The Order of Books, or How Digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 2)

The previous post in this series argued, digitisation is changing the way in which we encounter texts. It alters the experience of reading and the way we find books. One of the dangers of relying upon digital texts is that we forget the materiality of the book. The fact that a book is an object, that it has a history in its production, dissemination and circulation. Sometimes it is easy to fetishise the content of a book, and study the content and neglect the form that it comes in, namely the material dimension of a text. Its material nature is easily lost when you are looking at a series of 0’s and 1’s on a computer screen. But the physical dimensions of the books, and the systems that it passed through to come into existence are all important in understanding a texts meaning. In this post I intend to explore how the book as an object and its location within a specific spacial location all play upon the meanings a text can have. All books have history that tells us of what contributed to its preservation and it is important to understand how the books came to us, in order to consider its meaning.

The meaning of a book is not simply based on its content, but it is also dependant upon the way in which it is valued, understood and perceived within a broader cultural system. A books value is not only in what it says, but the significance that society places on it. Umberto Eco in his novel The name of the Rose drew this distinction when he said that:

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means…”

What a book means changes over time and is often tied to its physicality. For instance, the most ephemeral types of texts such as newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets and receipts for us today are valueless. We throw them away daily without ever considering them as holding any value or meaning. Yet, for historians these fragments are useful to understand the past, with the passage of time their meaning changes. They go from rubbish to valued insights into the social and cultural values of society by historians – the meaning of the object has changed but the content has changed. We can help understand the meaning of an book by the way that it is situated within a wider literary system and where they physically place it. A book that is read on a beach then thrown under our bed when we finish it is situated in a very different physical place then a highly esteemed book we keep on the coffee table. In both cases the physical location of the book as an object is an indication of the books value and meaning to us. To reconstruct the way in which books were located, read and valued is riddled with difficulties but nevertheless it should be remembered, for this is something that is lost in the transmission from book to digital text.

Books can be located at a basic level with other books as part of a library. A library that is worth looking at to show this is the Warburg Library created by Aby Warburg. Warburg was born in Hamburg in the year 1866 and became a student of the renaissance, studying in Bonn, Florence and Strasburg. He looked at the mythologies of Botticelli and the circle that surrounded Lorenzo de Medico. Warburg, however started to become disillusioned with the way that the renaissance was being studied and started to think of a new way in which to think about the renaissance:

“He conceived the programme of illustrating the processes by which the memory of the past affects a culture. The paradigm he chose was the influence of antiquity on modern European civilization in all its aspects – social, political, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic – and he ordered his private library in Hamburg accordingly.” Warburg History

Warburg built up a very impressive library. However, this immense collection of books was threatened by the rise of the Nazi’s in Germany. Warburg needed to preserve his library to prevent it from falling into the Nazi hands, who as we know with hindsight probably would have burned them. Negotiations were made and with a few challenges it was decided to move the collection of 60,000 books to the UK. The reason why I mention the Warburg library is because when they moved it over they preserved exactly the order and classification of books as Warburg had made in Hamburg.

The significance of this is that by going to the Warburg library you get a real sense of how Warburg understood the books and what they meant to him. As David Mckitterick has said in Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order:

“Readers are influenced by the order of books; not only by their intellectual order but also by the physical order in which they are arranged, by their reading spaces.”

The very presence of certain books in a library speaks of its value and importance. Through the years the shaping of the library has ingrained within it a literary history by the books that Warburg chose to buy, preserve and collect. In doing so it is classified and catalogued within the libraries literary system. The reader of the physical book is aware of this position because it is accessed from among other books in special collections, archives, and within a classification system in libraries. What this means is that when one encounters a book it is surrounded by books that all share a common factor, such as disciplinary background, period, subject, or author. These help to delineate the boundaries of a discourse and provide parameters to orientate the reader in how to understand the text and its broader significance. The location of a book within a literary system gives an indication of what its content is and it serves to highlight the relationships that the book has with other books.

 In contrast the online text is disconnected from traditional literary organisation and is found on a list with other texts that simply share the same key word. On a list the text stands as a distinct entity disconnected from its material object and its intended context or traditional literary companions. Leaving us with little to inform us of its relation to other works as it is surrounded by texts that may have no obvious relation to it. The set of texts that it now is situated amongst is constructed out of the common use of a phrase or key word within them rather then a topical, temporal or disciplinary affinity that the printed copy has. The result of this disconnection is that in a single search of a phrase or key word one will encounter articles from a broad selection of disciplines, genres, and authors over an equally diverse time period. This diversity and disconnection with traditional classificatory systems is both beneficial and problematic.

It is problematic because viewing and finding texts in a list means that it is stripped of the meta-data that informs the reader of the significance of the text. In an online list all items are given equal value and presence in the list. The list takes no consideration of the genre of the book, the type of book it is, and the subject of the book; nor does it consider the reputation of the book or author, the popularity of the book, the number of copies printed and read, or its critical reception when the list of books are constructed. Whilst it is possible that a level of knowledge of the period and a familiarity with some of the books is able to restore some of the meta-textual factors to the some of the texts, the sheer amount of books in the collection and the number of results from a key-word search makes it impossible to be aware of all of the meta-textual context for every book.

This difference in meta-textual factors are engrained in the library and archive because librarians, archivists and editors are aware of the differing value of books and authors when they buy books and build up the archive and library such as in the Warburg library. This conscious arrangement by them takes into consideration that not all books are of equal significance. For instance, an obscure work discussing the art of turnip carving that only had few copies printed is not equally as significant as a popular work, such as John Donne’s Anatomy of the World, that went through several editions and was widely discussed, in constructing and altering the discourse. Such a distinction between the two will be embedded in a library or archival collection by the fact that in most libraries they will not contain the obscure texts but only contain the canonical texts of the great figures of the past. This would not be the case on EEBO which juxtapositions the rare, forgotten, and obscure with the famous, canonical, and popular books. The fact is, however, that not all books are equal, and EEBO places them all is equals together. It does not tell you which books were very popular and sold in the thousands, or those that were never brought and already insignificant at the time it was printed. Warburg is notable for it has the same order of books as it did in 1933, EEBO in contrast changes the order that books are encountered every time you go to find a book. In changing the order that books are discovered it changes the meaning of the book, and in turn its value. Historians when trying to understand the past need to understand the meaning of the book, to understand how it was read, what its value within society was. To forget this because of the removal of the various indications found in a physical book when it is placed in digital collections provides the risk of us distorting our interpretation of the past. We can exaggerate the value of a particular book and in that process miss out on, or undervalue, other crucial books because there is little to inform us of a book’s value and meaning when it is accessed through EEBO. So whilst EEBO gives us access to more books, in that process it loses part of a book’s history and it is a book’s history that helps us to know its value, meaning and significance. Thus, in the loss of a book’s history in its translation from book to digital text we lose part of the book’s meaning.


5 responses to “The Order of Books, or How Digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Remediation, or how digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 1) | Early Modern Dialogues·

  2. Pingback: How to talk about books you haven’t read | Early Modern Dialogues·

  3. Thank you very much for this brilliant contribution!
    Many aspects discussed here are relevant also for other media, for instance photography. The “Florence Declaration – Recommendations for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives” proposes similar arguments:

    With best regards,
    Dr. Costanza Caraffa
    Leiterin / Direttrice
    Photothek des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz
    – Max-Planck-Institut
    Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai

  4. Pingback: Data Curation in the Networked Humanities | Michael Ullyot·

  5. Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed! Very useful info specially the last part I care for such information a lot. I was seeking this certain information for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

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