Alex Steer

Better communication through data / about / archive

Books and communities in the making

861 words | ~4 min

A year after it was published, I've just read Russell Davies's wonderful post on the lure of paper in a digitised (or digitising) age. In it he writes (of Dave Grey's Marks and Meaning):

Mr Gray was smart enough to realise two things; firstly that Lulu have made the mechanics of book-making so cheap and easy that you can move straight to the physical form of the thing as soon as you want. The best way to write a book is bundle all your notes and rough thoughts together and stick them in a book. Then carry that around, make amendments, even invite other people to do the same, until you fancy making another version. And one day, who knows there'll be a definitive 'finished' version. But maybe there never will be. The second is that, in many ways, that's a more interesting and involving thing to own than a finished book. You're getting an object, but you're also getting into a little community.

This stirred a half-forgotten recognition. Around the middle of the last decade, before I was a planner, before I was even specifically a linguist, I was a graduate student in the English Faculty at Cambridge, writing an MPhil thesis on the production and use of medieval books. Yes, really. Since it's a pretty tiny field, I'd guess there aren't many planners who have a training in historical bibliography (the analysis and description of old books and manuscripts) or book history (the study of book production and use in its historical contexts). That said, if you are a planner and you know your way round a short-title catalogue, or think of M. R. James as the author of the Oxford and Cambridge manuscript catalogues rather than of ghost stories, give me a shout.

I mention this because to a book historian Russell's insight about books and communities feels like a rediscovery as much as a revelation (though it's also that). Modern readers tend to think of medieval manuscripts as beautiful and pristine objects kept behind glass. That's because most of the ones we see are beautiful, pristine and kept behind glass. To a modern book historian, though, what's striking about the majority of manuscript books (not the museum pieces) is how scrappy they are. Manuscripts are like the best inventions, as Russell illustrates in the first part of his post:

  • blurry;
  • interesting;
  • useful;
  • always in beta.

They are perpetually unfinished, always under revision, often covered in corrections, bound and rebound and often with pages missing from rough treatment. Before the fifteenth century there were no printing presses, let alone print-on-demand services, and even plain books were correspondingly expensive and time-consuming to produce. They were passed around and passed down. As they moved from owner to owner they would accrue extra pages, sets of leaves (known as quires) which could easily be sewn onto the end of the existing book and covered with more reading matter. In other words, they were blurry, and always in beta.

The compendious manuscript on which I ended up writing my MPhil thesis (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108) started out its life, probably in the late 13th century, as a collection of saints lives written by a single scribe, with a couple of extra poems (both on hell, troublingly) tacked onto the end to fill a leftover sheet. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, though, more pages and more texts were added to it by subsequent readers who decided to make themselves writers: a couple of romances, some more saints' lives, some lines of verse. On at least one occasion the manuscript fell apart and was rebound, not entirely in the right order. All of these additions and repairs - the things that made the manuscript blurry - were done because it remained interesting and useful.

Just as importantly, and just as relevantly to the trend Russell identifies, the book was thought worth adding to: not a museum piece, but a collaboration. In other words, creative collaboration and the always-beta project are not new developments, just rediscoveries. The medieval period in England and Western Europe was the high point of intellectual recycling. As modern readers we are blind to most of the literature of the period because we tend to ignore rehashes, rewrites, translations, commentaries, glossaries and annotations, but to their authors re-working was not a cop-out but an important social function: taking what was good, and making it better, rather than becoming too hung up on magnum opuses (okay, magna opera) and finished products.

If some of that community spirit is finding itself again in collaborative projects which happen to use new media rather than very, very old ones, that's no bad thing.

# Alex Steer (06/01/2010)