Huntington Library Treasures

Mark Hailwood

Days before I boarded a plane to Los Angeles to spend my summer as a research fellow here at the Huntington Library, I came across this article in the Times Higher Education supplement. Needless to say, the following quote only added to my sense of anticipation: ‘One of my friends said that if she died and went to Heaven, she would expect St Peter to ask for her Huntington reader’s card at the pearly gates.’ Six weeks later, and I can see where she was coming from.

But there was something else from that article that I carried with me across the Atlantic – a question mark about the relative merits of (cheap, easy and efficient) access to digitised primary sources on one hand, and to (often expensive, labour intensive and time-consuming) hands-on access to original materials on the other. The article echoed a sentiment I have often heard expressed at an academic conference or seminar series: historical research may be a lot easier today due to advances in digital technology, but as a result something valuable has undoubtedly been lost. But what?

Too often, the arguments deployed here reach for an intangible, almost mystical quality to doing good old-fashioned grubbing in dusty archives. That handling original sources is somehow more righteous; it allows us to ‘get a better feel’ for our sources; in some way by touching centuries old parchment we can almost touch the past itself. I often find myself thinking in these ways after a day in the archives, but as a historian who is trained to judge arguments in a detached and ‘rational’ manner, I have to admit that they don’t add up to a very concrete or convincing case. As a historian that has done a reasonable amount of work on both digitised print material, and on fusty manuscript legal records, I can’t honestly put my finger on a tangible difference in the quality of research I produce from each. Even if exploring one does contain a greater sense of adventure than the other.

It was with this jumble of thoughts on my mind that I bunked off from the library for a few hours to take a look at a new exhibition of ‘Huntington Treasures’. It’s hard to imagine a more star-studded collection of early modern books together in one place: an original Gutenberg Bible, which was the first major book produced on a printing press anywhere in the world; the Ellesmere Chaucer, one of the earliest collections of the Canterbury Tales produced around the turn of the 15th century; a first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays from 1623; first editions of works by Hobbes, Locke, Ben Jonson… I could go on. I was, of course, appropriately impressed

There was something exhilarating about seeing original editions of these landmark texts, but I wasn’t prepared to let that steamroller my lingering uncertainty about the innate superiority of consulting originals over reproductions. What as a historian had I really gained from seeing these texts up close and personal? I wasn’t convinced that it brought me any closer to how contemporaries would have connected with these works: venerated in an exhibition hall, in a glass case, as a ‘treasure’ rather than as reading material. There were aspects of the ‘materiality’ of these books that could provide more tangible insights for the historian to take away: the sheer size of a Gutenberg or King James bible meant that reading it would have required some supporting apparatus, whereas a single sheet broadside ballad could be read on the move or in any position (think hefty hard-back versus kindle, perhaps). The act of reading one or the other would have been very physically different, and would have therefore been experienced, approached and understood as a distinct type of reading activity. Sure, but I didn’t really need to travel 5000 miles to see the originals to figure that out.

I am, admittedly, trying to be provocative here. I wouldn’t disagree that there is value in consulting original materials rather than relying exclusively on digital reproductions. That said, I do think that historians should be asking themselves to come up with far more rigorous explanations as to why that’s true.

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10 thoughts on “Huntington Library Treasures

  1. Pingback: On the merits of dust | the many-headed monster

  2. Wow, what a collection that have up there at Huntingdon HQ! For me personally, the whole argument between consulting the original and the printed version seems to be a rather bitter issue. Some academics seem to be quite furious at the thought that the next up-and-coming breed of historians are able to do in 2 weeks what it took them to achieve in 2 years. What’s more, while other academic disciplines move with the times, there seems to be an attitude that they way in which people research and teach history should not change in light of such a fantastic digital infrastructure, which is a shame.

    I can only really see two main benefits for consulting an original collection to a printed one – the first, as you say Mark, is this material angle. All those scribbles, pointing fingers, underlinings and strike throughs that clerks made in their quarter sessions books (for example) are often informative and useful, but do not often make their way into the transcribed and then digitised versions. The second advantage, though, is that incidental stumbling across a source which you get from turning one page to the next, and that you might not have otherwise discovered in a digitised version using keyword searching. Don’t get me wrong, I think keyword searching is an absolutely fantastic way that allows experts and amateurs to often get straight to what they want, and avoid some of the physical barriers to accessing material which is often complicated, completely bemusing, and typically unfit for production anyway. That said, keyword searching can’t replace the methodological demands for situating that keyword in its proper context, but this is a question to be asked of the reader and not the source base. Obviously, this issue wouldn’t apply in the same way if you were consulting the original 1455 Gutenberg Bible and then the exact digitised copy of it. So maybe the issue is more, then, that we need to be more critical of the types of research we do using digital sources, rather than digital history as a whole.

    • Thanks for this Matt. I think you raise an important point about the ‘need to be more critical of the types of research we do using digital sources, rather than digital history as a whole’. There is a tendency in these debates to characterise research based on digital sources as simply keyword searching, and then to point out the (important) limitations with such a methodology.

      I certainly do use keyword searches when I use digital resources, but that isn’t all I do. In fact, I tend to treat a digital source-base like I would an archival one in many ways: looking at examples and cases that are not (obviously) directly relevant to what I’m researching; browsing through samples of the different types of material in the collection; or looking at all the records for a given year or in a certain category, to get a more comprehensive sense of what is in the collection and to help set what I am using in its proper context. And sometimes, this way, I stumble across useful material that a keyword search would have missed. Of course, some digital collections may be better suited than others for this, but I tend to think that this is more about the way we approach and use digital sources than a problem necessarily inherent in those sources. themselves.

  3. At his own blog, Christopher Thompson comments:

    Mark Hailwood has been reflecting on the balance of advantages between examining original documents in person and in digital format here. His comments have been prompted by his experience as a Research Fellow at The Huntington Library and the inspiration of a recent exhibition. I certainly take his point about the difficulty of distinguishing between information gained from personal inspection of a book printed long ago or of an original document and that to be derived from studying such sources on-line. Much of my own work has been done on-line in recent years. However, I do remain attached to studying manuscripts and books in their original formats if only because of the opportunities that work in the British Library or the National Archives or the Bodleian Library or the Cambridge University Library afford. There are usually scholars working in the same period or in adjoining fields to meet, discussions to be had over coffee or lunch, disagreements to be opened or resolved. I am sure that this is a positive process, one that, to my own knowledge, takes place in Footnotes in The Huntington as productively as elsewhere. We may all be using sources on-line much more nowadays but not, I hope, to the exclusion of those research trips that offer such exciting and useful encounters.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this Christopher.

      I couldn’t agree more that face-to-face scholarly exchange is one of the great benefits of conducting research at an institution rather than online. Indeed, even if I was not making use of their manuscript holdings I could happily spend my summers at The Huntington writing (or even working from online resources), to take advantage of those references traded at the coffee cart, and those eureka moments prompted by a conversation at lunch. It would indeed be a shame if digitisation reduced such opportunities.

      That said, I don’t think digital technology is making us more isolated as scholars. I have also had lots of fruitful exchanges through blogs and online research networks this summer (albeit not in quite as glorious surroundings as the Huntington gardens!)

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  6. On his own blog, the Molinist, Matthew SG comments:

    That’s certainly an interesting discussion. I certainly appreciate the drawbacks of digitisation when it comes to considerations of physicality and, especially, when the source being digitised is itself a copy or reproduction. Your discussion also raised some excellent points about how the biasing toward/privileging of richer, more centrally located, larger, etcetera archives is, for the time being at least, being reinforced by the correlation of those factors (particularly money) with digitisation. However, I tend to be dismissive of the ‘something intangible’ argument. It always smacks to me of that fallacy so beautifully illustrated by Stephen Marches argument regarding the loss of the research trip to the Bodleian, or, as he described it, ‘the mother library in the mother country.’

  7. Pingback: Richard Blakemore, ‘Finding fragments – the past and the future’ | the many-headed monster

  8. Pingback: Matthew Jackson, ‘Relocating History From Below: Places, Spaces and Databases’ | the many-headed monster

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