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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

The 18thc Online: commonplace book or coffeehouse?

Posted by Miriam Jones on 10/02/05 at 05:07 PM

Here are the notes for the paper I gave at NEASECS this past Saturday. The audience was a mixed group of 18thc scholars from various disciplines, mainly literary studies and history. Afterwards, someone asked about how we can judge the validity of internet sources, and that led to a lively discussion about learning to use new tools to evaluate new technologies. I used the example of the ways in which individuals on the internet exposed the lies and omissions of the mainstream media right after Hurricane Katrina.

I do believe everything I said, but I also feel like a proselytizer.

Have you accepted the internet into your heart, sister?

And no, it has not escaped my notice that the following is as much a blog entry as anything else. I clicked away on the featured websites as I spoke, replicating, in a half-arsed way, your experience here, should you read on.

[cross-posted to my blog].

There have been a significant number of extensive, university-based on-line projects, for a number of years now, projects like the U of A’s Orlando Project, The Brown University Women Writers Project, and Corvey Women Writers on the Web. There are also a gratifying number of commercial electronic/online projects available, like Thompson-Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

My interest today is in more personal projects: individual labours of love that increase the common wealth: the democratic, artisanal, online 18thc. There are individual homepages and weblogs. There are of course listservs, which provided many of us with our first taste of online culture. There are electronic journals. There are also larger projects: Alan Liu and Jack Lynch’s indispensable sites, while now significant concerns with funding and numbers of associates, began as individual visions. There are also an increasing number of electronic texts — online editions of books, pamphlets, and other texts — as well as electronic facsimiles. There is a whole internet out there of individuals, and in some cases classrooms, busy posting transcriptions and facsimile editions, or links pages, or weblogs that note various resources.

I couldn’t say whether these sorts of activities are more prevalent among 18thc scholars; I would suspect they are, because, well, our primary materials are generally out of copyright, luckily for us. But I think — and it may be fantasy, but bear with me — that people who study our period have a particular understanding of print culture, and print culture at a time of open-ended possibility and expansion, that makes self-publication an acceptable, a desirable, option. Not self-publication in the sense of vanity publication, but in the sense of artisanal production.

The title of this talk refers to commonplace books and coffeehouses as metaphors for understanding the phenomenon of online scholarly activity in our field.

Commonplace books involve the noting, collecting and archiving of materials.

Commonplace-book. Formerly Book of common places. orig. A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement. First usage recorded: 1578. (OED)

Wikipedia, the free, collaborative online encyclopedia, has this to say:

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) emerged in the 15th century with the availability of cheap paper for writing, mainly in England. They were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creators particular interests....
Producing a commonplace is known as commonplacing.

This congruence of two technologies, one from the Renaissance and the other from yesterday, has not escaped notice. There are a significant number of sites with the words “commonplace book” in their title or subtitle; I have identified nine with one quick search with Google. This is not to mention all the myriad blogs which fulfil similar functions: reading logs are one of the most common forms — there is even software to make it simple to offer a quick reading list, with graphics, in the sidebar of one’s weblog — as well as various other collections and catalogues of information useful perhaps only to its collector, perhaps to a wider audience. Many of these are produced by individuals for their own use, much as commonplace books were, historically. But then, commonplace books were sometimes shared, and many an internet projects that may have been originally designed as a personal repository has taken on a wider life and become engaged in the wider exchange of the web. In other words, the model, or the metaphor, of the commonplace book is no longer accurate; or, at least, it no longer tells the whole story. At the risk of dreadfully mixing metaphors, the commonplace book — an essentially private phenomenon, whether shared or not — is replaced by the coffeehouse.

Coffeehouses, as we all know, became popular in the UK in the 17thc; the first coffeehouse opened in London in 1652. They were meeting places where people came together to socialize, and to do business. According to one historian,

The patrons of the coffee-houses agreed to conform to the strict rules of the establishments.  According to the posted “Rules and Orders of the Coffee House,” all men were equal in these establishments, and none need give his place to a “Finer” man.  Anyone who swore was made to “forfeit twelve pence,” and the man who began a quarrel “shall give each man a dish t’atone the sin.” “Maudlin lovers” were forbidden “here in Corners to mourn,” for all were expected to “be brisk, and talk, but not too much,” “Sacred Things” must be excluded from conversation, and the patrons could neither “profane Scripture, nor saucily wrong Affairs of State with an irreverent tongue.” In many establishments, games of chance as well as cards were prohibited, and any wager was limited to five shillings, a sum which was to “be spent In such Good Liquor as the House doth vent."

According to Markman Ellis, “In late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century England, the coffee-house was both a symbol and a site of profound cultural transformations in English society.” I use them here to refer to the transformative sharing and interaction, the collaboration, of much of the internet. This comparison is hardly original to me; last year Henry Farrell wondered aloud if the internet is not like a coffeehouse, and two years ago Economist.com published “The internet in a cup,” to name just two instances.

An example of the type of casual collaboration common online: I posted the bare bones of a new blog designed to collect 18thc resources. Within 24 hours Sharon Howard, a historian and post-doctoral fellow in Wales, linked from her blog to the new blog, effectively sending me new readers. Then, I received an email from her telling me two of my links weren’t working. This is not quite the same as asking a friend or colleague to read a draft; she herself found my link through trackback software, visited, decided to link my fledgling blog to her well-established one, and then did me (and my potential readers) the service of checking some links and letting me know that there were problems, unasked, because of her sense, presumably, of shared project.

Another example of collaboration: the phenomenon of carnivals, such as the History Carnival and the early modern Carnivalesque, hosted periodically by one blog or another and showcasing notable posts from a variety of blogs in the preceding weeks.

I’d like to give a few brief examples of the homemade, or artisanal, internet. Sharon Howard, just mentioned, has her own site, the very useful Early Modern Resources, a clearinghouse of online resources “for researchers, teachers and students of early modern history.” It is a labour of love, perhaps not as slick as some of the larger (read, the funded) sites, but certainly as trustworthy as a conscientious historian can make it. She has grouped her links into various rough areas, such as “Women, gender, sexuality” and “Crime, Law and Disorder,” presumably for her own use, but also for the use of anyone else interested.

Of particular interest to me, and to many others I am sure, are the burgeoning numbers of etexts, and even facsimiles, to be found online. There are of course excellent commercial products, but those are not always affordable. And, such projects of necessity have to be aware of the marketplace. There are also freely available professional projects, like the NYPL digitalization of Anne Wagner’s Friendship Album. But in the true spirit of the internet as originally conceived, many individuals edit and post their own electronic editions. Here, for example, is an edition of Curiosities of Literature by Isaac D’Israeli (6 vols., 1791-1823) (HTML; PDF), a text most of us are not likely to come across otherwise. It is posted by the pseudonymous Mister Aitch at his most excellent site, Giornale Nuovo. Mister Aitch specializes in making available beautiful images of early modern engravings.

Online facsimiles, of course, are particularly valuable to researchers, from Tristram Shandy to pamphlets like “Tawny Rachel, or The Fortune Teller.” This latter was produced with Streetprint, billed as “the world’s most user-friendly free software solution for showcasing, teaching, and archiving popular print and countless other kinds of collections and artifacts online.” Streetprint is particularly exciting in that it makes the production of professional facsimiles within reach of everyone with a computer and a text to digitalize.

There are little gems tucked away in corners and niches all across cyberspace, like offerings. Freely given, as part of the exchange, the community, the democracy, the common wealth, of online scholars, researchers, and book lovers. Beyond national borders, beyond the walls of universities, people are taking control of the distribution of knowledge. Open access to information and the free dissemination of knowledge, have long been ideals in the online community; these scholars are applying the Open Access philosophy to texts, and academic knowledge.

Who are these people? Some are surely here at this conference. There are many public intellectuals online: the members of Crooked Timber, the influential group weblog, come immediately to mind, as well as individuals like literary scholar Michael Bérubé and historian Timothy Burke, both of whom have blogs. But there are also public scholars: people engaged in serious, legitimate scholarship who choose to share some of their resources online. Librarians are well-represented; perhaps the internet is an ideal place to pursue some of their own research interests. Some of these people are credentialed, some are not. To a refreshing extent, they are usually judged, online, by their web presence alone.

Of course, it is wise to remember caveat empore with anything one comes across. But then, that is also the case with traditionally published materials. (As a side-note, there is a timely discussion at the moment, on C18-L, about errors in both the new DBN, and the OED. Indeed, we would all lose much of our work if it were not for all the misguided books that need reviewing and all the texts that have never been properly edited.) If the established and the canonical are now vulnerable to assessment to a degree hitherto unknown, perhaps we can meet the artisanal half way. During her keynote address yesterday, Laurel Ulrich, in reference to material artifacts, said, “the notion that you can’t work with it because you don’t know what it is, is exaggerated.” This struck me as applicable to the scores of online productions one encounters.

Of course, on the internet, one needs to bite every coin. “Standards” certainly exist, but the individual must judge whether or not a given item adheres to them. Homemade or artisanal scholarship moves the reader away from passive consumerism, from standardization, and makes us more like the active customers (and textual producers) of our period, who of necessity had to examine all goods carefully and judge each one in its non-rationalized, artisan-produced integrity (or lack thereof). In this sense, both producer and reader are empowered; both are distanced from the commodification of intellectual culture, and assert an intellectual responsibility to remake and rework that culture.

One final example: the metaphor literalized and made concrete. The summer before last, I wrote on my blog that I was going to the UK for a conference. Another blogger, an American who works on 18thc Methodist texts, emailed that he would also be there doing research, and would I like to get together? So we did, two 18th-centuryists who had not known of each other, or of each other’s off-line work, until we encountered one another online. And where do you think we met? In London, across from the new British Library. In a Starbucks.


Comments

"I used the example of the ways in which individuals on the internet exposed the lies and omissions of the mainstream media right after Hurricane Katrina.”

I haven’t done anything with 18th c material, but have with Hurricane Katrina, and you might want to mention grey literature in addition to commonplace books and coffeehouses.

What I’ve noticed after years of having infrequent impulses to put something on a Web site is that even the most trivial-appearing source text gets used.  For example, I once typed into a Web page on my personal site the part of the Army-McCarthy hearings with the “have you no decency” quote.  Apparently it was for a while the easiest-retrieved version of the event.  I had two descendents of the people involved send me copies of their books, got regular Emails from high school students, had right-wingers send me messages defending McCarthy after Coulter’s book came out (ah, the joy of ignoring them), etc.

By on 10/02/05 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Starbucks.  I think I share your enthusiasm (if you don’t mind me calling it that, Miriam) for the ideal of a meritocratic, co-operative, fluid, global scholarly exchange based around a culture of open source and freely sharing resources.  But where do Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and the rest fit into this scheme, and how much does the corporatisation of the internet undermine the idea that it’s a good medium for open scholarly exchange?  From one point of view, anyone who publishes on the internet is working for Google, for free; and some days I’m really bothered by the way we all (myself included) default to linking back to Amazon when there’s a book we want to identify.

By on 10/03/05 at 05:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura, you are quite right. The much-vaunted democracy of the internet is grossly overstated. Which makes promoting open-source, open access, free exchange, and sane copyright laws all that more important.

And I share your angst about linking to Amazon. I stopped doing it when I heard about their financial support of the Republican party in the last U.S. federal election (I always linked to Amazon.ca, but as far as I know they are the same company), but digging up the publisher’s page for any given book is not always as easy as one would think. And if a book’s out of print, what to do? Lots of Americans link to Powells, but we have nothing comparable up here. At any rate, my pages have been Amazon free since Bush stole his second election.

Enthusiasm, eh? Well, I can hardly deny it as I just posted the proof, though the word has particular connotations in the 18thc.

By Miriam Jones on 10/03/05 at 07:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I couldn’t get into the Katrina site the first time I tried, but can now. Looking at grey literature is an excellent idea. I don’t think, however, that I will be taking this any further; it was a one-off thing for a panel on technology. And yes, I know what you mean about citations. The archaeology in these instances can be pretty interesting. And really, is the dynamic so very different than it is in print?

By Miriam Jones on 10/04/05 at 07:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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