Digitising the topography of typography

Principal actors in Shakespeare's plays, annotated by contemporary reader. Our copy of the first folio (Sp Coll BD8-b.1)

University of Glasgow Library’s first folio (Sp Coll BD8-b.1)

“The physical item is of no benefit to scholars. The proceeds of the sale, advanced, should be used to digitise it releasing significant sums for better purposes.”

“Digitize it, put it online, and the world can use it and enjoy it. … I can’t think of any reason that scholars would prefer the original over a copy, apart from ideas of it being more ‘special’”

These are just two views from “below-the-line” commentators on the Guardian website debating the merits and demerits of Senate House Library’s plan (now abandoned due to pressure from academics and the public) to de-accession and sell their copy of the 1623 first folio of Shakespeare’s plays*.

Folio [a1v] of Ambrosius: Expositio in evangelium S. Lucae. (Augsburg: Sorg, 1476) (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.2.9)

Folio [a1v] of Ambrosius: Expositio in evangelium S. Lucae. (Augsburg: Sorg, 1476) (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.2.9)

Well last week, as foliogate (as it predictably came to be known) raged away, I was in Canterbury with around 100 other special collections librarians and academics at a conference focusing on digitisation. Foliogate was a hot topic of conversation yet not a single person suggested digitisation as a solution. Why? Well the fundamental reason is that digital images – while desirable and useful in many many ways – are simply not adequate surrogates for the real thing.

Take a look at this image of the back of the first leaf of an early printed book in our collections (click on it to enlarge). Count the printed lines of type (you can ignore the inky ‘show-through’ from handwritten inscriptions on the other side of the leaf). 8 lines right?… Wrong. For this page – like many pages in early books – conceals hidden text which only reveals itself on closer inspection under the right light conditions.

Now take a look at the next image of the lower half of the same page, taken in a raking light, and you’ll realise that the page actually contains 15 lines of text – 8 inked lines and a further 7 printed ‘blind’ (i.e. without ink). These are ‘bearers’, lines of type inserted by the printer into the forme to help ensure even load bearing as the press made its impression. They are un-inked since they were never intended to create visible text. Yet, when the text is identifiable such ghostly printed lines can tell bibliographers all sorts of interesting things about the order in which pages were printed and even which other books were being printed at the same time (it wasn’t uncommon for the printer to lift and insert a chunk of lines of type from one book ‘in production’ to act as a bearer in another).

Same leaf in raking light reveals an extra paragraph of blind type (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.2.8)

Same leaf in raking light reveals an extra paragraph of blind type (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.2.9)

This is just one example that illustrates the 3-dimensional materiality of the early printed page. Before we even consider the printing process, it needs to be noted that paper was hand-made and varied considerably in thickness. Tell-tale chain lines, laid lines and watermarks point to where the wet pulp was unable to accumulate evenly due to the structure of the mould. The printing process itself then acts upon the – already uneven – paper to disfigure it further. As the press-man pulls the bar of the press towards him, the platen descends contacting the packed tympan, which in turn forces the dampened paper towards the inked (or un-inked!) type. The type bites into the paper, stretching it, moulding it and deforming it. Deep crevices are pushed down into the paper, with ink (if the type has been inked) deposited at the base while ridges are thrust up on the other side, Braille-like. Then the reverse side of the sheet is printed, stretching and deforming the paper even further. What is left is a mountainous landscape in miniature – a 3-dimensional topography of typography**.

Printer's at work. From Schopper’s 1574 ‘De Omnibus illiberalibus’, woodcuts by Jost Amman. (Sp Coll S.M. 969)

Printers at work. From Schopper’s 1574 ‘De Omnibus illiberalibus’, woodcuts by Jost Amman. (Sp Coll S.M. 969)

Conventional digitisation, with static overhead cameras, simply misses this. One of the speakers at the conference, Nicholas Pickwoad, director of the Ligatus research centre noted this same point in relation to the digitisation of historic bindings. Tell-tale evidence of where a binding has been made and even which workshop has made it can be discerned by close study of how slips are laced into boards and the style of turn-in adopted. Yet commonly the insides of boards, if they are digitised at all, are done so from a static overhead camera which misses the clues hidden beneath pastedowns, the lumps and bumps identifiable only in raking light.

So might the answer be 3-D scanning? Another conference speaker, Melissa Terras, Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, wowed the conference with some visuals from the Great Parchment Book Project with which she has been involved. The UCL team have managed to capture all of the ridges, folds and creases in a shriveled, fire-damaged 17th century parchment document and have developed software that allows its virtual manipulation and reading. Terras assured the audience that 3-D scanning is developing very quickly and costs are coming down.

3-D scanning is a very exciting prospect which may allow us to more accurately capture the materiality of the printed page and reveal all sorts of new clues about early printing. However, ultimately, it will still be a scan and will still not be an adequate replacement for the real thing. Acknowledging this, Melissa Terras hit the nail on the head when she said that all digitisation can ever be is a translation of the real thing. It is a representation. Information is always going to be lost. Just a few years ago the idea of 3-D scanning would have been fanciful. Who knows what evidence hitherto unthought-of advances in Digital Humanities will allow us to reveal from early printed books in years to come. But, we really do need to keep hold of the books since they are packed with evidence still to be uncovered. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

*Thanks to Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare Library for bringing these comments to my attention via Twitter.

**For a good account of this process and of the research possibilities offered by blind impressions from bearers see: R. McGeddon (i.e. Randall McLeod) “An epilogue” in Langman, P. (ed.) Negotiating the Jacobean Printed Book (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011); also see McLeod’s “Where angels fear to read” in Bray, J. et al. (eds) Ma(r)king the text: the presentation of meaning on the literary page (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000)

Categories: Reflections, Special Collections

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  1. TypeCon 2013 Conference Trip Report | Slanted Hall

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