Cleaning up

Sarah Werner has posted the text of her paper at the recent ‘Geographies of Desire’ conference at the University of Maryland: where material book culture meets digital humanities » Wynken de Worde. It’s a really useful overview of and reflection on the utility of digitized versions of early books and digital aids for studying books. Apparently it is possible to measure dirt on manuscripts:


One recent paper about the use of densitometers to study levels of dirt on the pages of medieval manuscripts suggests that we can learn about book usage through analyzing how and where dirt is distributed across a book. It might seem obvious that pages that are used more often will be dirtier, and that is in part what the author found, but the use of the densitometer revealed that it’s more complicated than we can always assess with the naked eye. The paper’s author, Kathryn Rudy, points out, for example, that she had assumed that two different patterns of dirt on an opening came from two different users, but the densitometer’s analysis suggested that the patterns were similar enough that they were likely to have been made by the same person—perhaps they held the book in different ways suitable for different prayers. The analysis also pointed out that even books that retain visible marks might have been cleaned by modern owners to such a degree that the dirt is no longer viable as an analytical tool, something that might help us think about the changes books undergo during modern ownership.

That reminded me of the controversy over Thomas Jefferson’s little-used sheet music at the Soundscapes of Early America conference at the University of Virginia that I mentioned in my previous blog post. I wonder if densitometers might be useful there, too? Although to be honest I think there’s so much at stake in that debate that any kind of analysis is going to be controversial.