The Antiquarian in the Twenty-First Century

digital antiquarian

Printed by Senefelder Lithography Company in 1830, the image on the right in the banner above recalls a transatlantic moment when antiquarianism was both a popular fad and an object of ridicule (think Walter Scott’s The Antiquary or Friedrich Nietzsche’s description of the antiquarian as “the mad collector raking over all the dust heaps of the past”). Fascination bordering on obsession with the past, with history’s many mysteries, is the hallmark of the antiquarian. Collecting materials of our cultural heritage, the antiquarian seeks to establish and maintain a historical relation to the past. So too he adorns himself in its pieces, fashioning from the fragments of the material record a costume, an identity, a disposition, an ethos — lending artifacts, texts, and objects the life of his persona, transforming evidence of the past into habitus in which we might live and move.  Since 1830, the work of the antiquarian has been dramatically transformed by changes in communication technology. Where the stuff of antiquarianism used to be manuscript scrolls and books, it is now online union catalogs and flash drives. Where the antiquarian always has his nose in a book (and the figure in the period is always coded male), oblivious to the world around him, the digital antiquarian stares at a screen, equally absorbed. But if the tools and methods we use to encounter the past have changed, the antiquarian’s quest remains the same: to cultivate intimacy with the historical record, through curiosity and the care we bring to its preservation and interpretation.

With changes in communication technologies have come changes in the scale and complexity of the antiquarian’s methods, reflecting the development of modern institutions and processes of knowledge work.  At the American Antiquarian Society, and indeed at other special collections large and small, diverse kinds of labor unfold on both sides of the circulation desk. Scholars from many academic disciplines bring diverse research questions to rare books and manuscripts, newspapers and graphic materials, with hopes to carry what they find into the worlds of academic scholarship and public humanities.  There are scholars as well on the other side of the circulation desk — curators, catalogers, and database designers, among many others, who develop and maintain the information architecture on which the process of discovering new knowledge depends.  The very image of an individual figure belies the collaborations that have furnished and organized the habitus of the archive.  The antiquarian now moves within systems and networks of knowledge work that, since 1830, have been continually transformed by standards and tools of library and information science.  As historical scholarship migrates online, and catalogs have become databases, standards and protocols of archival preservation have become integral  to the process of making materials of the past accessible — visible and meaningful in digital environments for research and communication.  So what, then, does the twenty-first-century antiquarian need to know now to inhabit the past, to develop critical, creative, and practical competencies to move amongst its materials?  Knowing how to read MARC records, understanding the functions of controlled vocabularies, searching for images online, recognizing the codependence of the searcher and the person who created the search engine — such methods and concepts have become essential to effective collaboration of students and scholars, curators and technologies, in the stewardship of archives in the twenty-first century.

To assess needs and opportunities for archive-based scholarship across fields of critical bibliography, history of the book, and the digital humanities, we have organized a conference on “the Digital Antiquarian” to be held on May 30-31, 2015. Ideas and projects presented at the conference will be more deeply explored in a five-day workshop, designed to introduce students and scholars to methods and concepts of archive-based scholarship through practice-based learning in digital humanities learning. Led by AAS curators and guest instructors, the workshop will explore fundamental questions about how data is organized and used in special collections development and research. We very much hope that you will consider joining us for the conference and applying to the workshop. To learn more about both, please visit the “Digital Antiquarian” events page.

– Thomas Augst and Molly O’Hagan Hardy

Thomas Augst, an AAS member and associate professor at New York University, is the author of The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in 19th Century America (Chicago, 2003), co-editor of Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States (UMass, 2007), and co-editor of Cultural Agencies and American Libraries (2001). Tom was a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at AAS for ten months last year.

Molly O’Hagan Hardy is AAS digital humanities curator and an ACLS public fellow.  

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About Molly O'Hagan Hardy

Molly O’Hagan Hardy is AAS Director of Digital and Book History Initiatives. She shares news on digitization and cataloging efforts at AAS, coverage of digital humanities projects using AAS materials, and ideas for such projects. Stay current with all things DH at AAS by checking out the “Digital AAS” section of our website.

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