Postcard from the Volcano: Nineteenth Century Poetry by the Book

A seminar with Professor Andrew Stauffer (Virginia)

Wednesday 18 May 4pm-6pm

Lecture Theatre K2.31*  (King’s Building, Strand Campus) King’s College London

Refreshments will be served after the seminar.

Andrew Stauffer is the Director of NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Studies), a hub for online discovery and scholarship, and a peer-reviewing organization for digital projects.  He is an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia.

ABSTRACT: As Anthony Grafton has put it, “a strange kind of war is being waged” in many academic research libraries between the traditional idea of the library as physical repository and research space and the emerging concept of the library as virtual data center and access portal. National collections of nineteenth-century material – plentiful, various, out of copyright, and often fragile due to poor paper – are at the epicenter of such negotiations.  Unlike earlier materials (now almost exclusively in special collections) and post-1923 publications (still in copyright), books from the age of industrial printing are rapidly being made available freely online.  As a result, libraries are under pressure to justify their continued support for the material collections.  We are now at the end of the 150-year cycle that produced such collections in the first place: from the printing of the books after the 1830s to their acquisition by research libraries as collections got built through the twentieth century. What will be the contours of this archive as it emerges from this decade of digitization? What will the nineteenth century look like with 2020 vision?

In this paper, I make the case for the continuing scholarly and cultural value of individual copies of 19th-century literary works in our academic research libraries.  I am interested in the ways that books of poetry became personal touchstones for readers in the nineteenth-century. Like secular bibles of feeling, such volumes were frequently annotated and marked with episodes from the readers life; they were also taken as source-books for the language of emotional experience.  Focusing on three examples – two copies of Felicia Hemans’ collected works (1839 and 1843) and a copy of Longfellow’s Poems and Ballads (1891), I examine marginalia as part of the archive of the history of reading. In the Hemans volumes, two mothers mourn the deaths of their children. In the Longfellow book, a woman remembers and mourns her lost love who read the poems with her years before. These copies – unique and yet hardly anomalous in the larger reception history of 19th-century verse – demand our attention both as individual documents and as markers of a larger story about sentimentality and the use of poetry in the age of industrial printing.

The reception of these particular volumes reminds us that nineteenth-century book history, while necessarily interested in trends measurable by large swaths of counting, must also look to the evidence of individual encounter preserved in the single copy. This is a particularly urgent reminder, given the current transformation of research libraries under the pressure of digital surrogacy and Google books. We need to ask how opportunities for encounter with such unique copies of nineteenth-century books will be preserved as libraries go digital. Recent reports from OCLC, CLIR, ITHAKA, and other consortial policy makers suggest that low-use print collections may soon be withdrawn on a wide scale. Scholars need to be at the table as library policy decisions are being made, right now.

As scholars in the humanities, our role as the interpreters of the archive both demands preservation and depends upon access, and both of those terms are experiencing fundamental shifts under the influence of wide-scale digitization. A massive horizon of opportunity is now opening for humanists to trace the history of language, of ideas, of books, and of reading via automated searches and visualizations of the global digital library. Yet individual copies are under a general downward pressure in this new dispensation, and we do not know what copies are worth saving: half the point of scholarship has long been to discover new objects of significance that in many cases have been hiding in plain sight. Digitized archives will reveal wonders. Now, in concert with the digital transformation of the archive, we must also give sustained attention to the material record of the nineteenth century in its actuality, voicing a contrapuntal and tenacious intellectual advocacy on behalf of the specific pieces of historical evidence that, taken together, the only nineteenth century that we latecomers can ever know.

Poster for Download (PDF)

Getting to King’s

*Lecture Theatre K2.31: From the Strand entrance of the college, go straight ahead down the corridor, then take the staircase on the left just after the vending machine. Go up two flights of stairs. Go through the fire doors in front of you and K2.31 is immediately on your right.

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