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Screens, microfilms, and books: dreams and reality

In 1935 scholar-technologist Robert C. Binckley imagined how, with the aid of microfilm publishing, ‘the scholar in a small town can have resources of great metropolitan libraries at his disposal; similarly, a 1994 brochure for the microfilm collection The Eighteenth Century imagines the archive coming ‘to your library.’[1] In 1981, announcing the filming of the 18thC Short Title Catalogue, editor Robin Alston imagined the ability for scholars to seamlessly move between microfilms and a computer-based catalogue: ‘[e]ach text selected for filming will be keyed to the machine-readable record, … this means that users – whether libraries or scholars – will be given a unique opportunity to acquire access to both bibliographical records and whole-text reproductions.’[2] In 1995, riffing on Jorge Louis Borges’ fictional universe comprising a vast library of all knowledge, ‘The Library of Babel’, Kevin Kelley imagined the digital universe of knowledge: ‘[p]ages from the books appear on the screen one after another without delay. To search Borges’s Library of all possible books, past, present, and future, one needs only to sit down (the modern solution) and click the mouse.’[3]

Matthew Kirschenbaum, discussing commentaries on computing in the 1980s and 90s, conceptualised such visions as a ‘medial ideology’; and Nanna Thylstrup identified such dreams as key ‘spatial tropes’ characteristic of mass digitization projects from the 1990s to the present.[4]

When I was researching eighteenth-century books and their various remediated versions, my experience came close to many of these ideas. But dreams or theory didn’t really capture the experiential reality of analysing texts across and between different media. Analysing the fortunes of Patrick Browne’s The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica (1756, 1789), for instance, involved a complex dance of technologies and embodied experience. While a trackpad has replaced a mouse, I did indeed ‘sit down’ at a screen and worked from home, looking at online images on my laptop using ECCO (via JISC Historical Texts); images which were then downloaded and stored there. In addition, bibliographical records and locations had to be found, using an online bibliography – the ESTC – in conjunction with the British Library online catalogue and ordering service. However, in one important way the archive couldn’t come to me, so I had to go to the archive. Because ECCO is a based on 2D representations of books, and because catalogue records are to an extent an abstraction, I travelled to the British Library in order to examine this particular book-copy in all its 3D particularities. While at the library I navigated between my laptop (digitized images, online bibliography), the book, and a microfilm reader. It was not seamless. Not only did I have to re-learn how to load and use a microfilm reader, this and its control box took up most of the table space so that it was impossible to have all three items on the desk at once.


The distributed nature of transnational commercial publishing, however, really came home when I discovered that the particular book-copy I was reading on the microfilm reader was physically present in another continent. Luckily, I was able to converse with librarians across the Atlantic. Their generous help in being my eyes on the physical book underlined the limitations of online collections of texts. Of course it wasn’t luck – my scholarship was supported by their work, enabled by the visibility of institutions on the web, and by access to the global infrastructure of the internet, including the shared, privileged access to a paywalled online collection of texts known as ECCO. How that came into being is for another, longer, story.


[1] Robert C. Binkley, ‘New Tools for Men of Letters’, Yale Review n.s. 24 (1935): 519–537, Reprinted in Selected Papers of Robert C. Binkley, ed. Max H. Fisch (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 179-197 (p.184). The Eighteenth Century (Reading: Research Publications International, 1994).

[2] Robin Alston, ‘ESTC texts on microfilm’, Factotum: The Newsletter of the XVIIIth century STC, no.12, July 1981, p.2.

[3] Quoted in Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, The Politics of Mass Digitization (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018), p.103.

[4] Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), p.43); Thylstrup, Mass Digitization, p.107.