Friday, February 28, 2014

Exploring reference tools

After reading 50 memos about acquiring, retaining, or discarding reference tools, I was struck by the small number of reference tools the class, as a whole, decided to consider. The most common recommendations to keep or acquire were ESTC, EEBO, 19th STC, Evans, and Sabin. A few tackled NUC and NUCMC (National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections) and even CCE (the Copyright Catalogue). A few of you considered bibliographic reference tools like Harner's Literary Research or American Periodical Index. 

Here's what concerns me. There were few variations in what was selected. Was that because I mentioned the reference tools in my lectures? or suggested you practice them? If that's the case, then are you looking at rare book reference tools that are in your libraries? on your reference shelves? 

If you want to be effective librarians in a special collection / rare book library, you need to explore all the various reference tools at your disposal, print, microfilm, and digital; obscure, common, and  unusual.  Take 10-15 minutes every day to learn about a database or index. In the case of print tools, look at the forward, preface, and introduction. Study the end sheets and examples. Take a look at the various sections of the book, the index, the entries. How is it arranged? What is the date range for the entries? Take your time, look something up in the book.

For digital and online reference tools, look at the help screens,  try some practice exercises, and think about how each database searches for information. Are there Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT, ADJ) ? Start with subjects you know and work through the databases then more on to other subjects. Use the technique for this class - work through EEBO, ESTC, ISTC ECCO - think about how the databases are different and
similar, what searching features are there and what do the results look like. The more reference tools you explore, the more bibliographies and indices you examine (in various languages), the more comfortable and fluent you will become with rare book reference resources. 

Learn a new reference tool every day (a skill that you will be required to do as a new professional) and you'll be on your way to being a good reference librarian.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Where we read makes a difference

As a lifelong reader and learner, I've come to recognize that where we read is important. After I graduated college, I lived in NYC and rode the subway everyday. It was crowded and noisy, but it was my undivided, uninterrupted time when I could delve into a complex subject and read until my stop (at least 30-50 minutes at a time). When I moved to South Dakota, one of the things I missed was my commute and time to read on the subway. Now I had to carve time out to read on the couch. When I moved to Ohio, I drove a lot and began to listen to audiobooks. I found the experience different from reading with my eyes. Of course, I was only distracted by traffic and weather. In each instance, the environment where I read played a big factor in how I experienced the book. Strangely enough, I have problems disappearing into a digital text.

As we begin to study the history of the book in earnest, we need to consider how our interaction with text, story, and books has changed over time. When literature was oral, story tellers traveled to cities and towns telling tales, exchanging stories with others, and learning or making up new songs and stories. As the stories evolved, the kernels of the tale remained the same, and perhaps the lessons or morals (think Aesop). In each place, the listener interacted with the teller and the stories were passed down from one generation to the next, changing with language, custom, and time. When the stories were written down, they ceased changing as much. The story was then read by the story teller who perhaps listened within his head, or if read out loud, the audience heard the words.  

If we take a step away from author / teller and listener / reader, we realize that the story is heard many different ways by each person who hears or reads the tale. If distracted, perhaps the story is only partially absorbed. If focused, many questions may arise. As the story is experienced over and over, then the reader / listener gains more insight into the tale, history, genealogy, family lore, or event. 

Listening and reading are just different ways to experience the same tale, they require different routines or muscles to interact with the story teller. Place also changes the experience. Consider reading a tale about explorers while you are hiking a trail or driving a rural road. That experience is very different from being an armchair explorer, safe and warm in your own house. 

Take the time to read a book slowly, ravenously, deliciously, and even ponderously. Listen to different narrators, see a play, watch a movie, and read the book. How do the stories and experiences differ. Now consider how our ancestors interacted with the story teller. In the end, the interaction is the same.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The evolution of books

As I was reading older issues of Atlantic Monthly, I came across this interesting article by Alan Jacobs called "How Books Learn" (July 2012)   In his article, Jacobs ruminates about the evolution of books. He perceives of books ranging from ever evolving and maturing oral poems and histories by Homer to those written down by Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and most every author you can think of. Then he turns his thoughts to the formats of books from scrolls and beautifully bound and decorated medieval manuscripts to artists' books that are all about the form and not the content. Here's a link to the Five Colleges' Artists' Books site

Here are some pages from a curious Italian book made of cut images to form an ever changing story or play. The pages  tell different stories depending upon how you adjust the pages. 


Over the next few months we will explore the evolution of the book from scroll to codex, from poetry, plays, speeches, philosophy, and histories to religious commentaries, more philosophy, science, and literature. While the content within the pages ties the work together, the structure of the text, the pages of type, the quires, thread, and boards bind the content to the covers and makes the work portable. In this electronic age, it is the digital bits which represent the ideas of the author that are gathered together and then made available in some format readable through an e-reader, browser, or screen. 

When I think about the evolution of the book, such a provocative and contentious concept, I consider both the text and its structural parts. Words and ideas are combined on a page together with images, all wrapped into a cover or binding. Today the question and practice of studying the evolution of the book centers around two things, the contents and its packaging. Contents, that is what is composed by authors and presented to readers is ever evolving reflecting the reading interests of that generation. The structure, the method of accessing the contents is what is currently evolving from physical pages to digital images. So far, the shift is from tangible to intangible, from physical to digital facsimile. We still read from front to back, for the most part, and rarely jump around unless we follow those distracting hypertext links, curious notes and appendices, illustrations, maps, and whatever else steers us away from the main text.

What's the next step for the book along this evolutionary ladder? My crystal ball is still cloudy. What do you think?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Type, Fonts, and Punctuation

This week, our third in the exploration of the history of the book, typefaces and punctuation are most intriguing. You've grappled with ideas of how letter shapes change over time. The evolution of the letter form continues from those shaped and rounded with a stylus or pen to those seen on the computer screen. Here's something to consider. How does the font the book designer selected change your experience with the book or the text itself?

For those of you with e-readers, take some time to change the typeface. Switch back and forth between letters with serifs and to  those without. If you read about the psychology of letter shapes, those with serifs are more formal. The serif connects the letters together so you read in a swath.
Text composed with san serif fonts are read a letter at a time. The reading goes more slowly and is choppier. San serif is great for advertisements, not philosophical disputations. 

Punctuation has also evolved and is varied depending upon time period, language, and culture. Greek used a dot or period for a pause in text, the colon :  as a full stop. Latin does the same. Modern Hebrew really only uses periods. Biblical Hebrew uses a colon, sometimes.   Some European language, French I believe uses  double angle brackets (diple)  instead of quotation marks, at least in older type set books. 

I've introduced the blog I love Typography to you.  Here's a nice article on their site called "The Origins of ABC"
I find fonts and punctuation fascinating to ponder. The literature is endless and the study is similar to the etymology and linguistics. There's a wonderful scholarly book by M.B. Parkes called "Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West" (University of California Press, 1993). While the book is out of my price range, you might look at a copy in the library.

If you are interested in letter shapes, you could read Simon Loxley's  Type: The Secret History of Letters(NY: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

My favorite book about letters when I was growing up was by Oscar Ogg "The 26 Letters". Now out of print, the text describes how letters evolved, how the shapes are formed in different languages, and how they change over time.