In case my last post was a little too obscure-

This blog has moved to http://rarefrontier.org/

The discussion is ongoing and I just posted a report of my thoughts about a FRBR training, so please join in the discussion there.


While I love the free service provided by wordpress.com, I decided it was time to move to my own hosting. I’ve officially moved my blog to http://rarefrontier.org/ . This is a moment of reflection for me. I had started the wordpress.com blog as an outlet for some of my ideas that were not fully fledged into research, and since that time I’ve been working more and more aggressively on doing research that is publishable. This focus has caused the enormous hiatus I’ve been on lately. I plan on continuing to write, but I need to find my voice again.

Having participated in a fantastic online conference at APPOSITIONS, I wonder if having my own private server for research is necessarily a good idea. Connecting and sharing research with other academics seems like a much better approach than shouting from my own platform. Thus, online conferences, and shared blogs are more interesting approaches. Perhaps I should just point to articles online? But then, isn’t this just a live CV?

I suppose one solution is to return to the reason for writing, the sheer pleasure of it. So please join my at my new location at-


Progressive Bibliography

Rare book cataloging is a queer chimera. On one hand, the cataloger must be conversant with bibliography, the history of the book, and cultural studies in general, so that they can place the artifact in its proper milieu; on the other hand, Card Catalogtheir scholarship often goes unobserved because it is concealed under the cloak of unostentatious librarianship. Unlike a full descriptive bibliography, rare book cataloging does not conjure determined research project, but provides links and anchors to other projects, which itself is a sort of meta-bibliographical project.

How, then, can the work of the cataloger ever be complete? Or for that matter to be useful to scholars who need current information?

I argue that progressing towards bibliography resolves these issues by recognizing the nature of the chimera and its limitations. I discuss this idea in more depth in my recent article

“Progressing Toward Bibliography, or, Organic Growth in the Bibliographic Record,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 10, 2 (Fall, 2009): 95-110.

I welcome any comments, criticism, additions, or counter-points. What do you think is the interface between bibliography and cataloging? Is there one?

(Also, I’d love to put this up on a CommentPress instance, but I don’t have one installed right now. Do any of my lovely readers have such a thing they’d like to volunteer?)

Textual works create a trace through which the future can know its past. We interrogate  the texts (meant in a broad sense) that history deems worthy to survive to determine what came before. So question of survival is paramount to humanist epistemology. Lost books lobotomize the historical/archival record and so in exploring these losses we can begin to understand the limits of historical necromancy based on the text.

In Volume 10, Number 2, of The Library, Alexander S. Wilkinson discusses “Lost Books Printed in French before 1601.” He compares two 16th century catalogs of books (François de La Croix du Maine, Premier volume de la bibliotheque (Paris, chez Abel L’Angelier, 1584) and Antoine Du Verdier, La bibliotheque (Lyons, Jean d’Ogerolles pour Barthélemy Honorat et Thibaud Ancelin, 1585)) to the database used for the French Vernacular Book Project. He observes that survival of copies of books printed prior to 1601 is based largely on two factors: physical size (as reflected in imposition scheme) and topic. Larger books were more likely to survive than smaller books, and reference, illustrated, or poetic works were more likely to survive than texts intended to perform functions (political tracts, almanacs, literature, calendars, games, textbooks, etc.) . Although the size of print runs for these various texts would be hard to know, it is easy to imagine that the functional texts were more popular and printed in greater numbers. Large reference works, while highly useful, are simply not needed in as great a number as this year’s astronomical almanac. It appears the issue of rarity for these books comes from their treatment, not their conditions of publication.

I discussed the terminology of rarity in a previous post, but in this case relative rarity, the number of books surviving through historical accident, seems to more important than absolute rarity, the number of items produced. Wilkinson argues that some books were seen as more valuable, and less replaceable, and so were preserved. One easily explained exception is the low survival of bibles. Bibles, although reference works and large, were likely to be lost since they could be more easily replaced by another edition with the same text. Larger books were both more expensive and harder to lose because of their size.

So, if we extend this idea to our present production, perhaps coffee table books will define the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Scholars may try to understand the significance contemporary culture by looking for historical antecedents in Time Life’s coffee table books. These books are large, appear to be valuable (much to the chagrin of gifts librarians), are plentiful, and are a distinct text (not just another bible). This is, of course, complicated by preservation issues. Pre-1601 books were on hand-made paper and vellum, which is almost certainly longer lasting than clay-coated art paper which constitutes many of the recent coffee table books.

The lesson here, though, is that survival in the documentary archive depends on popular reception. Big, flashy, and apparently distinct books define the bulk of what remains, reinforcing the hegemonic interpretations. As critical scholars, we must therefore seek out the unusual, the small, the odd, and the paradoxical if we want to unmask the hidden narratives. Leave the historical “coffee table” books alone and take a look at the “almanacs.”

The research done by mathematicians in information-library science has a certain appeal to me.  It’s like some sort of H.R. Giger chimera a combination of technology and organic structure.  To name a few of these mathematician/librarian/information researchers we have:

  • Claude Shannon, Ma Bell researcher, father of information theory, mathematician
  • S.R. Ranganathan, librarian, father of library science in India, mathematician
  • Gottfried Leibniz, (a new one for me) founder of library science, originator of publisher’s abstracts for libraries, mathematician
  • Herbert Van de Sompel, assisted in creating OAI, developing SFX, OpenURL syntax, mathematcian

The application of the mathematical approach to the humanities seems to be a fertile area for ideas and developments.  This was uncanny to me,

Map of Science

Map of Science

until I read a recent article co-authored by Herbert Van de Sompel, and began this line of thinking.

The article has a wonderfully explicit name, Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science, and is equally lucid in describing a fascinating visualization of the connections of knowledge (based on clickstreams through various journals and number/thesaurus crunching.)  The image here is taken from that article and shows a colored dot for each intellectual discipline represented in the study and a line connecting ones that had a high probability of user crossover.  In other words, disciplines are connected if many of the users in the study were looking at articles in both.

One really interesting thing about this map, is that yellow-white blob north-west of the middle of the chart is the location of many of the humanities disciplines.  The area is highly connected, internally as well as externally, and if one believes the methodology of the study, this is not an artifact of the visualization.  That is, the humanities disciplines are highly connected to each other and to the other disciplines.  The article reads,

To provide a visual frame of reference, we summarize the overall visual appearance of the map of science in Fig. 5 in terms of a wheel metaphor. The wheel’s hub consists of a large inner cluster of tightly connected social sciences and humanities journals (white, yellow and gray).

So we have a hub, or core (or rhizome if you are into A Thousand Plateaus) of the humanities and social sciences connecting the natural and applied sciences.  These core disciplines seem to be characterized by connections and interdisciplinary, both in their rhetoric, and also through this particular study.

Mathematicians are often concerned with the abstract or the ideal of something.  Their work is often finding patterns and building systems to connect already established systems.  Mathematically inclined people who move towards this hub, in the form of information/library science, seem to retain the knowledge-as-erector-set-between-disciplines ideal.  Seeing the connections, they gravitate towards humanism and abstract connections between disciplines.

In the end, we get cybernetic chimeras which seem so dirty and perverse, but are somehow beautiful because they get us closer to understanding our weird web of knowledge.

This morning I read Sven Birkets thought-provoking short essay in the online version of the Atlantic. (cited from  if:book) This is another of the woe-unto-us, the digital technology of the future will destroy history and the humanities, genre of essays. Quoting,

Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise.  …  As Marshall McLuhan argued decades ago, technology changes reflexes, replacing them with new ones. Our rapidly evolving digital interface is affecting us on many levels, not least those relating to text and information.

He proceeds to worry how this new technology will damage the awareness of the context and history of information, and that in the future knowledge cloud of facts divorced from their origin and history.  While I agree with his concern, I’m not sure that we have sufficient evidence that it is as inevitable as good journalism requires writers to suggest.

In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong describes this sort of ahistorical perspective as homeostasis, and cites significant evidence that this sort of ahistorical homeostasis is a characteristic of primary oral cultures.

That is to say, oral societies lie very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance. (Ong, New Accents Series, 2002, p. 46)

So the real concern with the Kindle and such digital technology, as illuminated by McLuhan and Ong, is that we will return to an oral-experiential culture, rather than the visual-printing culture; and that this new oral-experiential culture will destroy the cherished products of our young visual-printing culture.  That is, history will die because we only need to know how to get to McDonalds, or the basic biography of some poet from wikipedia.

This concern about the rewinding of culture because of digital technologies seems to pervade popular media.  It was even the central theme of the recent movie Idiocracy.  However, I think there is a flaw in this concern. This flaw was identified by Ong, who was careful to distinguish primary oral cultures, from secondary oral cultures.  The difference is that none in a primary oral culture is aware of literacy, while a secondary oral culture is predominantly oral but is aware of literacy.  In the primary oral culture, we see the homeostasis of forgetting, but in secondary oral cultures we see a movement towards literacy.  It seems to me that this movement can be largely attributed to the power associated with knowledge and literacy.

Knowing the political structures of history enables the bourgeois to stay in power through the awareness of programs, strategies, and technologies of power.  The proletariat, on the other hand, do not possess awareness to these programs, strategies, and technologies and thus remain vulnerable to them, and thus excluded from the power structure.  Literacy, in Ong’s sense, enables the proletariat to develop an understanding of the larger processes in which they are participating.  When the processes are the method for maintaining control, those in power would see no need to translate to the oral-experiential mode, since it would be to their disadvantage.  Thus, access to literature is a tool of class struggle and equality.  For this reason alone, I don’t think that the concerns about losing literacy, libraries, or book culture, are well founded; there are too many who can use literacy to gain power for us to lose it entirely.

What is really interesting to me is that the popular media keeps portraying the shift to orality as likely, or inevitable. I wonder if these portrayals are a part of a program of power.  Convincing other people that literacy is unimportant seems like an excellent way of reducing the number of literate people, and thus making them vulnerable to the programs taken from literate society.

Beware of Eastern Maps

I recently organized a panel about print culture on the Mountain West frontier.  The attendance was large, given the intense cold of the evening, and the panelists were great.  Professor Anne Hyde spoke about rumor, Darrin Pratt spoke about the challenges of a modern university press, and Wade Bishop gave a great introduction to GIS in print culture studies.  For my part, I spoke about the Pike’s Peak region from 1858 to 1862 and how print and authority interacted. A particular slide really captures the sense of what authority meant for publishing in the Pike’s Peak region.

Advertisement for one emigrant's guide in another one.

Advertisement for one emigrant's guide in another one.



This is an advertisement for  an emigrant’s guide (Gunn, O.B. New Map and Hand-Book of Kansas & the Gold Mines. Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven, 1859) that was printed in another emigrant’s guide (Pratt and Hunt. A Guide to the Gold Mines of Kansas. Chicago, Printing Office of C. Scott & Co., 1859.).  The most interesting part is the comment towards the bottom which reads “BEWARE OF EASTERN MAPS Gotten up by parties who have never been in the Territory.  Their Maps are wholly inadequate to the wants of the public, and, in most cases, are in detail purely imaginary.”  This admonishment echos the sectional rhetoric of the city builders of the region, who regarded their space as exceptional and the East (meaning eastern United States) as attempting to subvert their interests, or at best merely providing inaccurate information out of ignorance.  This tension between publication, accuracy, authority, East, and West, is what fascinates me about the region; this tension was the central theme of my talk.

During the question and answer part of the panel, this advertisement came up again.  Along with many other insightful questions, Richard Noble asked about where this ad was printed, which was in Chicago.  The guide that it was advertising was printed in Pittsburgh.  Thus, in this case we have the rhetoric of local knowledge, but from the eastern printing houses.  So, these ‘eastern’ maps that people shouldn’t trust, must mean maps created by easterners, not printed in the east.  This idea is supported by the prominent “K.T.” (standing for Kansas Territory) by the name of the guide’s author,  which emphasizes his regional credentials.

However, printing did occur within the Pike’s Peak region, and an emigrant’s guide was published there by William Byers in 1861.  Given the expense of moving paper into the region by wagon, only to send it back out again for potential immigrants, this seems like a strange idea.  Why not print the emigrant’s guide closer to where the immigrants would be coming from?  I suspect that this had something to do with the perceived authority of the Pike’s Peak press regarding that region, but I’m not certain yet.  Western consumers, who might accept the rhetoric of superiority, wouldn’t need such a guide.  Why would the eastern consumer care about the source of their information? 

Beware of Eastern Maps

Beware of Eastern Maps