BookLab: Print to Programming

Instructor Info

Course Description

“BookLab: Print to Programming” offers an applied, comparative history of new media from the hand-press period to the present. Our approach will draw on scholarship in book history, bibliography, information science, media studies, and digital humanities, an intersection described by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman as “comparative textual media.” We will take this comparative, interdisciplinary approach first to better understand machines of reading (from the printed book to computer code) as material, historical, and cultural objects. We will examine how practices of reading, writing, and publishing have interacted—thematically and materially—with contemporaneous technological innovations over the past 250 years. This cross-historical examination will open new modes of materially-engaged critique for our technological present.

In this class we focus on books as a synecdoche for a broader constellation of creative and informational media technologies. As scholars, students, and teachers, books are a medium we have lots of experience with, and one we feel like we understand. The full continuum of bookish objects, however, is much wider and weirder than we tend to imagine. Understanding the diverse ways humans have imagined, produced, circulated, and interpreted books gives us new purchase on questions of authority, agency, privacy, labor, and sustainability that remain central to socio-technical discourse, and which cut across academic fields, from information science to to book history, from computer science to literary studies.

We will complement our readings with praxis, gaining hands-on experience through critical making experiments using textual technologies from letterpress to zines to computer programming, as well as with archival materials from UIUC’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Together, weekly “book labs” and course discussions will help us consider relationships among modes of textual production, reception, and interpretation: including in our purview both “intellectual work,” such as writing, and “manual labor,” such as setting.

Through our discussions we will develop greater capacities to critically read machines, analyzing the political, cultural, and social forces that shape—and are shaped by—textual technologies. We will raise urgent questions around privacy, algorithmic bias, intellectual property, information overload, and textual authority, asking how a rich new media history might inform our technological present and contribute to a richer construction of the digital humanities and information sciences fields.


In developing this course I learned from many people, but I particularly thank Whitney Trettien, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Kari Kraus for graduate syllabi from which I drew particular inspiration. I thank Matthew and Kari, in particular, for the Book Lab moniker, which they graciously agreed to share.

Pre- and Co-requisites

BookLab presumes no prior experience and thus is well suited for all students interested in book history, digital humanities, or adjacent fields.

Course Materials

The majority of our readings will be available online. You will need to acquire the The Book, however, which is available through the campus bookstore. I also recommend you buy a copy of Sarah Werner’s book Studying Early Printed Books, 1450-1800 if you can. There is an electronic version available through the library, but it seems only one reader at a time can access it, which could become complicated.

Course Policies

Caveat Emptor

This class may be a bit different from most of your graduate classes. I hope you will see these differences as exciting and intellectually stimulating, but you should be aware of the following caveats as we begin (and thanks to Miriam Posner for writing the first draft of these caveats for her DH grad course). If you can face these challenges with persistence, verve, and (reasonably) good humor—and abide by the code of conduct outlined below—we should have an intellectually enlivening semester. If you have any concerns about these caveats, please come talk to me. I am confident we can find a way forward if we work together.

1. The course will itself be an experiment.

The concepts and structure of BookLab emerged from my experiences teaching experiential book and media history to undergraduates; my own experiences—alongside faculty, librarians, and graduate students—with hands-on archival work and instruction through organizations such as the Rare Book School and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute; and my growing conviction that theory and praxis must be intertwined in scholarly discussions of historical and contemporary textual technologies. This course will focus on inscription technologies from the hand press period to the internet, which we will come to understand through a range of readings and hands-on book labs in class.

An experiential course such as this opens itself up to many quirks: the syllabus may shift; a given tool might not work as expected; an experiment might veer off track or fail altogether. In other words, this course will require both an inventive spirit and patience from its students.

2. You may not produce a final seminar paper.

You will likely produce a final, (potentially) collaborative project that will ask you to be conscious about relationships among media and messages. Likely this project will require substantial writing, but it will not look like a 20 page seminar paper at semester’s end. Instead, your projects will require sustained work and will be multimodal, comprising text and other elements (e.g. digital images, maps, network graphs). Your projects may be fully digital, fully analog, or some hybrid of the two. These projects may well lead into more established forms of writing or publication, but we will not begin there.

3. You will collaborate (not just do group work).

Digital humanities projects often require collaboration among scholars who bring different intellectual and technical skills to expansive projects. This class will require you to work together both in class and for some of your assignments, distributing responsibilities and sharing credit.

4. You will be required to acquire some technical skills (old and new).

I do not require or assume any particular technical experience as we begin this course, but I will expect you to be willing to experiment with new tools and learn new technical skills throughout the semester. In this course, those skills will run the gamut from the historical—such as letterpress printing—to the contemporary—such as computer programming. “I’m not very technical” will not excuse you from the hands-on portions of the course any more than “I’m not poetic” would excuse you from reading Dickinson in a survey of American literature. Some of the tools we test you may find useful for your research program; some you will not. But I expect you to try them with enthusiasm and an open mind.

Code of Conduct

The code of conduct for this course borrows directly from the stellar model outlined by Northeastern’s Feminist Coding Collective. Their Code of Conduct and Community Guidelines are well worth consulting in full, but I have copied and lightly adapted those items most pertinent to the work we will do in our class.

COVID Caveat

I have adapted much of the prose on this page and the linked syllabus pages from other courses offered in very different semesters. I have tried to adjust the course policies and expectations to account for the strangeness of the times. I am certain, however, that I have not imagined every situation that might arise, or fully accounted for the full range or extremity of situations you might find yourselves in this term. Frankly, I will rely on your understanding and grace as I teach this course in entirely new ways. I hope to extend the same understanding and grace to you.

Consider this caveat an override switch for everything—yes, literally everything—else on the syllabus. I mean this sincerely: everything on this syllabus and in this class is subject to this one clause. We’re all doing our best to learn together during an unprecedentedly difficult time. We’re working in new ways and in unusual environments. We are caring for others while trying to keep ourselves healthy, sheltered, fed, and sane. We are worried all the time, and some of us are dealing with fear and loss. Among all these challenges, I still want to come together and talk about media history and digital humanities because I find these topics fascinating and—dare I say it, given this world we find ourselves in—important. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and even have some fun together in the next months. I will operate from the base assumption that each of you is here in good faith: that you are curious, engaged, and eager to do the best work you can.

Taking all that as given, I also want you to know that your health—both physical and mental—is always more important to me than this class. Your family and friends’ health is always more important to me than this class. You don’t have to apologize to me if attempting to learn during a pandemic forces you to work at a different pace from what’s outlined on this syllabus, or if we need to find an alternative path for you through this class. My primary role as a teacher is to support you however I can. Let me know how I can do that better. I mean all of this, sincerely. Let’s work together to meet the challenges and find the joys of this strange semester.

Academic Integrity

The iSchool has the responsibility for maintaining academic integrity so as to protect the quality of education and research in our school and to protect those who depend on our integrity. Consequences of academic integrity infractions may be serious, ranging from a written warning to a failing grade for the course or dismissal from the University.

See the student code for academic integrity requirements:

Statement of Inclusion

As the state’s premier public university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s core mission is to serve the interests of the diverse people of the state of Illinois and beyond. The institution thus values inclusion and a pluralistic learning and research environment, one which we respect the varied perspectives and lived experiences of a diverse community and global workforce. We support diversity of worldviews, histories, and cultural knowledge across a range of social groups including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, abilities, economic class, religion, and their intersections.

Religious Observances

In keeping with our Statement of Inclusion and Illinois law, the University is required to reasonably accommodate its students’ religious beliefs, observances, and practices in regard to admissions, class attendance, and the scheduling of examinations and work requirements.

Religious Observance Accommodation Request form:

Other accommodations may be available.

Accessibility Statement

To insure disability-related concerns are properly addressed from the beginning of the semester, I request that students with disabilities who require assistance to participate in this class contact me as soon as possible to discuss your needs and any concerns you may have. The University of Illinois may be able to provide additional resources to assist you in your studies through the office of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES). This office can assist you with disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids. Please contact them as soon as possible by visiting the office in person: 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign; visiting the website:; calling (217) 333-4603 (V/TTY); or via e-mail NOTE: I do not require a letter from DRES in order to discuss your requested accommodations.

Land Acknowledgment

Suggested by Native American House:

I recognize and acknowledge that we are on the lands of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations. These lands were the traditional territory of these Native Nations prior to their forced removal; these lands continue to carry the stories of these Nations and their struggles for survival and identity.

As a land-grant institution, the University of Illinois has a particular responsibility to acknowledge the peoples of these lands, as well as the histories of dispossession that have allowed for the growth of this institution for the past 150 years. We are also obligated to reflect on and actively address these histories and the role that this university has played in shaping them. This acknowledgment and the centering of Native peoples is a start as we move forward for the next 150 years.

Graduate Academic Support & Tutoring:

The iSchool Writing Resources is the in-house writing support team for graduate students at the iSchool. They are here to help you with your writing and help you feel more comfortable and confident in your skills. The writing consultants are not professors or evaluators. They simply know the struggles of graduate and undergraduate-level writing and want to help you learn how to succeed and improve your writing skills. The iSchool writing consultants can help you with every step of the writing process. For detailed information on our services please visit our website: