Are We Doomed to a World of PDFs?

This is a contribution to a panel on ‘Speculative Futures’ in the Ecologies of Publishing Futures symposium organised by the Royal College of Art on 23 November 2015. I try to express my hopes for the future of publishing, although I’m doubtful whether it will ever happen. In fact, I am concerned that — from my point of view — the future publishing landscape is a bleak one.

I’m by training a medieval historian. One of the main reasons why I am a medieval historian is that as an undergraduate I was excited by manuscripts like this, a twelfth century chronicle by Ralph of Diss, Dean of St Pauls in London.

Opening page of a copy from St Albans Abbey of the Abbreviationes Chronicorum and Imagines Historiarum by Ralph of Diss, betw. 1199 and 1209. Note the system of marginal signs used by Ralph to assist in locating particular type of events in the chronicle: British Library, Royal MS. 13 E.VI

I did my Ph D thesis on the records relating to the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler and John Ball in England in 1381. This is a file of accusations against participants in the revolt in West Kent.

File of indictments against alleged rebels in West Kent taken by a commission sitting at Maidstone 4–5 July 1381: The National Archives KB 9/43

I found an enormous amount of information about the revolt, and became interested in how you can make this available online. But as you can see the records are complex crafted artefacts and I became convinced that you need to understand the physicality of the artefact to interpret the information in it.

The importance of this physicality of the medieval record is apparent wherever you look among the archives. This is another of the records I worked on why I was a postgraduate student. It had only recently been recovered from sacks which had stored in the Tower of London, and contains hundreds of file copies of cases from the central court in Westminster at the end of the fourteenth century.

Recorda file from Court of King’s Bench for the 4th year of Richard II: KB 145/3/4/1

My work on these records encouraged me to become a curator at the British Library, where I had the privilege of working with wonderful manuscripts such as this, a book of blessings compiled in the tenth century for St Aethelwold, the Bishop of Winchester.

The Benedictional of St Aethelwold, British Library, Additonal 49598

A manuscript like this does not simply consist of text and pictures, it was designed as a ritual object to form an integral part of the liturgy on holy days, a sensual object to be touched and admired.

Other manuscripts were fascinating as physical objects in other ways. The manuscript of the celebrated Old English poem Beowulf was badly burnt in a fire in 1731 and repaired in he nineteenth century. In a digitisation project in which I was involved, we used special lighting techniques to reveal and record hundreds of letters concealed by the nineteenth-century conservation work.

Electronic Beowulf: The boxes indicate points at which further informaton revealed by back lighting and ultra-violet imaging is available.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of my time in the British Library — for most of my time there, still in the British Museum building — was the way I became conscious of the huge variety of material used by humanities scholars and the varied material forms of historical textuality. Historical documents comprise everything from clay tablets and scraps of writing on bone to telegrams, sound files and moving image.

I became fascinated with how we can convey the wide-ranging nature of historical textuality — issues that apply just as strongly in such other humanities disciplines as literature or theology. For me the excitement of digital technology has always been the way in which it offers the potential for closer contact with the contents of libraries, archives and museums, and to generate new forms of scholarly discourse which are not merely words but incorporate directly those objects around which so much humanities discussion revolves. To me, that is at the heart of what we now call the digital humanities — the exploitation of the potential of the computer to offer transformative modes of engagement with the primary materials of humanities discourse.

The creation of such new forms of humanities discourse must involve more than a website which contains a transcription of the text with a few images. Dialogue with artists and designers is essential in articulating fresh perspectives on our engagement with historical and other material. While I was working at King’s College London, I particularly valued conversation with the artist Michael Takeo Magruder, much of whose work uses historical documentation to explore issues of memory and identity. A good example is Insurance.AES256 which used Wikileaks material to reflect on issues of information freedom and secrecy in today’s ever-shifting media landscape.

Another artist whose work it seems to me offers an intriguing perspective on historical data is Fabio Antinori. This work called Data Flags was exhibited at the V&A last year, and uses data from Lehmann Brothers to reflect on the nature of corporate bankruptcy and failure. When touched, the artwork tells the story of the company, by singing the last 10 years of daily financial data to the audience.

In this work, Fabio makes use of conductive ink and to me, as somebody who has worked with medieval manuscripts, that is fascinating. We think of ink as a supremely analogue technology, but when it becomes the means of turning paper into circuits, manuscripts can suddenly become digital. For me, that shift in the boundaries has fascinating implications.

In thinking about this shifting materiality, I have learnt a great deal from the work of Eduardo Kac, who has pioneered media art and poetry across media ranging from minitel and fax to conductive ink and bioart over very many years. Kac’s Lagoglyph Sound System for example explores the relationship between ink, touch, sound and writing, raising questions about the interrelationship between these different text technologies.

Steve Benford’s project the Carolan Guitar uses aesthetic codes to incorporate within a guitar a history of its performance. Could we imagine medieval manuscripts themselves incorporating, through chips or codes in their binding, a comprehensive record of their use, interpretation and history? At that point, the boundary between primary object, publication and interpretation starts to be fundamentally restated.

But I will end on a dystopian note. These possibilities are all there, and it was this restating of the position of primary materials in scholarly discourse that first attracted to me to digital humanities. But this isn’t happening. Our scholarly ecosystem becomes more boring and unexciting by the day. Instead of scholarly debate which directly engages with and incorporates manuscripts, documents and objects, we have pdfs of journal articles — words, words and nothing but words. E book publications are the crudest of html implementations. Libraries prevent you saving images from their web site.

In many ways, the scholarly environment for an undergraduate today is less media rich than it was forty years ago. Many of the text books I used as an undergraduate were published by the RCA’s industry partner, Thames and Hudson, and explored the potential of new printing methods to produce text books packed with illustrations. We need to recapture some of that enthusiasm to explore the potential of new technology to provide objects which will inspire the next generation of students, in the way that the pdf of a journal article never will.

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