Dr Ellie Bleeker, researcher at Huygens Institute in Amsterdam, Dr Anne McLaughlin, senior research fellow at the National Gallery’s TANC-IIIF project, and Dr Christopher Ohge, Institute of English Studies and Digital Humanities Research Hub lecturer, on a hybrid teaching model that gave students a view of the digital research in book history landscape.

In 2021 LRBS offered a new course. ‘The Book Historian’s Digital Tool-kit’ sought to integrate digital humanities methods into the study of book history.

The course complemented live hands-on tutorials with pre-recorded video lectures, exercises, and other resources for the participants to explore at their own pace. This hybrid teaching model ensured that participants were well-prepared and could make the most out of the interactive live sessions. Digital methods can facilitate insights into the microcosm of the individual object and the cultural, historical and intellectual ecosystem of the book, broadly defined.

The tutors gave students a view of the landscape of digital research in book history, including bibliographic data and content management systems, data visualisation, systems for image sharing and annotation in libraries and archives, computer vision, and (semi-)automated collation. Instead of emphasising mastery of any particular technology, we encouraged computational thinking and digital experimentation to enhance historical research questions and information management.

What is ‘digital’ about book history? We argued that bibliography has long been concerned with data management. If we consider type facsimiles from the 19th century, which were enhanced by developments in photographic technology, it is clear technology has been used to make copies of books for around 200 years.

Libraries have been engaged in ‘digital’ projects since the 1930s, when Eugene Power established the University Microfilms Inc. to make microfilms of rare books, dissertations, and manuscripts in the UK. Since then, libraries have continued to incorporate a variety of digital technologies, ranging from electronic catalogues to mass digitisation programmes to digital exhibitions on the Internet. In publishing, since roughly the 1970s, books have increasingly become digital archives of computable (or ‘machine-readable’) formats rather than verbal content contained in a codex.

Teaching on the course exemplified the kind of research that can be done once written or printed texts are rendered machine-readable and encouraged students to appreciate that digital text technologies constitute a steady continuum rather than a series of radical alterations. The roundtable discussion at the end of the week saw participants contemplating how image and text comparison technologies could be combined to take digital book research to another level. The course proved that the future of Book History is a vibrant one in which technology will continue to be an essential topic.

Dr Ellie Bleeker completed her PhD at the Centre of Manuscript Genetics at the University of Antwerp. She works at the Research and Development Department of the Huygens Institute in Amsterdam.

Anne McLaughlin is senior research fellow on the TANC-IIIF project at the National Gallery.

Dr Christopher Ohge is a lecturer at the Institute of English Studies and Digital Humanities Research Hub, School of Advanced Study, University of London.