About Me

My photo
I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

8 October 2011

A Sequacious Riff

The choice of name for this blog was inspired by a collection of poems called Untam'd Wing: Riffs on Romantic Poetry by my friend and former colleague at the University of Glasgow, Jeffrey C. Robinson, published by Station Hill Press. Jeffrey is a distinguished scholar of the English Romantic movement and an expert on William Wordsworth. He is also an accomplished poet and anthologist, winning the American Book Prize for the anthology Poems for the Millennium, which he edited with Jerome Rothenberg. Untam'd Wing is a remarkable experiment. Jeffrey takes the great monuments of Romantic poetry on which he has worked for many years, and subjects them to processes of poetic transformation. He reduces Wordsworth's celebrated sonnet 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' to five key words which convey the ecstasy of a scene witnessed by early morning light. He splices lines and phrases from the poetry of Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge with lines from Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Gertrude Stein and Paul Celan. Jeffrey finds new poems in marginal notes by Keats. He takes lines from famous sonnets of the Romantic period and mixes them up to create new sonnets which reveal unexpected and new interrelationships between the words, rhythm and imagery of the originals. He riffs on phrases and words in individual poems, setting out like a jazz musician to renew a body of standard work (in the way that, say, Miles Davies might revisit George Gershwin).

Some samples of Jeffrey's re-workings of Romantic poetry can be found on his website here. Much of the fascination of Jeffrey's work derives from the way in which it refocuses our attention on individual words and images in very familiar poems. Jeffrey suggests that the poetic quality of Romantic poetry comes from a mysterious 'unrepeatable place' in the poem. By his poetic deformations, splicings and re-orderings, Jeffrey's riffs create a situation in which 'language seeks to float on untamed wing free of its habitual moorings in syntax, form, measure, and narrative'. In Jeffrey's collection, we are constantly confronted with the evanescent quality of individual words and phrases in familiar poetry. A very good example is Jeffrey's treatment of Coleridge's poem 'The Eolian Harp', whose publication in 1795 is seen as a key moment in the development of Romantic poetry. Jeffrey draws our attention to Coleridge's use of the startling word 'sequacious', which rarely appears in English poetry. Jeffrey points out how the meaning of this word has developed over time: 'in the 17th century it meant 'following a leader slavishly'. In the 18th it was applied to objects, indicating the pliable or the flexible. And then Coleridge in 1795, just after the French Revolution, gives it a musical inflection - regularly following melody or rhythm'.

I have read 'The Eolian Harp' many times since I first developed an enthusiasm for Coleridge in my teens, but Jeffrey's poem made me think afresh about this word 'sequacious', which I had barely registered before. And this experience of being presented with new perspectives on Coleridge's poem made me wonder about how far the digital humanities can support this kind of experience, of rediscovering the transcendent and evanescent qualities of individual words and phrases in text. Increasingly, in using digital tools, our concern is to track a path through very large quantities of data. We want quickly to search our way through huge quantities of text, without really stopping to reflect a great deal on the language or poetics of that text. The digital seems to encourage whatever might be the opposite of close reading: rushed reading? superficial reading? digital reading?

If we try to use digital tools to reflect further on a word like 'sequacious', how do they help us? Well, at the simplest level we can use a dictionary to find the meaning of such an unfamiliar word. Indeed, most of the first ten pages from the 72,000 results in a Google search on 'sequacious' are from dictionary definitions. The limitations of Google are revealed in a disturbing way by a search on 'sequacious'. Google fails readily to produce much useful information about sequacious, such as that the word is used by Coleridge - you're about 12 pages in before there is a reference to a JSTOR article on 'The Eolian Harp'. If you already know that the word 'sequacious' appears in a poem, you might search on 'sequacious poem', but this causes Google to throw a hissy fit, and suggests that you must be mistaken and gives the results for 'loquacious poem' instead. If you insist on searching for 'sequacious poem', Coleridge will not be the first poet returned by Google. Instead it offers us a poem called More Sexually Sequacious Stuff by a retired clinical technologist from Minnesota called Walt Martin. It is only thanks to the Poetry Foundation that we come across 'The Eolian Harp', at the bottom of the first page of results. You really need to know that sequacious appears in a poem by Coleridge to get any useful returns from Google - which will then lead you to discussions by Douglas Kneale and Harold Bloom of Coleridge's use of the word.

Disappointed by the results of a Google search, we might turn to a specialist database such as ProQuest's Literature Online. But although 'The Eolian Harp' appears in Literature Online, oddly the quick search facility in Literature Online does not find Coleridge's poem when searched for 'sequacious', producing just one hit, a poem by Thomas Brown published in 1721 and beginning: 'As the sequacious wax with ease receives'. The quick search facility in Literature Online only searches the indexed database; a full text search of Literature Online is more satisfactory, returning not only Coleridge's poem but a reference by Dryden in his 1687 Song of St Cecilia's Day to 'sequacious of the lyre' which was perhaps an inspiration for Coleridge.

So, you can find something more about the word 'sequacious' with digital resources, but it takes some hunting and it helps if you know in advance that Coleridge used the word in 'The Eolian Harp'. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that, in the midst of the vast quantities of data on the web, we lose sight of individual words like sequacious. It seems as if the web is determined to keep a word like sequacious anchored and tethered - to prevent it taking the 'untam'd wing'. Is this a result of the industrialisation and commodification of language which appears to be an inevitable concomitant of making use of digital machines to process language? Perhaps not. Digital poets and artists such as John Sparrow or John Cayley use different forms of digital presentation to focus our attention back on individual words. Likewise, a current exhibition at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, In Other Words: the Place of Text in Recent Art, shows how contemporary artists have presented the resonances of individual words and letters. Perhaps digital humanities specialists need to engage more with this kind of work.

How do we recapture on the web that engagement with the poetics - with the wonder - of an individual word? An investigation on the web of a word like 'sequacious' will lead us in unexpected directions, which may not take us to Coleridge and Dryden but nevertheless raises some fascinating questions. Sequacious seems to have a curious and unexpected contemporary career. There is a Flickr user called Sequacious, a single woman called Rhett who lives in Santa Cruz. What attracted her to this word? Why did 'trainwreckmollie' (who describes herself as '19. Tattooed. Pierced. Bisexual. OCD. Medicated to the point where i'm finally normal. Has 2 people in my head. Draws, paints and tries to make things. Sings for the occasional band and such. Models. Is completely feral and childish. Is paranoid people can read my mind, especially when touching me. Has a fear of weighing over 46kg') give her Tumblr page the title 'Sequacious'? What attracted Roberta, a twenty-year-old Portuguese girl living in Herne Bay who also wants to be a model, to the word 'sequacious', so that she uses it to advertise her modelling portfolio and for her Tumblr blog? (The image at the top of this post is from Roberta's Tumblr account). Was the Melbourne DJ Evan Necker influenced by Coleridge in choosing the name 'Sequacious' for his alias - a very appropriate musical link for the word? The way in which pursuing this rare word taken from Coleridge (and, as Thomas de Quincey declared, a very distinctly Coleridgean word) leads us so quickly to find out so much about this distinctive mixture of people is in many ways more striking than the limited value of the web to investigate the use of 'sequacious' in literature.

The poetry of Jeffrey Robinson focuses our attention on the qualities of a single word like 'sequacious'. One of the challenges confronting those working in the digital humanities is to ensure that, in the concern to create large searchable databases, we do not lose sight of the resonances and fascination of a word such as 'sequacious' . Digital resources often teach us to look for large connections and patterns, but one of the functions of the digital humanities must also be to stress the importance of the small-scale and easily overlooked: the individual word, line or poem. When we refocus on those words, the web can reveal strange and sometimes surprising cross-connections.

Read more »

Robin Alston's Library History Database

I was sad to learn in July this year of the death of my old friend and mentor from British Library days, Robin Alston. Robin's achievements as a bibliographer were innumerable and fundamental to our present digital environment. In particular, I would single out his role as a driving force behind the creation of the English Short Title Catalogue. The availability of the ESTC has underpinned the development of such key digital resources as Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Robin was a constant source of inspiration in developing new projects and ideas; it was his early experiments with a Mekel Microfilm scanner which led ultimately to the British Library's recent on-line presentation of the Burney collection of newspapers of the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries. There's a wonderfully written obituary of Robin by Stephen Green available here.

Among Robin's projects from 1991 was the creation of a huge database of references to libraries in Great Britain to 1850. In compiling the Library History Database, Robin consulted over 1,500 published works and found references to over 30,000 libraries. Robin commented that 'Cultural historians have under-estimated the number of libraries available for reading, whether for entertainment or for self-improvement. As the data presented here demonstrates there was provision of print in almost every market town in the British Isles by the year 1820, and by 1850 in hundreds of villages with a population of less than 500 souls. The sheer variety of libraries so far discovered is quite extraordinary: libraries devoted to the arts and sciences; libraries in the workplace; libraries on omnibuses; libraries in inns; libraries on the estates of wealthy landowners provided for the workers; libraries associated with every type of society; village libraries provided by benevolent pastors'.

Robin generously made his database available on his personal website and it has been an indispensable resource for me ever since it appeared. It is planned to transfer the database to the web servers of the Institute of English Studies in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, but this process appears to have taken some time, and earlier this year Robin's own site became unavailable, so that for some time it has not been possible to access the database directly.

However, fortunately the information on Robin's own website can be recovered from the Wayback Machine. Care has to be taken in using these archived copies, since the Wayback Machine snapshots do not always give the complete listing. These pdfs give the fullest version of the indexes to the Library History database posted by Robin on his website. The date of the Wayback Machine archived version used is given in brackets.

Robin's introduction to the project is available here. There are lists of libraries as follows: England (8 July 2006); Scotland (19 July 2006); Wales (8 July 2006); Ireland (excluding Dublin) (8 July 2009); Dublin (4 May 2009); Islands (4 May 2009). There is a consolidated index of places (20 July 2005). A breakdown of societies listed in the database (4 Jan. 2006) and some summary statistics (12 Oct. 2007) are also available. Finally, there is a consolidated list of sources used in compiling the database.

Robin was also in the process of producing a pioneering database of country house libraries. He wrote that 'The Country House Database represents a first attempt at listing country houses in the British Isles from the late medieval period to ca. 1850, together with an index to all the families so far traced as having occupied them. Certain types of house have been omitted (for fairly obvious reasons): Episcopal and Royal Palaces (some notable exceptions);Large vicarages (known to have contained libraries throughout their history); Castles with little history beyond the Civil War; Houses abandoned by the middle of the seventeenth century; Ecclesiastical buildings destroyed in the Dissolution; Houses for which no adequate evidence could be established regarding historical ownership; Houses which for most of their history were let rather than sold; Large farm houses. Some idea of the extent of these exclusions may be gathered by the fact that I have had to relegate to a subsidiary file over 1,000 houses. In the period between the first county directories (ca. 1820) and 1850 over 10,000 residences belonging to the gentry and minor aristocracy have been identified, but with negligible evidence for their history. While a fair proportion of these have survived, and are noted in Pevsner's monumental series of volumes covering buildings in the British Isles, almost nothing is known about the families that occupied them. Where possible I have included the names of well-known owners; details regarding the libraries (where any are known); dates when libraries were sold; demolition or destruction by fire; references to the considerable number of studies of country houses (national, county, local), particularly sources, like Campbell, Neale, or Morris, which have illustrations; rebuilding, remodelling, and enlarging'.

The following are the listings, as preserved in the Wayback Machine, of the Country House Database in England (1 Feb. 2009), Scotland (1 Jan. 2009), Wales (1 Jan. 2009), Ireland (1 Jan. 2009) and the Islands (1 Jan. 2009).

On sources for the Country House Database, Robin wrote that: 'In order to keep entries as brief as possible most sources are given abbreviated reference, but there is a full list of the large number of sources on which the database has been built. These include older (but indispensable) national sources such as J.B. Burke's Visitation (1852-55); early guide books and directories; county and town histories; modern national and county surveys; all the volumes of the Victoria County History which have published volumes dealing with manorial history; accounts by contemporary travelers (from Leland to Cromwell); articles in Country Life; brief histories of houses, frequently published privately and difficult to locate; estate sale catalogues (the best collection is in the Cambridge University Library); auction sale records. The best collection of works, including rare pamphlets, is in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had originally intended to list family histories, but keeping up with genealogical literature is quite impossible for a single labourer in the vineyard! Recent publications on historic buildings can be found at the English Heritage site. A number of the larger country houses now have promotional websites, but these generally do not provide any useful information about their libraries or owners'.

On the family index to the Country House database, Robin commented that 'This index contains over 7,000 records for families identified with the 4,000+ houses listed. In cases where a house had numerous owners, some for only a brief period, I have compromised historical completeness by listing only the most important owners. One important discovery of my researches concerns the number of houses owned by a single family during the period covered: a staggering 2,194. The number of houses with just two owners is 1007. For published family histories T.R. Thomson's A Catalogue of British Family Histories (London, Society of Genealogists, 1980) is invaluable. For the aristocracy the standard works by Burke, O'Hart, Doyle, Douglas, and the 12 volume Complete Peerage (London, 1910-53) contain vast amounts of accurate information'.

As part of the work on the Country House Database, Robin was also compiling a list of private owners of books, and his preliminary findings as preserved in the Wayback Machine can be seen here (1 Jan. 2009). In connection with this work, Robin also compiled a preliminary list of members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries.

Postscript (26 August 2013):

Here's another obituary of Robin. I think the importance of Robin's pioneering work in laying rthe groundwork for some of the most important online digital resources in the humanities is one that needs to be constantly reiterated:

Robin Carfrae Alston was born in 1933 in Trinidad, to a family in the shipping business. He was educated at Rugby School and at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. After further studies in Oxford he secured a teaching fellowship in Toronto. There, in the exhilarating early days of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, Alston was, in 1956-58, able to define his mission and envisage his magnum opus. He proposed revising and extending the early modern English materials of Kennedy's A Bibliography of Writings on the English Language from the Beginning of Printing to the End of 1922 (1927), an ambitious project which resulted in the 20-plus volumes of A Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to the Year 1800 (BEL). He moved to King's College London to work on his PhD, an examination of English spelling reform in the 16th and 17th centuries -- the first step towards BEL. Working in the British Library, under the superintendency of Howard Nixon, stimulated fellowship with bibliographical heavyweights -- W. A. Jackson (from Harvard) and Bernhard Fabian (Munster) -- and encouraged him to trawl collections of English material throughout Europe and North America.
BEL was a gargantuan undertaking. Alston embarked on exhaustive bibliographical field-work that ranged across the humanities from philosophy to the history of law. The learned presses (OUP, CUP) fought shy of the prospect.
Self-publishing brought him complementary careers as businessman and technological entrepreneur. Appointed to a teaching post in English language in Leeds in 1964 -- where he is remembered as a stimulating lecturer -- Alston launched the Scolar Press, the first of his publishing ventures, providing cheap facsimile reprints of early English language texts aimed at advanced students, a pioneering operation, for which he invented the Prismascope device for photographing fragile books. In 1973, with the founding of the Janis Press, he turned to experimental lithographic printing.
With the foundation of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US in 1965 the search for suitable large research projects eventually led the British Library (BL) to develop an English-language 18th-century short-title catalogue, following on the smaller manual Short-Title Catalogues 1475-1640 (STC) and 1641-1700 (Wing). Knowing Alston's unusual combination of sophisticated archival experience with business and technological nous, Nixon's successor, Ian Willison, arranged for Alston, as consultant to D.T. Richnell (BL director general) to develop the epoch-making, computerised Anglo-American Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue project, followed by full-text commercial microfilming.
When its administrative and financial base moved to the US it was expanded as the English Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1800) under the direction of the equally entrepreneurial Henry Snyder, and became a stepping-stone towards the world digital archive.
Alston's status as BL consultant later proved an inadequate base for further innovation, though he compiled various important BL finding aids and initiated seminars introducing researchers to the growing resources of the internet.
He moved on in 1990 to become Professor of Library Studies in the University of London at UCL, and initiated in 1995 the first MA in the History of the Book, based in the university's Institute of English Studies, and The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. On retirement in 1998 he became an honorary senior research fellow of the institute. Among other honours, he was appointed OBE "for services to bibliography" (1992) and an Hon DLitt of the University (2005).
Alston's work was a milestone in the development of digital scholarship and in the examination of what he called the "universe of collections". Essentially a pathfinder, he had set about exploring the role of BEL across the humanities as a whole. He did not live to complete this investigation but he left a global agenda for historical linguistics with major research libraries and associated faculty such as the BL and the School of Advanced Study, London constituting "centres of synthesis". That is Alston's legacy to his many admirers and students.
Alston married first Joanna Ormiston (marriage dissolved 1996), second Janet Pedley-King (dissolved 1999) and thirdly Conceicao Neves da Silva Colella, who survives him, along with a son and a daughter.
Professor Robin Alston, OBE, scholar and bibliographer, was born on January 29, 1933. He died on June 29, 2011, aged 78

Read more »