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Spotlight on Aldus@SFU

Published May 4, 2017 by Erik Hanson
Detail from Aldine Press book

I met with John Maxwell and Alessandra Bordini in John’s office on a typically grey spring day. Maxwell is the director of the Publishing Program at SFU and Bordini is the lead researcher for this project as well as self-described Aldus Manutius fan, among her many other qualifications. Tacked to his office door, Maxwell has small printout of the classical Latin adage, festina lente, which means “make haste slowly.” This adage is not only personified in the anchor and dolphin of Aldus Manutius’ printer’s mark but also occasionally in the nature of digital humanities projects. I sat down and talked with Maxwell and Bordini about Aldus and what it means to do DH.

Interviewer

Could you talk a little bit about the project and how it started?

Bordini

Aldus@SFU is an ongoing digital humanities initiative that began in April 2015. The project started as a joint effort between the CISP, the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing, and SFU Library Special Collections to celebrate Simon Fraser University’s 50th anniversary and the quincentenary (five-hundredth anniversary) of the death of Aldus Manutius (c. 1451 – 1515). The collaboration resulted in the creation of a web-based resource showcasing a selection of Aldine Press books—published during Aldus’ lifetime, between 1501 and 1515—from SFU’s Wosk–McDonald Collection, which is one of the largest Aldine collections in North America. As a research assistant for the project, I was assigned the task of designing and implementing the interpretive website for the collection, Aldus@SFU.

Maxwell

The idea of tying the 500th anniversary of Aldus’ death with the 50th anniversary of SFU was John Willinsky’s insight. He discovered sort of serendipitously that SFU had this great collection and,mindful of the two anniversaries, suggested that to us.

​Interviewer

How long has SFU had the collection?

Maxwell

It was acquired in 1995. Hugh McDonald was the collector, Yosef Wosk was interested in financing the collection, and Ralph Stanton was the Special Collections librarian at the time. Ralph wrote an essay on the acquisition that’s available on the Aldus@SFU website.

Bordini

The digitization of the 21 books from the collection was completed in July 2015.

Maxwell

The collection has been there for 20 years and probably very few people ever really looked at it because, of course, it’s locked in the vault. Unless you know enough to inquire, you would never see any of the books. This was an opportunity to break them out and make them public again, for the first time in centuries.

Interviewer

What piqued your interest in the project?

Bordini

I am Italian and I’ve been fascinated with the art of—the art—of publishing books for as long as I can remember. When I was presented with the opportunity to work on a DH project centered around the work of Aldus Manutius, the most important scholarly publisher of the Renaissance, I jumped on board without hesitation. My interest in Aldus’ publishing enterprise grew exponentially as I started engaging with the primary sources of the books: the remarkable Aldine editions from SFU WoskMcDonald collection.

Interviewer

This has some correlations with DH and DH methods, but have you always used digital humanities methods and methodologies?

Bordini

Yes, I was introduced to the digital humanities in 2015 through this project. Two years is not a long time, so I consider myself relatively new to the field. Broadly speaking, I took my first steps into the digital almost a decade ago, as I started working at a publishing house in Milan as a web editor. My professional and academic background in publishing played a crucial role in helping me embrace technological innovation. Through the many challenges that the digital revolution posed to the industry, I learnt to navigate the ever-shifting and alien territories of the digital sphere with a certain ease. These proved extremely valuable for my later experience as a digital humanist.

Interviewer

What do you find most compelling about DH methods and scholarship?

Bordini

Coming from a traditional publishing background, what I find most compelling about DH methods is also, paradoxically, what I find most unsettling. The fundamental openness and process-oriented nature of DH. It is the idea of a digital humanities project as a work in progress rather than a finished product—an iterative process capable of adapting and improving over time with the contributions of multiple communities, both inside and outside of academia. I find the thought of sharing a scholarly project from the early stages of research and production can be rather unsettling. It is not surprising that it is often met with reluctance by many scholars. That said, I am also firmly convinced that fostering an attitude of openness towards the use of digital technology in scholarly practices is essential to building, developing, and advancing knowledge.

Interviewer

Did you have any reluctance with sharing it and making it open from the beginning?

Bordini

Yes, I did, actually.

Maxwell

You did?

Bordini

I did. (laughter) That’s why I’m talking about this. At the beginning, it was challenging for me to decouple the idea of a “published work” from that of a “finished product”—complete, fixed, “perfect.”

Maxwell

Okay, I see what you mean.

Bordini

The idea of publicly sharing a work in progress rather than a definitive version was a bit intimidating for me, at least in the beginning. Then, when faced with the challenge, I overcame my initial reluctance. The fact that I had already worked in a digital environment sped up the process. It didn’t take me long to just say, okay, I am going to do this: let’s fully embrace openness in the digital space.

Interviewer

What role do you see DH methodology playing in your project?

Bordini

This is a challenging question for me. I was charged with the design and implementation of the interface for the digital Aldines. From the outset, I considered design thinking a core part of my DH methodology. Even before the digitization process was completed, I spent considerable time identifying the best design approach for the website and thinking a lot about both the visual appearance and functionality of this hybrid environment intended for multiple audiences with different needs and expectations. The main challenge of this was to present these unique, 16th century materials in an appealing format for 21st century publics, while, at the same time, remaining faithful to the aesthetics of Aldus’ books. My entire design methodology can be seen as a balancing act between these two complementary forces. On the one hand, the need to honour tradition, to faithfully reflect the importance of Aldus’ books. On the other hand, the need to betray it, to reinvent it and adapt it to the expectations of contemporary audiences. That’s how I see my DH methodology being articulated.

Maxwell

I think the way Alessandra frames that is quite an expansive notion of what DH methodology might be. There’s a lot of people who would think about DH methodologies as meaning the application of computation to humanities problems. With this, you end up with things like data mining and topic modeling. I like the way Alessandra put it because it’s about openness, it’s about process, it’s about iteration, and it’s about inviting contributions. I think that’s what’s really important about the digital. It’s not that we can compute and calculate things; it’s that we can connect things. For me, that’s really the spirit that’s been animating this project. It’s how do we make these invaluable resources not only just publicly available, but also interconnected? How do we reveal all of their innards and invite contribution and invite commentary, and be doing that in an iterative, open kind of a process. I think that’s a heart-warming way of thinking about what DH methodology might be.

Bordini

Exactly. Not just the tools, not just the DH techniques and the applications of computing, but the thinking behind it.

Maxwell

There are a couple of examples of considerations that we thought about a lot in how this project should come together. They haven’t necessarily been fully realized, but one aspect we spent a lot of time thinking about was typography. For the typography on the website, the design decisions weren’t just for the sake of making it look nice or making it usable. They were in order to draw out the aesthetics and traditions in the Aldines themselves. It’s making the way the project is presented online continuous with the resource itself, illuminating what is in the resource. Another example, which we really haven’t succeeded with yet, is the idea that the whole thing should be mobile friendly. That reflects Aldus’ own contribution, which was to make the book—and scholarship itself—mobile friendly.

Interviewer

What is your definition of DH?

Bordini

Of the many definitions of DH I’ve encountered, there’s one in particular that resonates with my own way of viewing and doing digital humanities. It’s from Matthew Gold, who in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012 ed.), writes “Ultimately, what sets DH apart from many other humanities fields is its methodological commitment to building things as a way of knowing.” In my own experience, digital humanities is the use of new media and computational tools to disseminate humanities knowledge in the service of public good. I view the digital humanities as a way of simultaneously advancing my humanities research—building as a way of knowing—and conveying its value to the public through digital technologies.

Maxwell

I like the idea of building as a way of knowing, because, again, it’s expansive. There’s a lot of different ways of thinking about building things.

Interviewer

What advice would you give to new DHers?

Bordini

The importance of developing a positive and open attitude towards technology. Why? Undertaking a DH project challenges you to learn new technical skills. The best strategy you can have is to adopt this openness—openness to making mistakes and a willingness to leave your comfort zone to veer into unexplored territories—because that’s what it takes to drive a DH project when you are not a programmer.

Interviewer

Did you always conceptualize this as a DH project?

Maxwell

Yeah, but it’s always been tricky… Because we haven’t OCRed the texts, the text is not itself the focus. That makes this project differ from much of what we would recognize as DH.

Bordini

Rather than a typical DH project, I think of Aldus@SFU as an initiative at the intersection of the digital humanities and the history of publishing.

Maxwell

All the pages are just scanned images. That means that we don’t share methods with an awful lot of DH: all the people that are doing TEI and text mining and topic modeling—all of that sort of thing. None of that has been part of this project; the pages are pictures of pages, which is fine as far as our own research goals are concerned. It requires a different disciplinary interest in classics or Renaissance scholarship—to want to go beyond the images of the text to the text itself. For example, what’s the value of Aldus’ version of Sophocles? Is it different than any other version of Sophocles in Latin? And if it is, is it different because of what the text says, or is it different because of the materiality of it and its visual qualities? For my part, I’m interested in the materiality and the visual. But, now that these pages have been scanned, they certainly can be OCRed, should anyone have research goals that require that. This project then becomes a foundation for future projects.

Bordini

Our main goal was to reach broader audiences, not only isolated scholarly communities. We wanted to present these books to a wider interested public, beyond the traditional boundaries of the academy. In my view, the fundamental hybrid nature of the project represents not only its most peculiar trait—what differentiates it from other DH initiatives—but also its most problematic aspect, as we had to take into account the needs and expectations of different communities of users.

Maxwell

So of course it’s DH, but it’s also different…

Interviewer

What does the future hold for Aldus@SFU?

Bordini

From the beginning, Aldus@SFU was conceived as a crossover digital platform for multiple audiences, both scholarly and non-scholarly. The website showcases some of the most important books in the history of Western thought, contextualizing them with original essays from both scholars and popular media figures. In doing so the site aims to fulfil a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it aims to serve as a well-described and visually pleasing educational resource, accessible from any device. On the other hand, as a long-term goal, it aims to provide a networked open social platform for scholarly collaboration and engagement across multiple disciplines and institutions around the globe. That’s a very ambitious goal, but it was clear from the outset. At present, Aldus@SFU is already one of the richest online repositories of Aldine books worldwide, enabling access to high-resolution, cover-to-cover scans of 21 volumes: a considerable amount of books.

Maxwell

It’s a considerable number of pages. And there are more books to come...

Bordini

I actually counted them, leaf by leaf. (laughter) Hopefully in the future, Aldus@SFU will also become the largest online community on the figure and work of Aldus Manutius. The 500th anniversary of Aldus’ death has prompted several Aldine initiatives around the globe— most of which are listed on the CERL website “Manutius Network 2015”— and the number of these events has been growing steadily ever since. This suggests that there is a widely-felt interest in carrying the legacy of Aldus’ work. Unfortunately, more often than not, these efforts remain isolated and episodic; it is our hope, therefore, that in the future Aldus@SFU will serve as a connector to other like-minded initiatives, eventually becoming the central node in a distributed network of digital humanities collections worldwide. That’s our final goal. Well, maybe not final—but our next goal.

Interviewer

Thank you very much for sharing all your insight.

This interview is part of a series to spotlight projects the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab (DHIL) supports.

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