11 January 2009

CBAA conference: woodcut novels, images and (more) archives

Some more good stuff from CBAA. David Berona shared some of his work on woodcut novels, which (he points out on his website) have been described by Scott McCloud as the "missing links" in the history of comic books. And, of course, they're beautiful. Berona discussed the work of Lynd Ward in particular, a woodcut artist who published pictorial novels during the Great Depression. Here are some images from his last book, Vertigo:


Julie Melby followed Berona with a wonderful survey of books that combine word and image in interesting ways, starting with Giambattista Palatino's study of writing in 1540 through late-19th-century illustrated works. As Julie pointed out, although Blake is often lauded as unique in the history of literature for printing and illustrating his own poems, there are many examples of similar works in the history of visual books. Always nice to discover new histories!

I can't find any of the images she showed online, but luckily she posted her Powerpoint slides over on her blog. More work needs to be done on these books.

Interestingly enough, just about every panel I attended featured some discussion of the digital archive, a topic I've kind of obsessed about on this blog over the last few months. In particular, Manuel Portela gave a nice talk this morning on the limitations of an archive such as Artists' Books Online, which shows only one page at a time. While I think it's wonderful that that librarians and artists and scholars have the opportunity to debate what is lost in the digital archive and how the choices archivists make affect our work, I'm at the point where I feel like "what is lost" is no longer as fruitful a question is "what are we going to do about it." That's ridiculously glib, I know, especially since I've written before on how moving parts in books get elided in the digital archive -- but I'm starting to feel that there's the danger in this kind of argument of over-emphasizing the importance of the "original" book or media form.

This afternoon, Jessica Despain gave a nice talk on digital humanities projects in which she argued we need to approach these projects with bibilographic and book history principles in mind -- in other words, editors need to be upfront about their practical decisions, and scholars need to always acknowledge and incorporate the paratexts and contexts into their interpretative work. I like this approach a lot. It sidesteps the "what is lost, what is gained" debate -- which, of course, is still a very important conversation to have -- by giving scholars a realistic model for incorporating digital archives into their research. The book doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the rare book reading room is not a neutral space. Readers always exist in socialized, institutionalized environments. The web is just another one that we need to learn how to read, and how to discuss.

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