Digital humanities, Labor, Gender, Archives, Libraries, Book history, Cataloging, Media archaeology, Bibliography, Technologies of writing, digital resources, institutional histories, research, printing trade, women’s history
The digitization of vast holdings of special collections has enabled an archival regeneration. This renewal not only has sparked a return to questions about materiality and the material text (as many of the keywords in the volume suggest), but it also invites scholars to consider how libraries reorganize, re-access, and reproduce historical materials. This triple action encapsulates what we mean when we say we have “digitized” a book, manuscript, or graphic. A tendency to equate digitizing with mere imaging or scanning, however, frequently presents the work of digitization as done only by machines, rather than by people. This misunderstanding of digitization elides the human labor that goes into making an object available and discoverable in the seemingly boundless digital universe. How do we make that labor visible? How do we, in effect, narrate a prehistory of digitization?
Media archeologists caution against teleological narratives and ask us to examine the synchronic and contingent histories of media.1 At the same time, book history has increasingly focused on the “protagonists of print,” those workers who devoted their lives to printing and who often appear only as traces in the texts themselves.2 A prehistory of digitization, I argue, [End Page 637] draws inspiration from these contributions of both media archeology and book history and asks us to turn our attentions to the people whose work we rely on when we digitize. In the same way that Bonnie Mak’s recent scholarship illuminates the reliance on labor in the developing world to build digital resources, we find similar stories of elided and undervalued labor in the prehistory of digitization.3 The hegemony dictating this elision varies—not global economic disparity in the face of globalization as Mak’s work uncovers, but, instead, midcentury gender inequality as women entered the workforce but were treated and compensated unequally.4 These early female librarians in special collections libraries produced massive amounts of bibliographic data, and yet, more often than not, their names do not appear in bibliographies or monographs. Let me offer one such example in the digitization of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS)’s Printers’ File.
Since Isaiah Thomas incorporated his research for his ambitious History of Printing in America (1810) into the collections of the AAS, the institution he founded just two years after he published his history, the AAS has held the largest set of data on the early printing trade in what is now the United States. For many decades, the bulk of this information existed in drawers of cards in the reading room, a resource that became known as the Printers’ File. The term printers here is somewhat misleading, as the cards detail the work of 6,145 printers, publishers, editors, binders, papermakers, and others involved in the printing trade through 1820.
The Printers’ File was composed almost singularly by Avis Clarke, a cataloger at AAS from 1927 until her retirement in 1970. It is an example of a largely bygone era of massive bibliographic data collection by an individual. Culled from newspapers, local histories, biographies, and reference books, [End Page 638] the information on these cards is a vital set of data for the early American printing trade, but that is not all that it is. The cards contain minibiographies or prosopographies of these people’s lives, information about their time before and after they joined the trade—their humble beginnings as farmers before they moved to the big city, their stints in military engagements ranging from King Philip’s War to the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812, their work with charity, their time in prison, their marriages, their fortunes, and their follies. In short, the cards chronicle the lives of these people as they moved in and out of the printing trade, and they therefore provide evidence of the ways in which textual materiality permeated quotidian life in colonial America and the early republic. Clarke created the Printers’ File within the ecosystem of a library information system, rather than scholarly production, and the cards...