Curation of the Unordinary Book

The next contribution to our theme of Publication comes from Harriett Green, English and Digital Humanities Librarian, University of Illinois. She was invited to respond to the recent lecture by Danuta Fjellestad, “This Is (Not) a Book, or An Aesthetics of Wonder,” and shares her comments from that presentation. —bM

Professor Fjellestad’s talk poses stimulating questions to our conceptions of the book as an intellectual, aesthetic, and physical artifact as a conveyance of culture and enduring disseminator of ideas.

book-pageIn considering the materiality of the book from the perspective of a librarian like me who focuses on collections and information management, and as a former book publishing professional, the physicality of the book and information access are intertwined: like our own degenerating bodies, the book undergoes a life cycle as a lending object. How does each oily fingerprint, ink annotations, and food splash on the pages affect the quality of the book’s life? How has it been treated—will access to the information be impeded through misuse and loss? Everyday we cradle books with broken spines, frayed cover corners, and crumbling pages, salvaging and mending what we can in an effort to keep the book alive for others’ use a little while longer.

As such, the book is an object around which a suite of professional behaviors and philosophies have been built: the ways in which people harvest knowledge from books, orchestrate their research workflows around them, and invest in them the animated life of an old friend in their life’s journey, define my work and those of a vast phalanx of archivists and librarians through the ages.

So in our collecting of the cultural record, we regularly encounter the “unordinary” book,” and must wrestle with ways to preserve it in its fullest posterity. The discussion of the experiential nature of the art book and graphic novel causes me to ask: what are the preservation and curation implications for a type of literature that is meant to be experienced perhaps even more than read?  How do we preserve that experience for not only the generation it’s published in, but the ones to come?  We have McSweeney’s issues and Chris Ware novels, as well as digital books on CD-ROMs and installed software. Library collection policies and archival practices have been developed to preserve all types of objects (such as ‘zines and other alternative press), but making the unordinary book accessible in everyday borrowing requires attention to enabling the interaction between reader and the material in order to produce the fullest experience and instance of its existence.  The fidelity of the artifact to the reading experience is critical to the ethos of the library as a repository and a laboratory of ideas, as we strive to preserve knowledge not only in its textual content, but also in its tactile and visual manifestations as well.


In our conception of the book as an artifact of knowledge, context, as we are all aware, is essential to defining its nature as much as content: from the specific printer and the printing practices of the historical era; to the aesthetic of its typeface and material design; to its continued usages recorded in library circulation database. But the most important context that we consider is how the lifecycle and legacy of a book develops within a rich, constantly evolving world of intellectual thought—ancient and complex networks of ideas exchange in which books have so long operated as central nodes of ideas and credentialing prestige. But that world of scholarly discourse is changing in elemental ways due to how market forces, evolving professional practices, and technological advances alike are challenging the elevated place of the book as the most effective mode of scholarly discourse. We might consider how the emergent modes of digital writing and online publishing, from the mixed media on blogs and Tumblrs to the posting of in-progress manuscripts and full books in solely digital form, affect the way that we define the book: more than ever, is it now a more aesthetic than dynamic means of intellectual debate?

N. Katherine Hayles considers in My Mother Was a Computer how “our notions of textuality are shot through with assumptions specific to print, although they have not been recognized as such. The advent of electronic textuality presents us with unparalleled opportunity to reformulate fundamental ideas about texts, and in the process, to see print as well as electronic texts with fresh eyes.” In considering how the book gradually is being recast, broken apart, and redefined for scholarly discourse in the digital age, I’d ask in response to this talk if the intertwining of content, functionality, and aesthetic that make up the academic tome each are evolving  in ways that redefine scholarly communication: The advent of digital texts and new dialogic structures allow readers and researchers to engage scholarly ideas directly with annotation, augmentation, and other means of dynamic response.

But as a humanities librarian, I know that the book is and will always be indisputably important to our culture. But as we develop new ways of representing it in digital form and stretching its physical form, we can begin to consider the fullest extent how to grapple with age-old ideas in new environs.

green_harriett_supersmHarriett Green is English and Digital Humanities Librarian, University of Illinois. She is the recipient of degrees from Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research and practice are focused around facilitating humanities scholarship with digital tools, and curating digital sources that are of relevance to the humanities.

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One Response to Curation of the Unordinary Book

  1. Ann Abbott says:

    Very nicely written and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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