Lab #7 Prompt

Today’s readings argue that both bibliographic and computational analyses have tended to segregate text and image. Caroline Wigginton argues that “illustrations…are almost uniformly absent from bibliographies, just like non-alphabetic Native books more generally, because European and Euro-American literary scholars have not historically recognized illustrations of Indigenous objects as books” (pg. 274). For Wigginton, this omission is troubling because though it “scholars implicitly consent to colonialist strategies that transform the texts of America’s many distinct and dynamic Indigenous nations and leaders into exotic objects of collection and federal bureaucracy” and, more practically, this means “there is no comprehensive system by which someone might find and read” these illustrated texts.

Even looking beyond illustrations of indigenous objects, bibliography as a field has typically omitted illustrations from its accounts of books, since they were historically produced through distinct methods from books’ words, so that illustrations are not, for example, included in the collation formula that describes a book’s format. Similarly, Andrew Piper, Chad Wellmon and Mohamed Cheriet argue that in digital humanities,

computational approaches to pages have remained heavily influenced by a text-centric mentality, using the page image as an (often imperfect) means to an end, an object to be passed through rather than studied as something potentially meaningful in itself…Images are seen as independent of texts, whether as stand-alone objects or paratextual “illustrations.” Emerging computational approaches to studying the past thus recapitulate long-standing disciplinary divisions and in the process reinforce textuality as the ideal object of study when it comes to documents (pg. 365-366).

Not only are images themselves worthy of computational study, they argue, but considering the page itself as an image, rather than a bag of words, offers insights that text analysis techniques alone might miss.

Today we are back in the archives, where Cait Coker and I have selected a range of bookish objects that both explicate histories of image technologies over time and pressure the limitations of bibliographic and computational analyses. As we look at our archival objects today—and perhaps in pictures after the lab session—attend to those edge cases and limitations. Choose 2 of the objects to analyze in detail. Consider the interplay of image and text in your chosen objects and answer questions such as:

  1. How might you describe your objects for a catalog or finding aid? Are there aspects of the object that would be difficult to communicate to researchers as they browse or search? Are there elements that would be hard to record in existing systems, like the indigenous pipes described in Wigginton’s article?
  2. Can you imagine alternative systems or modes of description that might better capture aspects of your object for researchers?
  3. If you were tasked with digitizing your objects, what challenges would they present? Would a scan and OCR workflow sufficiently capture your objects, or would other metadata—or even data types or formats—need to be recorded?
  4. What kinds of computational analyses would be most relevant to your object? Would they be amenable to typical modes of text analysis—or might they require DIA, as described in this week’s article, or other forms of image analyses? Have you seen work that seems relevant to these kinds of bookish objects, or do they seem to fall outside of the DH work you’ve encountered thus far?

You should not feel compelled to answer all of these questions, or to answer only these questions. Really, use these as prompts to think about the gaps and fissures that image-centric objects can still present to book historians and digital humanists alike in 2022.