On Wednesday I set off with a group of early career researchers for Northern Bridge’s first postgraduate research symposium. ‘Working with Archives’ was held in Grasmere at The Wordsworth Trust. The three day event to provided training and open discussion on our engagement with archives.
In the exploration of Tyne and Wear Museum (TWAM) collections, my research primarily looks to Thomas Bewick’s engravings in print and in block form and then to memoir, natural history, eighteenth-century broadside ballads, early twentieth-century museum engagement photography (including blind children exploring taxidermy through touch in an early experimental outreach project) and much, much more.
The symposium kicked off with a talk from New York Library’s Elizabeth Denlinger on the recently digitised Shelley-Godwin archive, a vast project pulling together a host of manuscripts. Talking about books in a room full of bibliophiles soon led to differences of opinions. Some were passionate about the book as a preserved object, with uncut pages and pristine, exemplary bindings. Others found the provenance of the book to be a thing of reverence, the handwritten note on a particular page holding the potential to unlock its social and cultural uses. This could be the fingerprint of the printmaker, a note with a lipstick kiss and in the case of a tea cup-stained copy of Lyrical Ballads, this led to an interesting conversation about what we mean by the misuse of a book.
Technology played a central role in the symposium as Guiseppe Albano Skyped his talk in from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. Linda Anderson gave a fantastic talk about the Bloodaxe archive in which the North East publisher’s correspondence, drafts of poems and all manner of archival materials have been made entirely searchable. The project has employed a number of innovative methods. You can search by key words, the shape a poem makes on the page or browse by cover artwork. It throws in some interesting marginalia too.
We also considered the exciting work being undertaken by Hazel Wilkinson, who presently uses digital recognition technologies to locate woodcuts in print. By utilising the systems at EEBO, ECCO, Google Books and Bodleian archives, we can search across digital books in innovative ways, identifying the different textual contexts a single woodcut can be placed in. Most interestingly, the technology can be used to pinpoint the replicas of cuts that vary ever so slightly across publications.
Why might these variations occur? In pre-copyright days, these book illustrations were often identified by publishers as something they would like to use in their book, the print copy was passed to an engraver who would make an imitation cut that could then be built into the moveable type letter press system of that publisher and be printed as part of this new text.
How do we know this happened? We've Wilkinson's research to thank. A digital search for one illustration revealed multiple 'copies' but not in the printmaking sense. The images all featured slight differences. Some were clearly engraved by less experienced artist, the potato jesus meme of the wood cutting world, see this hilariously bad botched Ecce Homo 'restoration' from a few years back:
In the case of the painting, the origin has clearly been poorly overworked with paint. But to copy a print means reversing the image back onto the wood block so that it can print 'true' when pressed. There are many reasons why copied prints lessened in quality. Perhaps the original they sought to copy was a poor print to being with. Perhaps the original block was sanded down for the next image (a common practice). But in terms of practice, we might also remember that blocks degrade with each use and that exact science - some might say the witchcraft - of the damp paper, ink and pressure required to produce the perfect print, these all needed to be in perfect sync.
Exploring four versions of the same cut across the digital archives was revealing. It not only proved Wilkinson's thesis that such duplication took place. It revealed similar the pitfalls of digitisation - the process of making digital copies of material objects - also occurs today. Relying heavily upon the technology being employed, we saw how pages scanned by human hands made way for human error. These far from facsimile copies ranged from super sharp scans to soft, fogged images. This is something we have all no doubt experienced with Google Books. Until an all-encompassing digital archive is (/if) designed, I will stick to dusty tomes in my research. To await the curator presenting ‘the box’. The anticipation of opening it and exploring by hand, nose, eye and ear.