Yesterday the West Road Concert Hall was packed for the libraries@cambridge conference, entitled ‘Blue skies … thinking and working in the cloud’. What will university libraries look like in 2020, 2040, 2060? Will there still be research libraries, or will they have gone the way of the dodo? Will they be operating in a society that looks more like the wild west, a walled garden or a beehive? (Those are among the scenarios for 2050 explored by the ‘Libraries of the Future‘ project). Will they have any books in them, or will they be beautiful light-filled atria full of bean-bags and plasma screens, open to endlessly spatial reconfiguration as users flow through them? Will academics still write books, or will they create online content? Will we need subject librarians if interdisciplinarity and specialization have annihilated the very concept of a subject? These were just some of the questions raised in the first two hours… (Answers on a postcard, please!)

CMT Research Themes 2012-17


the material text in material culture

Recent years have witnessed an increasing interest in the study of material culture, a fascination with the ways in which our lives shape and are in turn shaped by physical objects and environments. This theme focuses on the interrelations between the textual and the material, and explores the processes by which texts are produced, circulated and consumed, as objects alongside other objects, or sometimes on or in objects (since the things we live among are often notable for their loquacity).

Related Initiatives: the 2011 CMT conference, ‘Eating Words’; the 2012 CMT conference, ‘Texts and Textiles’.


digital editing and digital curation

As soon as academics became aware of the internet, they became excited about the possibilities for new kinds of readerly engagement that it might open up, whether through hypertext editions that would encode multiple versions of variant texts, searchable ebooks that would hugely expedite research, or digital facsimiles that would allow unprecedented access to previously restricted materials. Two decades and many experiments later, it is time to assess how far we have travelled. Is it possible to extrapolate rules for a successful digital edition or curatorial project? What challenges do readers and scholars face in dealing with new technologies, and how might they be overcome? What might curators and editors of films, of music manuscripts, of theatrical ephemera, of cuneiform inscriptions learn from one another? And does the future lie with the increasing capitalization of the digital sphere, or with an efflorescence of open-access initiatives?

Related Initiatives: the CRASSH digital humanities network; collaborations with Anglia Ruskin’s Cultures of the Digital Economy.


the library and its publics

This theme focuses on rare book and manuscript libraries—with which Cambridge is unusually blessed—and explores the nature of their relationship with a variety of publics. What purposes will special collections come to serve in the twenty-first century? How might libraries best exhibit their collections and publicize their activities? Do new technologies create fresh possibilities for reaching out both to the academic community and the general public, or do they instead prove a costly distraction from the core business of curating and managing special collections? How might we increase the frequency and scale of academic collaborations with libraries?

Related Initiatives: the National Trust libraries collaboration.

Know Your Place


Few medieval manuscripts have retained their original binding; fewer still have retained such interesting features as the one visible below.  Originally stitched into the spine, this simple leather strip is a material witness to fifteenth-century reading processes.  It marks the page and, courtesy of the little numbered rotating paper disc, also reminds the reader to which column of text he should return upon reopening the book.

The manuscript in question – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton MS 14 – is a fine fifteenth-century copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, and it once belonged to the community of Carthusian monks at Sheen, on the banks of the Thames.  It is the only Polychronicon manuscript I have seen so far with a contemporary bookmark.  That these manuscripts usually come with scholarly apparatus designed to aid skim reading and ready reference – alphabetical indices, running book and chapter numbers, and marginal chronologies – suggests that this bookmark cannot have been unique among copies of Higden’s universal chronicle.  It is a rare illustration of the union of material and textual book design, and the response of bespoke medieval book producers to the common intellectual needs of their customers. 

The bookmark is an element of codicological culture that has been borrowed by digital media and, particularly, the internet (a fact which, ironically, makes Google searching for articles on medieval bookmarks problematic).  Nowadays, however, we are exhorted not just to ‘bookmark’ a webpage, but to ‘like’ it too.  The once private reminder is being superseded by a public advertisement that disseminates a text through cyberspace (though to a degree ultimately dependent upon one’s privacy settings), and in a format and forum that then invites comment.  Similarly, the Kindle e-reader allows e-books to be ‘e-annotated’: through ‘public notes’, marginalia can be shared and exchanged over the internet (though, again, this is limited by a Twitter-style system of ‘following’).  

The hermetic life of a Carthusian did not perhaps encourage such discourse, but the frequent annotation in the margins of the manuscript above is suggestive of some level of intellectual exchange, however indirect then or untraceable now.  The boundaries of that reading community were circumscribed physically by the cloister walls and materially by the movement of books within.  Now, there are – potentially – no boundaries to reading communities.  With the advent of e-readers, the anarcho-democratic ethos of the internet is now more closely tied to the book and to the text: freedom in the virtual margins, the power to broadcast, a limitless audience.  The capacity of readers of e-books to not just record their thoughts but to disseminate them too may mean that much that was once private thought or evanescent orality is now cached and backed-up, and awaits future students of the ‘reading experience’.  The ‘weightless text’ supports a heavier and heavier paratext of commentary, analysis and opinion, informed or not.

Where does authority lie in this digital world, this twenty-first-century Tower of Babel?  How is authority constructed and maintained?  Can the critic or academic maintain his status in a forum where comment is free – or should he or she even attempt to do so?  In a recent article on the ‘patchy’ quality of the Coen brothers’ films, Will Self opined that ‘…the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions…simply aren’t up to scratch’.  Ironically, the patchiness of Self’s own argument was quickly highlighted on the comments pages by some sharp-eyed readers, some of them no doubt the kind of ‘upper’ or ‘lower-middlebrow’ viewers whose opinions he had disdained so aristocratically.  The article presents no critical engagement with specific interpretations or reviews except his own.  In targeting ‘the generality’, does it do any more than represent Will Self’s self-will?  And is that any more authoritative than the opinions he criticised? 

Surely the job of the ‘serious cultural critic’ is to engage with and persuade, not just to tell – but then, perhaps, who is there to tell?  The internet gathers together opinions so diverse and diffuse that it may be impossible to address them except in the most general terms.  By transcending physical printed media, and by circumventing the complex and often slow publishing infrastructure through which debate has traditionally been channelled, the internet has removed nearly all ‘barriers to entry’ that once monitored or mediated the public sphere.  In doing so, it has made available great opportunities for the advancement of knowledge through collaborative endeavour or adversarial dialectic.  The internet has facilitated the freedom to comment, and has thus accentuated – though by no means created – a situation in which control over a text rests in no single pair of hands.  That command over Scripture Martin Luther sought to reassert in his 1525 pamphlets Admonition to Peace and Against the Rioting Peasants.  ‘Every man his own Bible reader’ he had once said, before the rise of heterodox interpretations of the vernacular holy text and the use of scriptural justification in the enactment of social revolution.  How will these old issues of authority, interpretation and debate play out in the new age of ‘Every man his own Kindle reader’?

moneychangers in the library


Yesterday I learnt that, if I want to look at a book in the Middle Temple library, I’ll have to pay £30 for the privilege. ‘As a private library, we are forced, by the rules of the Inn, to charge non-members for access’. I immediately started fuming; if every library in the land starts charging for access, a lot of serious research is going to become impossible. But perhaps this is the future, and we’re all going to have to get used to it. Are other libraries already routinely charging their academic users? Are librarians contemplating the introduction of charges, as budgets get squeezed and educational institutions become more and more private?

greening the material text


A painful story. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in a workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum, drawing on the expertise of staff and students on the V&A/RCA MA in the History of Design. I had pre-circulated an early modern inventory that is central to my current research, and at the start of the workshop I sent round a few pages of a diary/account-book that is another of my key sources. The discussion went quickly in a very intelligent and not entirely unforeseeable direction. Who (I was asked) was supposed to be reading this account book? How was it bound, and what did the binding materials imply about its status? Was this a pre-bound volume into which entries had been written, or a pile of paper that had been bound up after the event? Embarrassed, I had to confess: I hadn’t actually seen this manuscript. I was in Cambridge; the manuscript was in Washington. Obviously, during the course of my research I *would* get my hands on it and answer those important questions, but the time had not yet come.

This was a curious moment for me, partly because it seemed so bizarre (how could I, who had written a whole book about the importance of books as artefacts, have fallen into this trap?) and partly because it made me feel insufficiently jet-setting (other academics in my field must be flying over to Washington once or twice a year, and dropping into the Folger on a whim). But if I’m honest, my motives for not having yet visited my manuscript are partly ecological–I don’t want to cross the Atlantic again until I have a need sufficient to justify (however thinly) my flight. To some, such agonizing will seem absurd, and they should stop reading now. Others may see that there’s a problem here, a problem which is in any case separable from the environmental concern. (How) can we work on a material text when we can’t actually get to it?

One kind of answer to this question might come from the libraries. Our great research libraries enjoy welcoming scholars from overseas, but they could start thinking of more ways to keep them at bay, or to provide a greater range of academic services at a distance. They could offer cheap, watermarked digital images for research purposes, for example, so that the physical properties of the book can be gauged and interpreted; or they could employ in-house bibliographers to answer detailed enquiries about books (including, say, transcriptions of marginalia). Or they could maintain a register of affiliated scholars who would be willing to act as proxies in the investigation of material aspects of a text (for a small fee, or on a tit-for-tat basis). But libraries have a lot on their plates already. We academics could be advertising our research services for ourselves. Is there, somewhere out there on the web, a bulletin board for this purpose?

It’s true, of course, that nothing can substitute for personal engagement with the real thing, and I shall certainly be going to Washington at some point in the near future. But if there’s an early modernist sitting in the Folger who wants to swap an hour or two of research time with me in Cambridge, please drop me a line ( Who knows, it could be the start of something…