back to the future book: the more things change, the more they stay the same

cat books

Alright, bear with me on the cheesy title for this post. In all seriousness, I think this cliché accurately sums up how books and bookish things have progressed throughout the ages. To this end, what I would suggest to someone in the past about the future of books and reading is that ‘the book’ will not only persist, but it will do so with remarkable similarities to books that past citizens of time have known, understood, and loved. When considering how ‘books’ have evolved, from cuneiform tablets, to papyrus scrolls, wax tablets, bound codices, pulp paperbacks, and right up to audio books, the Internet, and digital e-books, what is remarkable is not the degree of change, but the degree of similarity. What we’re dealing with here are differences in degree, not in kind.

In a world where immense changes and developments have been made in areas such as science, technology, medicine, transportation, and the like, it is pretty incredible to think that books, for the most part, look quite similar to their nearly five-hundred year old counterparts. Take for example, the fact that the codex form has persisted, despite death knells for the ‘end of the book’ tracing back over a hundred years. Octave Uzanne, in his 1894 “The End of Books,” foretold, “If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products” (223-224). Even his prophecy of “phonographic literature,” realized in the audio book, did not prove to do away with the printed codex entirely. New technologies such as e-books, widely presumed to be the book’s successor, are inextricably caught up in the look and feel of printed books, as Johanna Drucker puts it, “electronic presentations often mimic the kitschiest elements of book iconography, while potentially useful features of electronic functionality are excluded” (2009, 166).

What can account for this lack of dissimilarity? I wonder if it comes down to something Drucker mentions about the difference between “the way a book looks” and “the ways a book works;” she writes, “think of the contrast between the literal book – that familiar icon of bound pages in finite, fixed sequence – and the phenomenal book – the complex production of meaning and effect that arises from dynamic interaction with the literal work” (2009, 169). Certainly changes in technology have meant differences in how we interact with words – whether on a page, a screen, through a hyperlink…all of these things have changed our reading experience. Yet, with only a difference in degree, perhaps the story of the book over the last few hundred years has been a narrative of continuity, and not change? Despite Andrew Piper’s assertion that digital reading may not in fact be ‘reading’ at all, but something entirely new (2012, 46) – it seems that many of our traditional ways of being with books and bookish things still apply.

As for the future of the book, Robert Coupland Harding wrote in 1894: “Will moveable types still remain? We think they will. Steam and devil-driven though the world may be now – dazzled by electric light and thrilled by galvanic motors as it will be in years to come – there must still remain classes of work that no mechanism can perform” (85). In some ways, Harding’s statement still stands true. In this hybrid reading environment, with print and digital co-existing, it would seem that the ‘work’ of reading can still occupy a decidedly traditional space, while it changes, morphs, and adapts. Umberto Eco, in This is Not the End of the Book, writes of the future, “One of two things will happen: either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations of the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon” (2011, 4).

I would agree wholeheartedly, and yet, I don’t think that with regards to bookish pursuits we are entirely in the clear. The Economist’s essay on the future of the book, “From Papyrus to Pixels,” notes that, “In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage” (2014). To this I would add, libraries. Not to get all doom and gloom here, but library cuts and closures are about as close to the ‘death of the book’ as we’re coming – Leah Price notes, “Writers foresaw space travel, time travel, virtual reality and, endlessly, the book’s demise; what they never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear” (2012). In 1955, Lester Asheim wrote that, “The library of today is still essentially a book agency, and our training, practice, and outlook are book-oriented. The library of the future may or may not be primarily a book agency. If it is not, those of us who limit our attention to the book may find our libraries, if not completely discarded, at least relegated to a position of considerably reduced importance and vitality. On the other hand, if the library of the future should continue to be a book agency, it will be an effective one, not through our blindly devoting ourselves to the service of books in and for themselves, but because as librarians we will have analyzed and understood the unique role of the book which qualifies it to serve new and developing needs” (282). For once, a projection we should take heed of. So, I guess if I were to go back in time and give a warning about the future it would be this – forget about the death of the book, it will be just fine, but direct your attention to the library instead. Maybe it has been a bit of hubris that lead to a denial that libraries could ever disappear – whatever the case, it seems that libraries might do well to consider a difference in kind (to their collections, their services, their outlook) in order to survive (and thrive) into the future.


Asheim, Lester. (1955). New problems in plotting the future of the book. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 25 (4): 281-292.

Drucker, Johanna. (2009). Modelling functionality: From codex to e-book. In SpecLab: Digital aesthetics and projects in speculative computing. (pp. 165-175). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eco, Umberto and Jean-Claude Carrière. (2011). This is not the end of the book. London: Harvill Secker.

“From Papyrus to Pixels.” (2014). The Economist.

Harding, Robert Coupland. (1894). A hundred years hence. Typo, 8: 85.

Piper, Andrew. (2012). Turning the page (roaming, zooming, streaming). In Book was there: Reading in electronic times (pp. 45-61). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Price, Leah. (2012). Dead again. The New York Times.

Uzanne, Octave. (1894). The end of books. Scribner’s Magazine, 16 (2): 221-232.;cc=scri;rgn=full%20text;idno=scri0016-2;didno=scri0016-2;view=image;seq=0229;node=scri0016-2%3A9.


digital content, ownership, and the dying art of photo albums

text message book

I struggled a bit with how to answer this week’s question, as I have very little experience with ‘ownership’ in the digital sense – most of what I acquire and interact with (whether video games, audio material, video files, bookish things) are still very physical, tangible things. I haven’t had (although have heard of) the funny (and troubling) experience of having an e-book disappear from an e-reader, or not having access to something posted on a work website after the fact. I guess one example would be the issue of who ‘owns’ digital content posted to social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and all of the accompanying privacy issues. Still, I would like to focus on a different sort of ownership dilemma in this digital age. I visited family this Easter weekend, and while doing so, browsed a large number of family photo albums. I was reminded of the joys of days when pictures were taken, developed, and then (if someone was dedicated enough), curated and preserved in albums. This became a topic of discussion with my relatives – including all that we seem to have lost in the age of digital photography, where most of the time, pictures amass on smart phones, or rest disorganized in computer folders, never to be seen again. Even the act of ‘browsing’ digital photos on the computer (which I have been known to do during bouts of nostalgia) does not evoke the same feelings as the joy of perusing lovingly created physical photo albums. So, what does this mean for our ‘ownership’ of these aspects of our lives?

I also overheard this weekend that retailers will no longer be selling Fujifilm for instant cameras (; Even with the slim (and expensive) mainstream film offerings, the disappearance of any place to print digital photos (apart from Walmarts or Superstores – and even then at a huge cost) has meant that for the most part, digital collections remain indefinitely digital. With a wedding coming up in four months, this is something that my partner and I have discussed – it is hugely important for us to have physical, bound copies of our wedding photos (to be held, shared, leafed through, and looked back upon).

One of the other albums that I browsed through is a collection of letters between my grandparents. Looking at this beautifully preserved piece of family history, I was reminded of a couple articles I came across earlier this year about couples and families having their text message and email threads printed and bound into physical books for preservation ( (for more examples of this check out platforms such as Memeoirs, Blurb, and txt-book). Looking at the album, it really struck me what has been lost (again) with the decline of paper letters – there were certain protocol I noticed (like peculiarities about addressing, adding the time and date) and generally the pace of letter correspondence. I remember laughing when I thought about an entire text message thread being printed and returned to in the same way. In the context of a relationship, this could include everything from the most intimate moments, to the most mundane (“Don’t forget to pick up cat litter.” – no, seriously). While you might argue that the same could be said of letters, I think we are in fact dealing with a different beast here. Perhaps there is an equal benefit to having these more ephemeral interactions preserved, so that one day our grandchildren can look back on them and observe (and laugh).

So, where I am going with this? I guess all of this made me consider what ‘ownership’ looks like in the long run in this digital age. While we may still ‘own’ (although even this is debatable) the content of our phones and computers, what happens to all of the stuff of our lives that rests in them? Even with the advent of a return to printed goods (those books are just one example, think items personalized with Instagram photos –, or a return to a Polaroid-like effect with smartphones – these still seem to be a niche market, and relatively small scale. This makes me wonder – even if we own these now, what will happen as forms of technology shift and become obsolete? Will we own this content five years down the line? Ten? Fifty? How many computer migrations will these digital files survive? To be honest, whenever I think about this I have a crazy urge to shell out the likely hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars it might cost to have each and every one of my photos printed – even if they never make it into albums, just having them all in a box somewhere would make me feel better – to have them somewhere, anywhere. To me, this form of digital ownership is a particularly frightening (and close to home) one. Browsing through these albums with my partner I couldn’t help but say, “what will our children have to look at?” While you won’t see me running out to print off every text we’ve ever sent (yet), part of me wishes that I had an answer to this question. Before you think this is some kind of sentimental, ‘think of the children’, nostalgia-driven paranoia, I really do feel there is something here about the future of our personal books (scrapbooks, photo albums, letter albums) and how digital forms of interacting and recording meaning are disrupting things like ownership, memory, and dare I say it, our history in the making.


BBC News. (14 February 2014). Man gives girlfriend 240-page book of text messages.


CBC News. (22 March 2016). Save instant photos: Toronto photographer mourns coming end of Polaroids.

Drell, Lauren. (03 March 2012). 13 Products You Can Make From Your Instagram Snapshots. Mashable.


Polaroid Zip Instant Mobile Printer. Apple.


Zhang, Michael. (29 February 2016). Fujifilm is putting an end to its FP-100C Peel-Apart instant film. PetaPixel.



Pay no attention to the hand inside the book – digitization, labour, and the troubling implications of Google hands

The Wizard of Oz revealed. Found at:

In order to balance out the length of last week’s post, I’m going to keep this one fairly brief. I have very much enjoyed the serendipitous nature of how my paper topic has unfolded – informed and pushed along by my research into last week’s blog post as well as discussions around it. I have decided to use the appearance of Google book scanners’ hands in digitized copies of Google books as a jumping off point to consider the invisible labour of digitization work (the title of this post is my working title so far). I will also be considering the response to, in particular Google’s mistakes, in which the human effort of digitization is accidentally made visible; I will be looking into the sort of forensic work done by those who hunt down these mistakes, and then compile and display them (either on blogs, as artwork, or in printed publications). I am interested in what this means with regards to the relationship between the human and the digital, and how accidents in digitized books can reveal the manipulations of their creation.

To be supporting my exploration, I will look into firsthand examples of images including book scanners’ hands, blogs, books, and art projects that recapture and disseminate them, as well as responses to the issue in the popular media (you can see most of these sources in my reference list for last week’s post). I will be using theoretical readings from this course to comment on the implications of these digitizing mistakes (such as Trettien’s exploration of print on demand books and Mak’s investigation of Early English Books Online (EEBO)).

I have also taken out some fascinating books from the Inforum including Digital Labour and Karl Marx by Christian Fuchs, Digitize this Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now by Gary Hall – and relating to Google specifically, From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts by Peter L. Shillingsburg, Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know by Randall Stross, and The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) by Siva Vaidhyanathan.

If you guys have any thoughts/comments/sources you would like to direct my way, I would be glad to hear them!

the ghostly disruption of Google hands


A couple weeks ago I briefly mentioned the issue of ghostly Google book scanners’ hands appearing in digitized versions of Google’s books. I think this is a great opportunity to delve further into a complex example of content and container merging, or perhaps more appropriately, colliding. In this case, Google’s attempts to seamlessly reproduce, for free, ‘the most comprehensive index of full-text books’ is being disrupted, and in quite revealing ways.

Reactions to the hands have been fascinating – they have been called ‘disturbing’, ‘creepy’, and ‘eery’ (Goldsmith, 2013; Marshall, 2014). Some have felt that the hot pink ‘finger condoms’ are the most jarring aspect of the images (Moore, 2009). There is a feeling of disembodiment here – one blogger, Phil Patton, likened finding the hand obscuring the page with disgust: “The suddenness of its appearance suggested scanning as an unclean process; I thought with horror of the guy who found a finger in his bowl of fast food chili.” (in Moore, 2009). This notion of ‘cleanliness’, or the assumed mechanized process of digitizing books, shows another side to these reactions – they inadvertently reveal much about public opinion regarding the digitization of books and issues of authenticity. A BuzzFeed article titled “21 Google Book Scans That Bring Surprising Intimacy To The Digital Book World” hints at the obfuscation of the very human work that goes into digitization projects (human, and therefore, prone to error).

The sheer volume of books being scanned has been to blame for the many “glitches, not least the scattering of pink fingers” (Moore, 2009). One Wired article reproduced a photo of a worker’s hand with the caption, “Overworking your book-scanning crew much, Google?” (Beschizza, 2007). Another blog coined the phenomenon as ‘finger spam’ and “called on Google to ensure its scanning is more reliable if it wants to make money from on-demand publishing” (Moore, 2009). Whitney Anne Trettien has pointed out of annotations in print-on-demand books that, “the history promised by this POD facsimile remains inaccessible, its ostensibly transparent textuality obscured through the process of digitization. Multiple scans have deformed its turn-of-the-century typography; the open system of earlier annotations — an invitation to discourse with the page, and with the past — has hardened to a pixelated crust. Rather than humanizing the book for its readers, then, these fixed annotations render it more alien, since they never allow it to transcend its own objectness, to dissolve into the immediacy of text” (2013, par. 23).

Kenneth Goldsmith points out that, “Something new is happening here that brings together widespread nostalgia for paperbound books with our concerns about mass digitization,” he feels that “the obsession with digital errors in Google Books arises from the sense that these mistakes are permanent, on the record” (2013).


If we look deeper though, past initial feelings of affront, there is something insidiously revealed by the presence of these hands; they make manifest the otherwise invisible labour of Google book scanners. Goldsmith writes that, “it’s easy to forget that they’re the work of an army of invisible laborers—the Google hands” (2013). Most importantly, these hands speak to issues of class and race within Google’s labour practices. Leah Henrickson has noted, “Once you start looking at pictures of Google book-scanners’ hands, you’re bound to (pretty quickly) recognize a trend: most of these book-scanners seem to be people of colour. Women of colour, in particular” (2014).

Avi Solomon has noted that, “If you search Google Images for ‘Google books fingers’ you get poignant images (to my lights) of scanner worker bee hands. Makes me value the massive, anonymous and underpaid effort that goes into maintaining the ‘digital’ economy” (in Frauenfelder, 2009). In 2007, Andrew Norman Wilson, an ex-contractor of Google, while working at the Google campus, decided to learn more about Google’s data-entry workers, or ‘ScanOps’, those responsible for the digitization of these books. He captured some footage of the workers leaving their shifts, and was fired for issues of privacy shortly after. His video has become an art installation called “Workers Leaving the Googleplex” (see here:, a play on the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 “Workers Leaving the Factory” (Goldsmith, 2013). In addition Wilson has created a larger art project entitled “ScanOps” (, which has been displayed in galleries, featuring “large, saturated color photos of those same workers’ hands” (Goldsmith, 2013). His efforts also remind us that “we, too, are contributing our own labor to the company’s bottom line” (Goldsmith, 2013). While true, in some ways, the transformation of these hands into art objects further objectifies them as something of note – and who is profiting from that? Wilson is not the only one to undertake artistic endeavours related to these hands – artist Benjamin Shaykin has published a book called “Google Hands” ( that also reproduces the images. Krissy Wilson, creator of the blog “The Art of Google Books” ( has noted that “The Art of Google Books can serve as a tool for people that digitize books, explicating much of what can go wrong in the photographic process, as well as standing alone as a gallery of aesthetic images” (in Fleischer, 2012).

This is a rich topic, one that I would like to explore more in depth than I have a chance to here (maybe I’ll be rerouting my final paper topic?!), that has much to tell us about beliefs of the sanctity of physical books, the so-called ‘flawless’, mechanized process of digitization, and the very real human beings that hold, manipulate, work, and (sometimes, if just by accident) reveal themselves, superimpose, obscure, and comment on the material they reproduce.


Beschizza, Rob. (2007). Google books adds workers’ hands to classics. Wired.

Fleischer, Victoria. (2012). Q&A: The art of Google books.

Frauenfelder, Mark. (2009). Scans of google books with fingers in them. Boingboing.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. (2013). The artful accidents of google books. The New Yorker.

Henrickson, Leah. (2014). The darker side of digitization. Book History, Illuminated.

Marshall, Chelsea. (2014). 21 Google book scans that bring surprising intimacy to the digital book world. BuzzFeed.

Moore, Matthew. (2009). Google book ‘finger condoms’ cause mirth. The Telegraph.

Shaykin, Benjamin. (2009). Google hands.

Trettien, Whitney Anne. (2013). A deep history of electronic textuality: The case of English reprints Jhon Milton Areopagitica. Digital Humanities Quarterly (7) 1.

Wilson, Andrew Norman. (2011). Workers leaving the Googleplex.

——. (2012). ScanOps.

Wilson, Krissy. The art of Google books.

the pleasure of paper books (or: a bibliophile’s confession)

IMG_1393Photo: Author’s bookshelf (one). 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am a bibliophile through and through, and for me this still means good ol’ paper books. This past year we moved into a space about double our previous bachelor apartment, and for the first time, we are able to house all of our books on numerous shelves covering each and every wall. We have relatively the same number of books, it’s just that in the past they were piled in stacks – on chairs, on the floor, on top of shelves already two-books deep…we still have that now, although the volume we’ve been able to accommodate has greatly increased (finally, no more books in boxes in a basement somewhere!). Despite some of the impracticalities of owning this many books, I am proud of our personal library, and cherish it deeply. Being able to find and afford enough space to be surrounded by our favourite books took time and effort, and yet it was of huge significance to us – books make a space feel like home. In this case, wallpapering the walls of our house, surrounding us constantly, our shelved books do become a sort of furnishing, a part of the house itself. So, where am I going with this and how does it relate to reading? Perhaps it is my absolute love of paper books that has led me to ignore digital books and e-readers. I don’t want to get into a reductive argument here about the relative value of either medium – as has been said time and again, it’s not productive, nor is it particularly stimulating. I don’t feel a sense of bibliophilic superiority, or some kind of proud technophobia or ludditeism. I simply can’t really be bothered. Sometimes, my lack of basic awareness and understanding of e-books can actually make me feel out of touch and behind the times (see last week’s blog post). For the most part though, I just don’t think about them – they aren’t a part of my reading ecology. I believe one of the reasons for this that I have touched on before is partly to do with physicality – not simply during the act of reading, but also books as objects themselves. There is a presence that is missing in what John Maxwell calls this “website in a wrapper” (39). Something in me rebels against them. When I began considering what, if anything, I actually did consume on a screen, all that came to mind is what I ‘read’ on the screen of my phone. Again, I have ‘read’ in scare quotes here because, like Andrew Piper said, I’m unsure if I can in fact call this ‘reading’ (46). Checking emails, perusing social media, glancing through online articles…all of this is something; I’m just not sure what? I don’t associate these activities with the same quality as reading a book. They are fleeting, less important interactions, more about pure, quick consumption, forgotten almost as soon as it is taken in. I print off anything that I might need to read for my classes, and perhaps in a related fashion, I still take all my notes by hand.

To be honest, I haven’t been especially reflexive before regarding my preference for printed books. As something that works for me, I’ve sort of just gone with it. I am aware that as a soon-to-be librarian, it would be helpful for me to have a better understanding of what e-books are, how they work, and why others do like to read them – if only as basic sound professional practice. I guess if I consider it, a lot of my reading habits and preferences do come down to an issue of presence and absence. When I am at home, I can look up at my books, I can gesture to them during conversation, pull one down, lend it out, put it aside for later, or place it somewhere for special consideration (my bedside table is the space for the honoured ‘book (or five) of the moment’). Come to think of it, a large part of my reading practices seem to be informed by this spatial hierarchy of meaning, by being able to manipulate books as objects in space (on a macro level), and on a micro level, being able to manipulate pages within them. I never annotate books when I read them, the most I might do is sticky note pages I want to return to. Still, knowing how far the section I’m reading is from the start or end, what the visual markers are, all of this helps me to imprint pages in my memory, to hold onto them. The covers of books, the tone and quality of their paper, the feel of them in my hand, these things help me navigate my surroundings and feel at home while reading. I always laugh when people describe the benefits of travelling with an e-reader, as it provides you with an immense array of reading options, and takes up so little space. Both my partner and I have been known to carry upwards of three and four books with us at a time (on trips whose lengths certainly don’t warrant that much reading material). Again, for us, this is okay. We don’t mind sacrificing the space. It’s worth it. Part of this silly, uncompromising stubbornness in the face of technological options makes me realize, just maybe, why I still prefer to read how I do – because it feels good. At some basic level, reading in this way gives me pleasure, and despite attempts, reading electronically just doesn’t compare.


Maxwell, John W. (2013). E-book logic: We can do better. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada. 51 (1): 29-47.

Piper, Andrew (2012). Turning the page (roaming, zooming, streaming). In Book was there: Reading in electronic times (pp. 45-61). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Re-discovering Emma on/and the page

This is also a post made long by pictures…

While not necessarily a remarkable example of a ‘digital page’, this week’s blog post did give me some greater insight into digital pages generally. I have a difficult time reading digital texts and have spent almost no time exploring the different interfaces and options that are available. That being said, when I was considering this topic, I remembered that I do own a nexus tablet (albeit one that mostly gathers dust). It was a gift, and at the time I received it, I can remember going onto Project Gutenberg and downloading some of their free EPUB style e-books into my Google books ‘library’. I promptly never looked at it since. I decided that this would be a good opportunity to explore it further. I chose Jane Austen’s Emma as my text of focus and found many fascinating features that I had no idea existed. To begin, there certainly is a seemingly greater freedom on the part of readers with regards to page layout, look, and design. The most macro view reminds me of Andrew Piper’s notion of ‘zooming’ – “if roaming expands the horizontal edges of the page, zooming bursts through the page’s two-dimensionality” (56). Using two fingers you can change the scale of the text in question to see an expanded view of the page that includes multiple fragments of the preceding and following pages (as well as extra-textual material and setting symbols) :


Alternatively, you can zoom in to the macro view of the page as a single unit:


On a side note – the funny amber hue of the page that you can see is the ‘night light’ feature, which claims, in romantic tones – “as the sun sets, Night Light gradually filters the blue light from your screen, replacing it with a warm, amber light that’s better for reading.” Who knew?

It turns out that if you rotate the tablet, the auto-rotate screen will provide you with both the verso pages and recto pages (although without a gutter margin…), thus bringing back Piper’s assertion of ‘pages as mirrors’ into the e-book equation; once again “pages face each other; they comment, reflect, illustrate, or confound one another” (52). Only in this mode can pages exist side by side.


Of course, in a digital text, the ‘pages’ are not a fixed unit of text (this is something I have always found unsettling – trying to read a text which moves independently of its page numbers). Thus, what you can see in this latest image is not in fact a new recto page, but merely an extension of the text on the verso side, which in the landscape view, can stretch out slightly.

In playing around with the features, I discovered the ‘maxed out’ micro view, essentially where the screen is focused on a small handful of words – helpful for magnifying, although to the point where the words lose their context in relation to the page as a whole.


Here I also discovered some of the additional features (I’m sure seasoned readers of e-books are laughing at my naiveté by now…). Again, who knew that with just one finger tap you can copy, annotate, highlight, search, and define? The possibilities seem endless. What of Piper’s assertion that, “it may be that we should no longer even call this reading,” or that “we are breeding generations of distracted readers, people who simply cannot pay attention long enough to finish a book” (46) – what do these many opportunities and rabbit holes entail for the process of reading itself?

Another thing I have never been able to wrap my head around is the sort of generic, robotic seeming uni-font that most e-books employ. I discovered in my explorations that in this particular case I had the option to see the ‘original pages’ of the text (scanned by Google books):


I can’t help but wonder if the friendly and familiar ornamentation and illustrated initial helped me feel more at home with this variation of the page. On this note, I discovered the ‘read aloud’ setting, no doubt a wonderful accessibility feature – although in the advanced settings, found that you could opt for a ‘high-quality voice’ which claims to “use a more natural voice to read aloud” – so what of a more ‘high-quality page’? One that appears ‘more natural’? More than anything, I was struck by the strange physicality of the digital page (or lack thereof) – the digital ghost page requires such little human intervention – try interacting with, or try touching a physical book in the same way – it is utterly ineffective, clumsy, and potentially damaging (you would risk crumpled or ripped pages to say the least…). Once again, a different physicality of reading, the embodiment, the motions, has to be learned here – is not intuitive (at least at first). I found interacting with this book to be clumsy, like learning another language.

I am certainly intrigued by the options provided by digital texts within this type of platform, although I am hard pressed to imagine this digital hologram as a sort of stand in for the printed page; as Piper puts it, “the digital page, by contrast, is a fake, a simulation called up from distributed data. It is not really there” (54). This seems to be where I’m stuck – no matter how much I swipe, and zoom, and pinch, I just can’t seem to feel anything.


Austen, Jane. (1886). Emma: A novel [Play Books EPUB version]. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

Piper, Andrew. (2012). Turning the page (roaming, zooming, streaming). In Book was there: Reading in electronic times (pp. 45-61). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Encoding Escapades with Robert Bringhurst…

As Holly mentioned, she and I have chosen to work on a poem by the poet Robert Bringhurst for our encoding challenge. We have selected a poem from Bringhurst’s Selected Poems, published in 2009 by Gaspereau Press.


In an epigraph to the collection, Bringhurst notes that, “when conditions are right, it is good for poems to be spoken aloud. I mean that the poems themselves may benefit, not just the creatures who speak them and hear them. But in some of the poems in this book, two or three voices are speaking at once, contradicting or enlarging or refining one another as they go. Here, the overlapping voices are printed in different colors. Poems in which this occurs can be read in silence by one person alone or spoken aloud with one or two friends, if conditions are right. Which, in the presence of one or two friends, they just might be” (5). We felt that focusing on one of these poems with multiple voices was a great opportunity to explore what TEI allows us to capture of the experience of interacting with poetry. To begin, we looked at New World Suite No. 3: Four Movements for Three Voices:


If you’ll excuse the blurry photo…you can see perhaps that the three colours (black, blue, and red) represent the voice of the viola, the violin, and the cello, respectively. Bringhurst intends for the lines to be spoken simultaneously, at times, or in sequence. In some cases, the voices will finish each other’s sentences, or contradict one another. This sort of variety of reading experience immediately made me recall Prof. Galey’s example of his own work as part of his Visualizing Variation project, specifically his Animated Variants prototype ( Prof. Galey describes the project: “it was thought that digital editions could represent variants dynamically, presenting their ambiguity to readers not as a problem to solve, but as a field of interpretive possibility. Very few digital editions, however, have realized this possibility in their interfaces. One thing a digital visualization can do is make a virtue of ambiguity in ways that print cannot, combining the elements of time and motion to represent variants in ways that challenge the idea that texts are fixed and immutable.” This made me wonder if it would be possible to translate Bringhurst’s vision for a multi-vocal, performatory reading experience just as ‘dynamically’ as it is on the page, yet through XML. Exactly as Prof. Galey points out the potential for digital visualization, Bringhurst seems to be looking for the fluidity, the mutability, and the unfixed nature of this poetic interaction.

Upon considering the reflection further, Holly and I looked to another example of Bringhurst’s polyphonic poetry, The Blue Roofs of Japan: Duet for interpenetrating voices:


In an introduction to this poem, Bringhurst notes that, “The Blue Roofs of Japan is a poem for two voices – in principle little different from a sonata for cello and piano, except that here the instruments speak; they don’t quite sing. The full text of the poem is printed on both the righthand and lefthand pages of the book, but since the two voices frequently overlap, the two parts are not always legible on any one page. The lefthand pages give prominence to one voice, the righthand pages to the other. Facing pages should be read not in sequence but together. Reading the poem aloud requires two people…one reader, in any case, reads the black ink on the lefthand page while the other reads the black ink on the right. Under his or her own lines, each reader can see the other’s voice in blue. Enough blue ink is visible on every page to allow both readers to keep pace with one another. There isn’t, and in my view musn’t be, a metronome. The only thing the readers have to pace themselves against is each other” (175). It is exactly this sentiment that we hope to capture in our encoding. A sense of flow, overlap, and cohesion. As Galey points out, “animated variants also drive home the simple yet unsettling point that textual transmission is more often a matter of change than fixity: texts sometimes change even when readers aren’t looking.” Bringhurst opens up this possibility to his readers. While we’re unsure whether or not we’ll be able to execute our vision, we love the idea of applying something like CSS transitions (see: to give the poem movement, colour, and ‘voice’, just as Bringhurst intended.


Bringhurst, Robert. (2009). Selected poems. Canada: Gaspereau Press.

Galey, Alan. Visualizing variation.

TEI in the wild – Vincent van Gogh’s letters

‘Vincent van Gogh – The Letters’ is a “scholarly edition of all extant letters (902) sent by or to Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)” (TEI, 2010). The TEI project page notes that, “Van Gogh’s correspondence is a unique resource for the insight it provides into both his artistic practice and his personal life. The full digital edition is available online; a reading edition is available as a six volume book edition. While intended for a scholarly audience, the edition is expected to serve the interest of a much wider public” (TEI, 2010).

The project, which is hosted by the Huygens Instituut, in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, provides for each letter, “a zoomable facsimile, a transcription of the original text (mostly Dutch or French), a new translation into English, and extensive annotation. More than 2000 illustrations are given of the works of art that Van Gogh mentions in his letters. Introductory essays discuss Van Gogh, his letters and his circle. Other material includes a timeline, maps, indices and a bibliography” (TEI, 2010).

Interestingly, the TEI project page also notes that, “the project started before the era of the web, and it was only later decided the web would be its main publication platform. The letters and annotations were created in a word-processing program and later converted semi-automatically into TEI (something that you probably want to avoid doing)” (TEI, 2010). It also describes how the project, “created one TEI (P5) document per letter, holding header information (we introduced some new header elements), facsimile information, transcription, translation and annotation. Other TEI documents hold secondary texts such as the essays and bibliography” (TEI, 2010).

The website itself describes the use of XML generally – though it takes a bit of searching to find the link (under ‘About this edition’ – ‘The web edition’). It notes that: “This edition, like many modern digital editions, is based on XML (eXtensible Markup Language) documents. XML is a standard for the creation of documents in which the document text is interspersed with ‘tags’, brief labels that describe the nature and properties of the text fragments that they surround. The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) has proposed guidelines for the names and types of the tags to be employed in humanities texts. Out of the 400+ existing tags, a so-called ‘schema’ can be created that contains exactly those tags that are applicable to a certain type of document (such as a letter that is prepared for a scholarly edition). New tags can be defined when the existing tagset is insufficient. The schema describes the required and permitted tags in a class of XML documents. It can be used to check the correctness of these documents. A dedicated schema was created for the Van Gogh edition. A number of non-standard tags were used, some of which were ‘borrowed’ from the DALF (Digital Archive of Letters in Flanders) project” (Jansen, Luijten, and Bakker (eds.), 2009).

It then goes on to explain the specific use of XML for the project: “One XML document was created for each of Van Gogh’s letters and each related document. It holds letter-level metadata (title, number, date, correspondents, etc.), the full transcription, the translation, the notes, the textual notes, and the information that connects transcribed pages with images of those pages (facsimile elements). The XML files were created in an automatic conversion from word-processor documents. The conversion result was checked and extensively corrected. The XML files were manually indexed to facilitate searching and cross-referencing” (Jansen, Luijten, and Bakker (eds.), 2009).

I find it incredible to think that this XML was converted from word documents and not born digital!

The page even mentions that, “for those interested in technical matters, we provide somesample XML files. In the zip file we also include the so-called ‘ODD’ file which is used to customise the TEI schema and the schema files generated from the ODD-file.  We use W3C schema rather than Relax NG because the contractors who performed the conversion to XML were more familiar with that format” (Jansen, Luijten, and Bakker (eds.), 2009).

Here is an example of one of the XML files opened in word format:


The site also describes in detail the software tools that support the project. Overall, I am impressed with the degree of detail provided by the project, and their transparency with regards to the technical process.


Text Encoding Initiative. (2010). Vincent van Gogh – The letters.

Jansen, Leo, Luitjen, Hans, and Bakker, Nienke (eds.) (2009). Vincent van Gogh – The Letters. Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING.

form and meaning intertwined, or, digital insects, binary graffiti, and google hands


Museum of Natural History, Berlin. (

Okay, bear with me on this one. There’s a bunch of wormhole-y tangents that I hope will come together to make some sort of sense. I started this off thinking about attempts to digitize completely physical objects, things that exist undoubtedly in natural form. So, how about nature itself? It turns out that the Berlin Museum of Natural History is ambitiously undertaking a project that uses digital technology to create 3D images of the museum’s entire collection of insects. Erik Olsen describes how these are not simply scanned images of specimen drawers – rather, specimens are placed on “a rotating drum in a lightbox and photographed at many angles with a macro lens,” then, using computer software, the team stitches the photographs together which can be downloaded and seen from up to 100 angles (as many as 500 images can be taken of a single angle, and 3,000-5,000 images of a single specimen) (Olsen, 2015). Olsen notes that the team uses compression and an algorithm to load small portions of the resulting massive image at a time. See the result, called ‘ZooSphere’ here: You can also see a video describing the project here:

This raised a lot of questions for me. There are numerous degrees of separation/representation going on here – there was the insect living in the wild, then the dead insect physically pinned/preserved in a drawer in the museum, then the digital 3D rendering of the image, posted publicly online – searchable, downloadable, viewable as a panorama. While not a ‘text’ per se, although perhaps in McKenzie’s broad definition – these insects still speak to Sperberg-McQueen’s assertion that “tools always shape the hand that wields them; technology always shapes the minds that use it. And so as we work more intimately with electronic texts, we will find ourselves doing those things that our electronic texts make easy for us to do” (1991, 34). How is it different for a biologist or researcher, to interact with these insect specimens online – ‘three-dimensional’ on a flat, digital screen? What do they ‘make easy for us to do’, or not? Are there aspects that couldn’t be observed in person, interacting with a fragile, precious specimen? Similarly, is there an ‘aura’ to the insect that is lost in digital form? That is untranslatable?

In a strange leap of brainstorming – this question also took me on a couple of separate (but I hope related) tangents.

One is London-based artist Stanza’s ‘The Binary Graffiti Club’, referred to as “a user friendly public participatory spectable [sic] and public engagement event across urban space creating new narratives for the playfull [sic] engagement of the environment, spectacle, performance, politics and art” (Stanza, 2013). The participants, made up by young members of the public, “[encode] the city with messages of binary code” (Stanza, 2013). Check it out here:

People dressed in black and white binary hoodies roam the city, tagging physical objects with messages in binary code. There’s something here, I’m just not sure what, yet. Stanza opened the Frequency Festival of Digital Culture in 2013 in Lincoln, England. The festival co-director noted that, “youths dressed in black hoodies swarmed the historic city streets of Lincoln during Frequency Festival 2013, their backs emblazoned with bold white digits, the zeros and ones. Their ominous presence was marked with a series of binary code graff-tags on official buildings throughout the city; messages of insurrection for a digital cult now active among us or analogue reminders of the digital soup of signals we wade through on a daily basis?  There’s an engaging playfulness and an aesthetic pleasure to Stanza’s work that pays rewards on deeper investigation.  His urban interventions remind us of the invisible occupation of the cyberspace around us and encourages us to ask whose hand manipulates these systems of control.” (Hale, 2013 in Stanza).

Speaking of hands, all of this has also made me think about the flurry of news a few years ago regarding the ghostly figures of Google book scanners’ hands appearing in books. Artist Benjamin Shaykin collected examples of this and other scanning mishaps and published them in a book called “Google Hands” ( A similar collector, Paul Soulellis, curates ‘Library of the Printed Web’ (, consisting of stuff pulled from the internet and bound into paper books, including a print-on-demand novel by Sean Raspet called “2GFR24SMEZZ2XMCVI5L8X9Y38ZJ2JD 25RZ6KW4ZMAZSLJ0GBH0WNNVRNO7GU 2MBYMNCWYB49QDK1NDO19JONS66QMB
2H1G5TYMNCWYM81O4OJSPX11N5VNJ0 A Novel,” (  which is “an accumulation of CAPTCHA test results,” which are “designed to verify that a user is human by requiring her to perform a visual recognition task (such as deciphering a distorted string of characters) and input the result into a text field. They thus screen out automated programs or “bots” from exploiting website weaknesses” (

Again, I can’t help but think about the human labour of digitizing Google books (and how, despite attempts to efface it, it still sneaks its way into the final, digital product). Or about how the random results of tests meant to see if a computer user is human are now being compiled by humans, using computers, and printed on demand in physical book form. Or about humans dressed up as physical representations of binary code and tagging the city itself with binary messages that humans, not computers, will process and decipher. Or 3D digital renditions of insects, created in part, as a way “of documenting what we are about to lose” (Wheeler in Olsen, 2015). So, what have we lost? What is being reclaimed?



Goldsmith, Kenneth. (2013). The artful accidents of google books. The New Yorker.

Olsen, Erik. (2015). Museum specimens find new life online. The New York Times.

Olsen, Erik. (2015). Digitizing natural history. The New York Times.

Shaykin, Benjamin. (2009). Google hands.

Soulellis, Paul. Library of the printed web.

Sperberg-McQueen, C.M. (1991). Text in the electronic age: Textual study and text encoding, with examples from medieval texts. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 6 (1), 34-46.

Stanza (2013). The binary graffiti club.

The highlights.


form, function, and affairs of the heart


Ram Dass. (1971). Be here now. New Mexico: Hanuman Foundation.

I find this question tricky to answer… I am a self-professed lover of printed books (the whole look, feel, smell – sensory interaction thing). I find it nearly impossible to read texts through a screen (whether computer or e-reader). This bias is hard to avoid when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a text’s form and its meaning. I have a large home library – for me, printed, physical, very ‘present’, non-virtual books, they carry weight. They take up space, they have an emotional significance, and they are invested with meaning and memory. Almost no book more so than my copy of Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. Heavily used, well-loved, traveled, annotated, dog-eared, and bookmarked – it stands as a testament to my own personal and spiritual development over many years. When I see its iconic blue cover, I can remember glancing at it for the first time in Seekers Books on Bloor. The shredded bits of paper ephemera mark pages that have had particular resonance for me, some of which I have photocopied and pasted onto walls of houses past.

The middle section of the book, the thickest and most substantial, is recognizable by its illustrations printed on brown craft paper. The pages themselves are tactile – they have texture, roughness, weight. They flip and unfold. The pages of my copy have warped with moisture over time, giving them additional dimension. To read this section, the book must be turned vertically, and read like a scroll – with text and image blending seamlessly across both pages. Reading this book is an immersive experience.

Amazon tells me that you can purchase Be Here Now in e-book form, as an ‘enhanced edition’, including guided video meditations, a video retrospective of Ram Dass’ journey, as well as a copy of the first chapter of his latest book, Be Love Now.

I guess the issue here is this – I can’t imagine the physical form of this book being easily replicated in digital form, considering what would be ‘lost’. Perhaps this comes back to the issue, as Johanna Drucker puts it, to do with e-book design itself: “rather than thinking about simulating the way a book looks, then, designers might do well to consider extending the way a book works” (2009, 166). So, how would Be Here Now work digitally? Or, to put it differently, since it clearly already exists in digital form – how would it work for me? My web browsing has led me to a website where someone has scanned and uploaded each individual page of the book, and so, rather than flip through successive pairs of pages, the reader can simply scroll continuously (see: HEART CAVE) – how does this affect/effect a different meaning?

I was fascinated to read Matthew Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner describe the symbiotic potential between digital and physical forms of book production: “digital media cohabitate with the codex, not just in close physical proximity…but occupying conceptually coterminous textual and narrative space” (2014, 443). They note, too, that computers are “responsible for key aspects of what we might think of as a widespread renaissance in the appreciation of the book as material object” (2014, 445-446).

Similarly, Drucker suggests that “by looking to scholarly work for specific understanding of attitudes toward the book as literal space and virtual espace, and to artists and poets for evidence of the way the spaces of a book work, we realize that the traditional codex is also, in an important and suggestive way, already virtual” (2009, 174). Claims such as this help disrupt and broaden my understanding of the terms ‘physical’, ‘literal’, ‘virtual’, or ‘digital’, and what constitutes a ‘book’ or ‘bookishness’.

While I can’t imagine my experience with this text as distinct from the physical form that holds and delivers it, I can begin to think in new ways about how exactly Be Here Now communicates meaning, and how – while my own experience of it is deeply personal – through reading it in different systems and platforms, new readers might encounter a completely different effected/affected meaning – and I concede, that’s kinda neat.