LIS can be a very broad discipline that covers everything from theories of information, social media, scholarly communication to the effects of the internet on human thought. It also supports and intersects with many academic disciplines, with elements of science, sociology and humanities. As digital technology has evolved the discipline of LIS has adapted to confront and consider issues that have arisen around the management, conservation, preservation of documents in the digital realm. It has also utilised the potential of digital technology and tools to not only preserve physical documents, but also make them available to new audiences.

One academic discipline which has also begun to harness the potential of digital tools and technology is the humanities. Much like LIS they too work with documents, such as books and manuscripts, and make use of digitisation, digital libraries and data mining. Indeed, as Welshnotes there has even been a debate as to whether LIS, as an academic discipline falls within the humanities, noting the placement of some iSchools within humanities department in some Universities, whereas in others, such as #citylis it is grouped with computer science. To further complicate matters, humanities itself has a subset known as Digital Humanities which as I noted before is concerned with utilizing Digital tools to enhance their understanding and knowledge of humanistic texts. The history of the Digital Humanities, dates back to the early 1990s, when humanities scholars realized that the internet could provide them with new methods for exploring and discussing scholarly texts. And in 1994 the Text Encoding Initiative(TEI) was launched as standard for the representation of texts in digital form.

Gabriel Harvey by Thomas Nashe via Wikemedia Commons

Gabriel Harvey and The Archaeology of Reading

Born in Saffron Walden circa 1550 Gabriel Harvey, was an English writer and friend of Elizabethan poet Edmund Spencer. He was a scholar and well educated studying Christ College Cambridge, before becoming a fellow at Pembroke Hall (later College), in 1570. After failing to be elected a master of Trinity Hall Cambridge, he would go onto complete his doctorate of civil law at Oxford. During the last decade of the 1500s he engaged in a pamphlet-war with Thomas-Nashe and retired in 1598, having again failed to obtain a mastership at Trinity Hall.2

As well as publishing commentaries he was a prolific annotator of books, his annotations have become the subject of study as much as his letters, providing a window of insight into the way in which reading was carried out in the early modern period for scholars such as Anthony Grafton and the late Professor Lisa Jardine. The density and extent of annotations made by Harvey, have proved a considerable challenge for anyone studying his texts. Not only did they include marginal notes, but also underlining of words, and use of symbols each with a specific meaning, requiring deciphering and understanding not only at page level, but also within the wider body of the text as a whole and perhaps also Harvey’s collection of books.

On Thursday October 13, UCL’s Centre for Lives and Letters (CELL) hosted a launch event for phase one of the Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe. Having an interest in early modern history, Digital Humanities and libraries, I signed up to what was billed as a workshop on the history of reading and the Digital Humanities, to see what I could learn. The answer quite a lot!

A Digital Bookwheel

The Archaeology of Reading(AOR), is a digital humanities initiative from CELL, Johns Hopkins University, and Princeton University, funded by the Mellon Foundation. The project is intended to build upon:

…several decades of humanistic research that has focused upon the printing revolution of the sixteenth century, and the widespread practice by active readers of leaving often dense, interpretive manuscript annotations in the margins, and between the lines, of the books they read. This diverse evidence of annotation provides a considerable range of unique and largely untapped research materials, which reveal that readers—much as users of the internet today—adapted quickly to the technology of print: interacting intimately, dynamically, socially, and even virtually with texts.3

In many ways this could be an LIS project, current LIS research often considers and examines the way in which technology is changing the way we think and consume information. This project looks at annotation by readers such as Harvey as evidence of how they adapted to print, that is how print affected their reading habits. My first assignment for #citylis took a similar approach, in considering how the changes is in the form of documents, from Manuscript to Printed Book affected LIS and to a degree human thinking. LIS researchers have also drawn parallels between the information explosion of printing and that of the internet (See Bawden & Robinson 2000), and it was this that drew me to the event.

A page from Harvey's T. Livius, Romanae historiae principis (1555) showing his annotation
A page from Harvey’s T. Livius, Romanae historiae principis (1555) showing his annotation

The evening took the format of presentations followed by a Q&A from a panel that included AOR-chaeologists. Earl Havens, Johns Hopkins University Principal Investigator for AOR, kicked off the vent with a talk about the genesis of the project, a meeting between himself and Anthony Grafton, where they were discussing how Harvey read his copy of Livy’s History of Rome. Information overflow was a theme of the discussions of the project and of Harvey’s own writings and readings, as co-principal investigator Matthew Symonds (UCL/CELL) talked about their approach of  treating Harvey’s annotations, as a dataset, he gave a useful definition of big data, as being ‘too much information’ for one person to handle.

Symonds talked about the role of curation saying that the word is not commonly recognised in the contact of Digital Humanities projects, but that it is a bad sign if projects don’t talk about curation, arguing that it affects decisions and involved the prgmatics of corpus selection, getting not just the books, but also the right editions and taking care of them.

Dr Jaap Geraerts, Postdoctoral fellow at CELL, gave an overview of the technical aspects of the project, discussing the different layers served up by the interface of the AOR website. This includes a storage layer, archive layer and a tools access layer which an IIF API for serving up images, through the Mirador viewer. The use of IIIF ensures that the project integrates standards which will allow for future interoperability and allow for future migration to interoperable viewers with greater capacity. The top two layers comprise the AOR website and the aforementioned viewer.

Technical structure of the AOR -
Technical structure of the AOR – Source:

He went on to discuss how the different teams kept in touch via fortnightly Skype meetings, during the two year development period, saying also that there was close integration between the developers and the humanities staff.

Geraerts gave an interesting presentation on the development of the XML framework used for the project, highlighting how they built a custom specification to accommodate the variety of different types of annotations created by Harvey. He explained that they chose an XML Schema over simple transcription of the annotations, as an unstructured data approach would not have been sufficient to allow them to answer the questions they wanted to ask. For AOR it was decided that they would create their own schema, rather than use an existing one, such as the one developed for TEI which seen as too  ‘top-heavy’ for their purposes. The Schema developed was constructed around classification of different annotation types, but is also flexible enough that it could be easily updated to allow the inclusion of additional books. It also takes advantage of XMLs rich data functionality to allow the tagging of mentioned authors and cross searching the entire corpus.

In all 13 books were chosen for the project with the 13th being purchased and immediately digitised by Johns Hopkins, specifically for the project. All annotations were translated from Latin to English, and across the entire corpus the captured nearly  230,000 words to create the data-set. The platform allows a range of query based searches and includes an advanced search function which allows you to combine searches across multiple annotation types.

Example of advanced search in the Archaeology of Reading
Example of advanced search in the Archaeology of Reading

Silence and emotion in the Margins

Arnoud Visser (University of Utrecht) gave a presentation gave an interesting presentation  on the presence of silence and emotion in Harvey’s annotations, looking at what was unwritten, absence or alluded to in Harvey’s marginalia. He cited various examples of where Harvey had written either cryptic or admonishing marginalia, either addressing himself or the writer.

In one example he wrote in his copy of Livy:

Multa uix audeo scribere, qua[e] obitèr cogito legens..” 
“Much of what I think in passing while I am reading, I hardly dare to write down…” 

Screenshot of Harvey's Livy p.481
P.481 of Gabriel Harvey’s Livy featuring the annotation: “Much of what I think in passing while I am reading, I hardly dare to write down…” (bottom of page)

Elsewhere, he implores himself to spend more time simply reading rather than annotating, writing:

“Minus scriptionis: plus, plusq[ue] lectionis mihi conducit, expedit actori. Eccè Liuius ipse instar omnium notarum schola[e], aut obseruationum mundi.”

” It would be proper for me and expedient for a man of action to do less writing, and much more reading. Look, Livy himself is equivalent to all comments of the academy, or observations in the world.”

Annotation at the bottom of page p.386 of Harvey's Livy
Harvey’s Livy with the annotation reminding himself to: “do less writing, and much more reading”

Visser compares Harvey’s interactions with his texts to Luther’s reading of Erasmus, arguing that much like Luther Harvey was not a ‘kind reader‘, citing pages in Luther’s own books where ink splodges on the pages where left where he had slammed the book shut in anger. As he writes in Erasmus, Luther and the Margins of Biblical Understanding:

“The marginalia vividly show which arguments triggered Luther’s ire. Ink marks on pages opposite to those with heated notes reveal how Luther on some occasions closed the book without even waiting for the ink to dry.“4

A slide from Arnoud Visser's Presentation on emotion in Harvey's Marginalia
A slide from Arnoud Visser’s Presentation on emotion in Harvey’s Marginalia
Luther's copy of the New Testament in which he describes himself as 'not a kind reader'
Luther’s copy of the New Testament in which he describes himself as ‘not a kind reader’ via Annotated Books Online

By contrast Harvey at least appears more respectful and even admiring of his authors, as seen by Anthony Grafton and the aforementioned late Lisa Jardine in their now seminal article on how Harvey read Livy when they note that:

Near the beginning of the Livy he has a long note on Livy’s style and its importance: Livy’s style, especially in the speeches. No Latin or Greek speeches deserve more careful reading or meticulous selection than Livy’s; Perion assembled them into a sort of technical order. Hence, when I have time to read, or to imitate, or even to emulate speeches, I prefer no others to these, or others of Livy’s, which are both sharp in sense and polished in expression.

After the presentations had finished there was a drinks reception, including commemoration of Lisa Jardine, and the announcement of a further grant from Mellon Foundation for Phase 2 of the project. This will be more ambitious and aims to make 21 books belonging to the lost library of Dr John Dee from British libraries, UCL and the Royal College of Physicians. There was also a speech by Bill Sherman, Head of Research at the V&A, and John Dee scholar, who spoke about how Dee’s marginalia are far more visual than Harvey.He is currently working on a study of visual marginalia called The Reader’s Eye, asking if ‘reading’ is the right word to describe the activities of Dee and Harvey. The visual nature of Dee’s reading will pose challenges for the next phase requiring significant reworking of the xml schema.

John Dee's drawing of a ship on a page of the complete works of Cicero Photograph by John Chase, image © Royal College of Physicians
John Dee’s drawing of a ship on a page of the complete works of Cicero – Photograph by John Chase, image ©Royal College of Physicians

During the reception I had a chance to briefly talk to some of the panellists and guests, such as Geraerts and the Librarian from the Royal College of Physicians, the latter of which was kind enough to tell me more about John Dee and his Library.

Early Modern Information Retrieval

It was a very interesting event, despite the fact that I had never heard of Gabriel Harvey prior to the evening, and new equally as much about the study of marginalia. And it made me think about whether marginalia can be seen as documents in their own right. Clearly they are mostly (con)text dependent, I believe they may sometimes be classified as a paratexts, but can we consider these to be documents in their own right distinct from the original text?

Furthermore, Harvey’s marginalia form a kind of early modern hypertext with numerous cross references between parts of individual texts and across multiple texts, as Grafton and Jardine note:

“In addition to the richness and density of annotation throughout them, there is persist- ent echoing of sentiments from one book to another; cross-referencing of one of these authors in the margins of another; recognizable continuity of handwriting, to the extent that we can sometimes hazard a guess as to which book succeeded which other in the circulating process of reading and annotation; narrative notes about contemporary or near contemporary affairs continued from the margins of one volume to another..”(p.51)

This multithreaded approach to reading makes it harder to view the marginalia of individual texts in isolation, but rather as constituent parts of a larger whole. In LIS terms Harvey’s approach to his texts could be considered a form of early modern hypertext or linked data, where the reader moves back and forth between documents. His marginal notes make it apparent that he worked on several books at a time. This was by no means an insignificant undertaking, practically and logistically it required having space to not only access but also write in up to 15 books at a time with handwriting which was described, by rival Thomas Nashe no less, as being more elaborate than “many a copyholder or magistral scribe that holds all his living by setting schoolboys copies”5

Harvey’s practices of reading could only have been possible through use of an invention of Agostino Ramelli, the book wheel. The book wheel was one of several designs published by Ramelli, a military engineer, in his book Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli (The various and ingenious machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli). The machine utilized a system of cogs and gears, known as epicyclic gearing, normally found in astronomical clocks, to ensure that all the books remain at a constant angle so that the reader could keep their place.

Bookwheel, from Agostino Ramelli's Le diverse et artifiose machine, 1588
Bookwheel, from Agostino Ramelli’s Le diverse et artifiose machine, 1588 – Wikimedia Commons

As Ramelli wrote about his design

“This wheel is made in the manner shown, that is, it is constructed so that when the books are laid on its lecturns they never fall or move from the place where they are laid even as the wheel is turned and revolved all the way around. Indeed, they will always remain in the same position and will be displayed to the reader in the same way as they were laid on their small lecturns, without any need to tie or hold them with anything”7

For me the discovery of the existence of such a machine is almost as intriguing as the books of Harvey and explains the choice of logo for the AOR website and blog. It also further  informs us about early modern approaches to reading and information retrieval, as Grafton and Jardine put it:

“The book-wheel and the centrifugal mode of reading it made possible amounted to an effective form of information retrieval – and that in a society where books were seen as offering powerful knowledge, and the reader who could focus the largest number of books on a problem or an opportunity would therefore appear to have the advantage”.8

Just as we(in LIS) study the history of books, documents and Libraries, so too we should consider also the history of reading, and reading practices to gain greater insights into how knowledge is acquired from books and other how the understanding of and knowledge. As Haven’s remarked following the announcement of the project in 2014:

“There are so many parallels between our project, and the digital world of information that we live in today….these notes reveal a largely unvarnished history of personal reading within the early modern historical moment. They also embody an active tradition of physically mapping and personalizing knowledge upon the printed page. The added practice of referencing and cross-referencing other works in these marginal annotations also allows us, like those early readers, to engage with the presence of ‘virtual libraries’ within the space of a single book.”.9


  1. Welsh, A (2012) “Historical bibliography in the digital world” in  Warwick et al (2012) 2012, Digital humanities in practice Facet : London.
  2.  The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe: Centre for Editing Lives and Letters
  3. Senchyne, J. (2016) “Between Knowledge and Metaknowledge: Shifting Disciplinary Borders in Digital Humanities and Library and Information Studies” in Debates in the Digital Humanities Minneapolis : University Minnesota Press.
  4. Visser, A (2016) Erasmus, Luther, and the Margins of Biblical Misunderstanding in For the sake of learning : essays in honor of Anthony Grafton Leiden ; Boston : Brill.
  5.  Grafton, A & Jardine, L (1990) “Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy Past & Present, No. 129 (Nov., 1990), pp. 30-78
  6. Nashe, T  Selected Writings, ed. S. Wells in rafton, A & Jardine, L (1990) “Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy Past & Present, No. 129 (Nov., 1990), pp. 30-78
  7. (2016). Agostini Ramelli Describes a Renaissance Information Retrieval Device and Other Machines (1588) :
  8.  Grafton, A & Jardine, L (1990) “Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy Past & Present, No. 129 (Nov., 1990), pp.48.
  9. Exploring the Archaeology of reading.(July 10, 2014) News Release. Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications. 
Further Reading

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