Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Real Books and Magic Books

Better on a screen? An illuminated 15C Bible from Malmesbury Abbey.
Photo by Adrian Pingstone

I caught my first sight of a Kindle this week, over somebody’s shoulder on a train. In its black leather (or mock leather?) case, it initially looked like a travel document pouch. When I realised what it was, I craned across the train aisle rather indiscreetly. Would it hurt my eyes to read this for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours, or had technology cracked this problem? Was this an exclusive, paradigm-shifting glimpse into the future, the equivalent of being taken into a smug 15C cleric’s library and shown a printed book fresh from the presses of Peter Schoeffer or Georg Stuchs? (Important new technology brand names too, in their day…)

A few months ago, the British Library was conducting internal research on the needs of its users and I agreed to participate via telephone interview. The principal question was seemingly straightforward: If you needed to look at a 16C book, and there was a digital copy on-line and an original in the British Library, would you come all the way to London to look at the latter? In the usual historian’s way, I ummed and aahhed and said it depended. If I wanted to check something very simple, like a date of publication, then the online version would do. But if I were really studying and writing about, say, an anti-Lutheran polemic from 1524 by a Polish bishop, I’d certainly want to see the original if it was in the UK. Justifying this seemingly irrational position to the interviewer was easy on one level - there is a big intellectual trend in Renaissance research to treat the book not just as a disembodied text, but as a material artefact. Its size, weight, texture of the covers etc. are important evidence too, and better gauged through an encounter with a ‘real’ peculiar-smelling original book rather than with its clean and disembodied electronic cousin.

But there was also something else, which I rather struggled to communicate to the BL interviewer. Many historians feel a very strong need to be in the physical presence of the books, manuscripts, letters etc. they study. This isn’t just a self-indulgent desire to take delight in the age and rarity of our sources, enjoying our exclusive access to them – not just the connoisseur’s frisson of pleasure in holding, say, an illuminated tract on astrology produced for Henry VII’s doomed son Arthur. Writing about the past requires an effort of imagination, and that doesn’t in any way detract from its intellectual rigour. It’s much easier to imagine, think, analyse and see new things if your access to the past is unmediated via a screen, and bright fonts, and dialogue boxes.

It does feel like magic to click on the mouse in my Somerville room, and see rare 16C printed books opening up on the screen, and this is transforming and massively accelerating the way we do research. If that becomes a substitute for handling and thinking with the original physical books in front of us (good though that would be for the conservation of the poor books themselves), I think we would lose something precious but rather intangible in the process. Which is also what many consumers say when faced with the wizardry of the Kindle – they prefer to hold a real book in their hands. Whether this is a irrational, wrong-headed, Luddite resistance to a new technology, or people putting their finger on something genuinely hollow in the heart of the Kindle and its virtual 16C friends, we will of course have to wait and see.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Human Error

In the past week, I’ve been engaged in one of the things I like least about academic writing (although I’m sure I’m not meant to admit it) – laboriously checking every fact, statement and reference in an article that I’m about to send off to a journal. It’s the end-game: after months, and maybe years, of reading, thinking, analysing, writing, redrafting and redrafting again the very last thing we’re meant to do before unveiling our research to the wider world is to check that all the nuts and bolts are in the right place – or, put more bluntly, that what we’re saying is error-free. So this means double-checking every date against some reputable source, and in particular going through every footnote, using library catalogues to check you’ve got the details of the publication right, your own notes to ensure that the book/piece you’re citing does indeed say what you thought it did when you devised your own arguments, and returning to originals where necessary.

The messy reality - a double-checking check list.

Done properly, this is hugely time-consuming and extraordinarily dull, involving not only hours in front of a screen staring at footnotes in 10 point font, but bitty trips to libraries to check a page number here, the spelling of a 16C surname there. Meticulous double checking of every single detail really is the pedantic end of academia. But it’s important because it’s also the intellectual bedrock of what we do as historians, as it anchors our work to the known ‘facts’, both major and obscure. It gives us whatever credibility we have.

The more I write, the more I realise just how many tiny slips creep into a text unnoticed as you work with it, like a file slowly corrupting itself. I’ve also realised that different academic cultures regard those tiny slips in different ways. In the English-speaking world,  it seems to me, it is assumed you’ve done all you can to check the accuracy of your information and references, but fellow scholars are mostly sanguine about the fact that any piece of research, no matter how exhaustively checked by how many people, will still have some small mistakes left in it. In certain European academic cultures, by contrast, where history is still regarded as a science, error remains a disgrace: 100%, infallible technical and typographic accuracy is the basic expectation of any academic. Reviews of history books in some countries frequently consist of nothing more than a list of the minor errors the reviewer has gleefully identified, and publicly castigates the wretched author for, regardless of the wider value and achievements of the work itself. Like some of the more pragmatic 16C religious reformers who grappled with expunging sin from their communities, I think the 100% error-free article is a lofty, almost transcendental thing to aspire to, but in the meantime we have to accept gracefully  the messy reality of human error.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Space to Think

A very good space - the British Libary at Saint Pancras
Photo by Stephen McKay, some rights reserved

This week, for the first time in many months, I worked in London’s British Library. Although the building, designed in the 1970s but finally opened in 1998, is rather controversial I’ve always been a big fan. I’m impressed by the way the Library’s modern red brick clock-tower echoes the neo-gothic spires of the neighbouring St. Pancras Hotel; I love the way that the Library’s founding collection, King George III’s books, is symbolically preserved in its own glass tower in the heart of the building; but above all the cavernous Humanities One reading room is one of my favourite places to work.

What makes a library inspiring is not altogether straightforward. Simple physical comfort is one factor – big tick for the armchair-style seats of the British Library and the art deco New Bodleian Building. Lots of light is another – the Rare Books Room in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow is one of the best-lit rooms in that rather dim interwar monolith, and giant pot plants lovingly tended by the curators grow trifid-like around the desks and windows, as people quietly read incunabula. Good cafes to sit, and drink tea, and think, are also a big bonus. There is a spectacular research library café in the courtyard shared by the Vatican Archive and Vatican Library. This café (which some claim is constructed over a nuclear bunker) is built inside a Renaissance fountain, a giant shell-shaped sculpture with a modern glass frontage.

But I think the libraries I’m most attracted to (perhaps no coincidence for a historian who writes mainly on religion) seem to be those which feel most like ecclesiastical structures, buildings with very high ceilings, and a quiet but portentous sense of space, and interesting things to see if you look up. The Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (where Oxford historians tend to congregate) has a real sense of space, and a wall frieze of famous scholars from Plato onwards to inspire or intimidate the reader. Lincoln College library, a converted 18C church with possible Hawksmoor touches, has fantastically high ceilings, with crisp plasterwork and candelabras. But I think the British Library’s Humanities One has the highest ceilings of all – it’s simply a vast, extravagant indoor space, like sitting in the hull of a very bright ship. When the high-brow television channel BBC 4 was launched, its advertising slogan was ‘everybody needs a space to think’. Perhaps that’s true in a more literal way than the BBC realised.