Website Launch: The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Arte of Warre (London: s.n., 1573), Princeton University Library

Last July we reported that the Johns Hopkins University’s Sheridan Libraries, in partnership with University College London’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL), and the Princeton University Library, had been awarded a $488,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to implement “The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe.” 

They can now announce that their website is up and running. This new digital humanities research initiative is exploring historical reading practices through the lens of manuscript annotations preserved in early printed books. Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums, explains: “Renaissance readers left us a wealth of material to investigate. This kind of deep discovery work would not be possible without the combined expertise of an international team of humanists and technologists bringing a broad range of expertise together, and we look forward to sharing what they uncover with the world.”
The project builds upon several decades of humanistic research that has focused upon the Printing Revolution of the sixteenth century, and the widespread practice by active readers of leaving often dense, interpretive manuscript annotations in the margins, and between the lines, of the books they read.  This diverse evidence of annotation provides a considerable range of unique and largely untapped research materials, which reveal that readers—much as users of the internet today—adapted quickly to the technology of print: interacting intimately, dynamically, socially, and even virtually with texts. 

This body of primary source material is among the largest, least accessible, and most underutilized of original manuscript sources from the early modern period, due to the fact that they are almost entirely uncatalogued, or undercatalogued, by major research collections throughout the world.

Principal Investigator, Dr. Earle Havens, the William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries, observes:“There are so many parallels between our project, and the digital world of information that we live in today. These notes reveal a largely unvarnished history of personal reading within the early modern historical moment. They also embody an active tradition of physically mapping and personalizing knowledge upon the printed page. The added practice of referencing and cross-referencing other works in these marginal annotations also allows us, like those early readers, to engage with the presence of ‘virtual libraries’ within the space of a single book.”
The history of reading remains a rich area for research, as scholars seek to better understand these reading habits and strategies, though it has remained a particularly daunting task when conducted in a purely analog context, particularly with books that literally contain thousands of notes. By treating marginal annotations as large sets of data that can be mined and analyzed systematically in an electronic environment, the project team will create a corpus of important and representative annotated texts with searchable transcriptions and translations in order to begin to compare and fully analyze early modern reading by a number of dedicated Renaissance readers and annotators.
Over the next several years, The Archaeology of Reading team will integrate the digital humanities expertise of CELL and of the Sheridan Libraries’ Digital Research and Curation Center, as well as the collections of the Princeton University Library and other major repositories in the US, the UK, and Europe. The initial phase of the project is focusing on the transcription and translation of a select number of heavily annotated books, and the allied adaptation of the open-access Shared Canvas viewer to maximize user interaction with these complex, composite early modern texts through a publicly available website.

Consult the project website at www.archaeologyofreading.org, or www.bookwheel.org.

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