A Discussion on Documents

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.  Angela Carter

In order to feel fit to talk about How Humanists Read, I’ve been doing some thinking about what they read. Books, from the distant scrolls to the ever-changing Ebook are obviously the most commonly ‘read’ items for humanists. At some point, most of us have become so entranced by a story, be it fact or fiction, that we have felt the need to explore all the information that helped to create that story: we want to know more about the characters, the author, the world in which they live. We want to understand how things came to be the way they are, and would happily eat up every detail we can find that helps that story we love become more real, more apparent. These details, however, only sometimes occur in the form of other books; they are often texts of other kinds: maps, diaries, newspaper clippings, genealogies, photographs, drawings, or letters. All of these documents must be read in some way, interpreted in light of their surroundings, linked to sources with similar topics and from similar places.

Collecting has been one way in which humanist scholars have studied the human condition. From bookshelves and map drawers to the photo albums and boxes of letters that lines the walls of archives, collections bring together similar objects and humanists spend their lives pawing through them. It has been the librarian’s job to organize and care for these objects, making them readily accessible for humanist research. With hundreds of years of documents to peruse, there is always something to be studied, and as Angela Carter notes above, every time a text is read, it is rediscovered on the reader’s terms. Each humanist that happens upon a text brings a new set of eyes, a new background of research and new experiences to that document.

The text that got me hooked on the humanities was a set of letters between William Cecil, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. I was given the privilege of transcribing these letters by Dr. William Acres as part of a Research Assistantship while an undergraduate students at the University of Windsor. During the same summer I was a student in Dr. Acres Elizabethan History class, and for me the world of Renaissance England just became visible. All of a sudden I was completely and absolutely obsessed with everything Elizabethan. This passion took me through a MA in History where I wrote about the London Lord Mayor’s Day pageants, a topic that was introduced to me by a fabulous female who has much the same obsessions: Dr. Janelle Jenstad. From that point on, I would do my best to see any uniquely Elizabethan, and as the years went by my obsession settled more and more on London. For me, reading the past meant reading the present. I had family overseas and went every two years to see them, spending as much time as I could walking the streets of London, imagining what it would have been like 400 years ago. I searched for the Blue Plaques to trace to city’s past and went in search of exhibitions that had the same intentions. Knowing I was far from alone in my love for this city was never a bad thing; the more people that studied London and its past, the more I had to read.

What became apparent to me were the many types of ‘texts’ that could be read to absorb more about the city. Maps were always wonderful, and being able to make these maps interactive is one way that the internet has helped humanists to ‘read’ in different ways while accessing the same document. Take Janelle Jenstad’s The Map of Early Modern London project, for example. Scholars of Elizabethan London can jump from section to section of the map and find information about everything from street names to church locations.  Here, the Agas Map is the backbone to a constantly evolving project which helps to shape how scholars understand London’s unique past. It’s also great fun to compare that map with modern interactive maps of London, with their Tube stops and railway stations. By learning from maps and orienting themselves within the city, drivers of the London taxis have expanded parts of their brain – perhaps we can nurture our own by continuing to read maps in new and exciting ways.

My own research on the Lord Mayor’s Day pageants led me to England, where I searched and sorted through the texts related to this annual event to see the various ways that London was represented. At the time (a mere 4 years ago) I moved overseas so that my texts were accessible to me, and spent my time transcribing them and highlighting, recording, and deciphering every mention of the word London. Today (and perhaps even then) Digital Humanists would laugh at me… indeed, I myself wonder what I was thinking. The fact is, though, that I didn’t know any better. I never thought about plugging my texts into a computer program that would find the word “London” for me, let alone count the times it was used, track words that are most commonly used in conjunction with it or visualize these occurrences to show me change over time. The idea that this is possible is still amazing to me, and it also allows me to do the work that was once going to be a PhD thesis as a side project to a much longer study on the reading habits of humanists.

For me, it will be interesting to compile the different texts that surround the Lord Mayor’s Day Pageants into a functioning digital project. There are letters that mention the pageants as they were displayed in the London streets, drawings of the arches and costumes that were part of the day’s events, and documentation from the sponsoring guilds on what was paid for by whom. In order to bring these events to life, I will want to include every detail. However, as I’m only just dipping my toes into the digital humanities at the moment, I’ll start small. I will begin with a single text and play with as many DH tools as I can in order to ascertain the many ways in which it can be read. I’ll bring my own background to the text, my passion for London and my recently cultivated interest in all things digital. I’ll take you along with me down what will surely be a long and winding road and at the end we’ll have discovered new ways to read, new ways to write, new ways to publish and new ways to learn.