational methods to open up complex analog sources for meaningful analysis. I’ve learned first-hand that book history has its share of difficult-to-use analog sources. The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, which over three dozen Loyola University Chicago students and I have worked on since 2011, reconstructs the original (c.1878) library catalog for St. Ignatius College, precursor to present-day Loyola University Chicago, in a virtual library system as well as creates a digital archive of provenance markings for over 1750+ surviving titles from the original collection.

In creating the VLS and provenance archive, a great deal of enumerative bibliographical work was undertaken.

Just as book historians have been exhorted to reorient their field, digital historians have similarly been challenged. In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, digital historian Cameron Blevins calls for the writing of more argument-driven digital historical scholarship. Blevins explains that in seeking public engagement and access through digital archive and online exhibition building, digital history has exceeded other humanities disciplines:

There are vastly more examples to follow of historical collections built using Omeka than there are of argument-driven historical scholarship using digital methods. Digital projects may begin with a focus on producing purely academic research, but many ultimately end up taking the form of online exhibits or collections of primary sources.[2]

In neglecting to make explicit historical arguments from this data, Blevins argues, digital historians have failed to further our collective understanding of the past.

Truth be told, JLPP right now sits in the corners that Pearson and Blevins write against: more enumerative bibliography than social history, more online resource than argument-driven interpretive scholarship. I know we’re not alone in this regard; this is a common condition for digital book history projects.

The Boom in Digital Book History
It is worth briefly reviewing just how profoundly digital platforms, sources, and tools have changed the way book historians have studied material texts over the past few decades.

Authoritative catalogues of individual works – such as the ESTC, Evans / Shaw-Shoemaker, and WorldCat – early on migrated from printed to online resources, providing the basic building blocks for book historians. Scholars can exploit the rich metadata of these records to create new visualizations and understandings.

Virtual library systems – such as What Middletown Read, Australian Common Reader, Easton Library Company Project, and CityReaders – have made difficult-to-use analog records easily searchable and accessible for analysis, showing us what individuals and communities collected, classified, and borrowed.

Provenance projects – such as Provenance Online Project, Footprints, and Book Traces – have documented the range of markings within material texts, revealing where books were acquired, who owned them, and the ways people used them.

Printing and book trade databases – such as the Atlas of Early Printing, French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, and Mediate – visualize the development and movement of new and secondhand printed works over time and space.

Circulation studies – such as Viral Texts – trace the movement of discrete textual passages across the corpus of printed works.

Databases of reading – such as the Reading Experience Database – captures the many ways and places in which individuals and communities engaged with material texts over time.

Social network analysis – such as Shakeosphere – has exposed the surprising connections between printers, publishers, and authors.

Most of these digital book history projects look more like historical bibliography than argument-driven scholarship because enumerative bibliographic data is the data most accessible for their creators to use. As Sarah Werner neatly summarizes, “The desire to catalog and to count and to sort means that book historians have been long involved in the digital humanities, whether it has been called by that name or no[t].”[3]

Blevins and Pearson are thus right to some extent: while we have witnessed a proliferation of database building, we have seen fewer examples of scholarship that has come out of them.

I should say I don’t think this is for want of interest. There are many factors – time, labor, funding, platforms – which make digital book history projects more challenging to complete than traditional research. But should we be doing more?

Writing Digital Book History
Say we embrace the charge to move beyond the creation of digital archives and databases to write new, argument-driven digital histories focused on the social impact of books. Say we accept this as the defining concept of digital book history. How do we do it? What should those histories look like?

We have a handful of examples of interpretive histories derived from digital book history projects. Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly’s What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City (2015) uses the virtual library system of the same name to argue for the importance of print at the end of the nineteenth century within social patterns of community life in a provincial Midwest city. While Felsenstein and Connolly write from the database they created, Richard Coulton, Matthew Mauger, and Christopher Reid mine the Old Bailey Online, a collection of digitized London court records, for evidence of book theft in their volume, Stealing Books in Eighteenth-Century London (2016).

Yet these works are the exception rather than the rule. The international AHRC-funded scholarly network Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850 convened in 2014-2015. It brought together over eighty scholars to explore the flourishing of a creative, unregulated period of social library development in the Atlantic World over two centuries before the modern-day public library movement. One of three meetings of the AHRC Network was devoted to digital library history, yet only three of the fifteen essays in the volume that Mark Towsey and I edited out of those meetings – Before the Public Library: Reading, Community, and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850 (2017) – were derived from digital book history projects.

These are all examples of scholarship published through traditional mechanisms of commercial and university press printing. But should digital book history be presented in printed and bound monographs or should it instead be on the same digital platforms used to reconstruct and research these book histories? Can we push our platforms to go further, to couple historical argument with interactive discovery?

As I think through how to present our interpretive findings from the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, can we do it in a way that bridges access and argument, digital and analog? From the start, my students and I decided the Jesuit Libraries Provenance project would be an open and evolving work of history because our digital platform allowed us to do that. We published our sources, methods, and findings as we went, rather than holding them until we had more polished analyses. Such an approach was important in reaching audiences touched by the history of these books, in particular descendants of original donors or former Loyola students, who might have more information about them. I’d say an important challenge for digital book history is keeping this open and evolving sense of discovery and connection between the original source material, method, and historical interpretation, inspiring further scholarship.

We might even ask if it is our responsibility to produce scholarship in a publicly accessible manner? What is our responsibility as digital book historians who created these projects, often with public money?

As I enter 2019, I wrestle with how we to bring to the broadest possible audience the insights that we have had from the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, now that much of our data collection for the St. Ignatius College Library is nearly complete. Should it be a printed monograph? Should it be a digital publication? Should it be embedded within the VLS and provenance archive? Should it be a whole new site? If we want to go digital, we don’t have many examples to go on. The Viral Texts project provides a best practice model, having published several articles and has a contract with University of Minnesota Press to write a volume in their Manifold series.

In the end, I have asked more questions than provided answers. Let me end with a final question: Should the defining concept for digital book history be argument-driven histories published on digital platforms focused on the social impact of books? Or is that too tall an order?

[1] David Pearson, “The English Private Library in the Seventeenth Century,” The Library 13, no. 4 (December 1, 2012): 391.

[2] Cameron Blevins, “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense,” Debates in Digital Humanities 2016,

[3] Matthew Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner, “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 17, no. 1 (2014): 410.


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