Special Collections and Archives

Yin Liu, in “Ways of Reading, Models for Text, and the Usefulness of Dead People,” raises an interesting point about the varied ways in which notions of text vary with time by identifying four models: material, structural, semantic, and data. But I wish she would have made more explicit the symbiotic relationship between physical books and digital renditions like Andrew Stauffer did in “My Old Sweethearts: On Digitization and the Future of the Print Record.” I agree with Stauffer that humanists need the “digital and the analog” to thrive because there is more to classical works than the words on the page.

1957 Limited Editions Club Dorian Gray with artwork by modern primitivist artist Lucille Corcos.

An oft-overlooked facet of the Western canon is the publishing industry – which is profit-driven and uses material and textual structures to frame and enhance the cachet of books. Penguin Books published Steven Patrick Morrissey’s autobiography as a Penguin Classic, putting him among the ranks of established authors – Jane Austin, Dorian Gray, Charlotte Brontë, and F. Scott Fitzgerald chief among them.

The starkest example of publishing houses influencing the presentation and reception of novels, however, lies in the physical presentation of books. Gilt binding, artwork, and raised bands are some of the many ways in which institutions propagate works of the canon.

These conclusions have significant applications for special collections libraries as well as digital archives. While it is important to preserve the texts of works, it is equally as important to preserve the materials with which they were received. Dorian Gray was originally a short story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine; today it is a widely read novel.

First edition of Dorian Gray for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.

Dorian Gray’s induction into the canon owes as much to Oscar Wilde’s textual craft as to the myriad limited editions that led to its transnational circulation.

Ultimately, books do not exist in a vacuum. Pure digital editions run the risk of reducing the artwork and other niceties of special collector’s editions to pixels. Hopefully it does not come down to convenience trumping preservation in special collection libraries.