Introduction - G. Thomas Tanselle


The material gathered here results from the activities of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record, which during the past two years has considered how best to publicize the importance of preserving textual artifacts after the texts in them have been reproduced in microfilm, electronic, or any other form. The committee, which (despite its name) understands its charge to encompass manuscript as well as printed material, consists of Shelley Fisher Fishkin (English, University of Texas, Austin), Phyllis Franklin (ex officio, MLA), Everette E. Larson (Hispanic Division, Library of Congress), Philip E. Lewis (French, Cornell University), J. Hillis Miller (English, University of California, Irvine), Ruth Perry (English, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Alice Schreyer (Rare Books, University of Chicago Library), Philip Stewart (French, Duke University), and G. Thomas Tanselle, chair (John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation).

The origins of the committee go back to a paper that Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the MLA, read at the June 1992 convention of the American Library Association. In preparation for that paper, she took an informal survey of 319 people (members of the MLA and of other associations in the American Council of Learned Societies), asking them to comment on the widespread belief that reproductions of texts can supplant the originals. Of the 169 respondents, 94.5% affirmed the importance of preserving primary records, noting the inadequacy of reproductions for bibliographical and textual research and for studies that focus on the materiality of texts. In the light of this unambiguous response to her survey and of the interest aroused by her paper, she asked the Executive Council of the MLA to consider what the MLA might do to further the cause of the preservation of textual artifacts in an age that has seen considerable discarding and deaccessioning of materials once they are reproduced. At its February 1993 meeting the council established an Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record, charging it to develop an association statement on the subject and to determine other ways of publicizing the issues.

The main activity of the committee thus far has been to prepare the "Statement on the Significance of Primary Records" printed here, which is the product of four meetings (8 Oct. 1993, 4 Mar. and 14 Oct. 1994, and 31 Mar. 1995), correspondence and telephone conversations between meetings, and the consideration of many letters of suggestion from interested persons in the library and scholarly worlds. The draft of the statement that emerged from the 14 October 1994 meeting was given wide circulation on the Internet, by mail distribution to members and other interested persons, as handouts at the San Diego convention last December, and in the Spring 1995 MLA Newsletter. In addition, one of the three convention sessions held by the committee (sess. 499, on 29 Dec.) was an open hearing entirely devoted to discussion of the draft statement. The committee took all the responses to the draft into account and at its 31 March 1995 meeting produced a considerably revised document for submission to the MLA Executive Council. On 19 May 1995 the council formally adopted this version as an official statement of the association. Besides being printed here, the "Statement on the Significance of Primary Records" will be circulated widely to newspapers and magazines as well as to scholarly and library associations. The committee hopes that it will be endorsed by other groups or used by them as the basis for statements of their own and that it will thus serve to promote further discussion and action.

The pages that follow present a number of related papers stimulated by the committee. All but the last are drawn from two of the sessions that the committee sponsored at the 1994 convention to acquaint the MLA membership with the relevance of the committee's work to research and teaching. The first of these sessions was a forum entitled "The Importance and Challenge of Preserving Research Materials in Their Original Forms" (sess. 254, on 28 Dec.), which was divided into two parts. Part 1 consisted (after a brief introduction from me as chair of the committee) of two major papers: one by Paul Mosher, director of the University of Pennsylvania Library, on the electronic future as seen from a librarian's perspective, and the other by J. Hillis Miller, a former president of the MLA and a member of the committee. Miller's paper is printed here and provides an excellent illustration of how the physical presentation of a text affects reading and why a reprint can be a primary record for studying a critic's response.

Part 2 of the forum, organized by Ruth Perry under the title "Object Lessons," presented six speakers who offered personal testimony, with specific examples, regarding the way physical evidence has been important in their own work. Three were selected for inclusion here to represent the range of situations dealt with: Susan Staves, on the eighteenth-century playwright and novelist Elizabeth Griffith; Miriam Fuchs, on the diaries of Queen Lili'uokalani; and Anthony R. Pugh, on Proust's manuscripts.

The second of the committee's sessions at the convention was entitled "Teaching in the Library: A Workshop on Using Primary Materials in the Classroom" (sess. 459, on 29 Dec.). Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who presided, had chosen ten short papers that described specific instances in which teachers put primary records to successful use in the classroom. As with part 2 of the earlier session, three of the papers have been chosen to reflect the rich diversity of that second session: Manon Anne Ress, on Diderot's Encyclopèdie; Gregg Camfield, on Mark Twain; and Catherine Golden, on Victorian serialization.

The final piece is by Ruth Perry and entitled a postscript because it is an extension of a point made in the statement. Her paper calls attention to the essential role that public libraries play in intellectual and cultural life and to the fact that the existence of many libraries is currently threatened. The committee did not include this topic in the statement because it was focused on the role of primary records in understanding the past; the value of the intellectual exchange that has traditionally taken place in public libraries, though certainly a valid point, is a separate concern. (The committee, by the way, has emphasized throughout that it takes no position about whether printed or electronic forms are more desirable for the dissemination of new writing; its concern has been solely with the importance of artifacts in reading—the importance, that is, of reading texts in the physical forms they took at the historical moment one is studying.) The statement does, however, make clear that public as well as academic libraries have performed a great service in bringing the historical forms of texts to a broad public; and it is this point that the Perry paper builds on.


Because these papers focus on showing, through examples, the practical uses of primary records, it is perhaps in order here to provide—as background for the concisely expressed theoretical points in the "Statement on the Significance of Primary Records"—some of the comments I made at the opening of the 28 December forum. In pointing out that reproductions of texts cannot entirely supplant the original forms of those texts, the committee is not making any criticism of the current programs for microfilming brittle books or for creating databases of electronic texts. Obviously a microfilm of a book is better than no book at all, and electronic texts are searchable and manipulable in ways that printed texts are not. The committee's aim is not in the slightest to disparage new developments but simply to make more widely understood the fact that no reproduction of a text can ever be a fully adequate substitute for the original, since every reproduction necessarily leaves something unreproduced. Besides, there is always an uncertainty attaching to a reproduction; the user of one at any point may wonder whether the original was accurately rendered, and the only way to find out is to examine the original. The use of originals as the ultimate check on the accuracy of reproductions is simply an illustration of what it means to use primary evidence. Even if there were no other reason for needing access to originals, this one is sufficient.

But there are other reasons that are rooted in the significance of artifacts and the relation of form to content. All artifacts—not just books—can be studied as physical objects to discover two major classes of historical information that can influence the interpretation of any visual or verbal symbols present on the objects. One class relates to their production history, to the techniques of their manufacture; the other focuses on their postproduction history, on the implications of their physical appearance once the objects were created. Those scholars pursuing the first class of information examine objects for clues that reveal details about how the objects were made. In the study of printed books, this pursuit is called analytical bibliography, and it can provide information about typesetting, proofreading, and presswork—information that is essential not only to printing and publishing history but also to textual history and textual criticism (the genealogy of texts and the evaluation of their correctness, according to whatever standard of correctness is chosen). In the latter half of the twentieth century, an age of scholarly editing in many fields, editors have increasingly recognized that one of the foundations of their work is analytical bibliography—which in turn requires an understanding that printed books are like manuscripts in offering primary evidence for textual study and in regularly presenting variant texts, since even copies from a single edition can be expected to contain variations (a point that applies to books of all periods).

The second major approach to artifacts concentrates on the sensuous—primarily visual—characteristics of objects. Every object, whether or not it was intended by its producers to have a utilitarian function, can be looked at for whatever aesthetic value it may possess. The historically oriented form of this investigation, when applied to books, not only attempts to show how their visual and tactile features (such as typography, layout, leaf size, and binding) reflected cultural trends but also tries to understand how those features have affected the responses of readers over the years. Such research is clearly relevant to the history of reading and of the spread of ideas—that is, to the broad field often called histoire du livre, the history of the effect of printed books on society, which has attracted a great deal of attention in the last several decades.

Of the two approaches to books as artifacts, the first deals with hidden evidence, with details not normally noticed by readers; the second treats of features that readers were meant to notice and that do in fact influence, to one degree or another, their interpretations of what they have read. The first produces evidence for reconstructing the texts that authors (or others) intended; the second looks at the texts that actually appeared and their physical settings. (A discrepancy between intended and published texts—that is, between works and documents—is always to be expected, since the medium of verbal communication, language, is intangible and any tangible representation of it may distort what was intended, even in those instances where visual effects were part of what was intended.) The two approaches are thus complementary. Both illustrate the ways in which the reading of physical evidence is involved in the interpretation of texts; both show why the historical study of printed texts rests on the examination of the actual artifacts in which they have appeared.

It follows from these points that the books in existing book stacks should never be abandoned, because they will remain crucial as the original sources for future study of works transmitted in printed form. There can be no book in which the format and other physical features are unrelated to the process of reading and understanding the book's text. But a recognition of this fact does not stand in the way of an enthusiastic acceptance of the developing technology for the electronic dissemination of texts. After all, even those scholars who understand that microfilm and xerographic copies do not fully substitute for originals have gladly used them as convenient interim tools. The availability of printed texts in electronic form is an advance greater in degree but not different in kind: it accomplishes in a far more sophisticated way the same function that xerography has fulfilled, making texts widely accessible and more easily manipulable at the price of removing them from their original physical contexts. All scholars should welcome the day when they can sit in their studies and call up on their terminals an enormous array of texts without the cumbersome process of interlibrary loan or the ordering of xerographic copies. But they should also realize what evidence they are thereby missing and why recourse to the originals can never be rendered irrelevant, however inconvenient it may happen to be. Many discussions of the future of libraries speak of access replacing ownership; but when it is understood that access to physical evidence is an essential kind of access and that printed books must therefore be preserved in multiple copies, the questions of ownership and care remain significant.

The theoretical content of the "Statement on the Significance of Primary Records," in short, is that texts and their settings are not separable; that all the characteristics of the artifacts conveying texts are potentially relevant to the act of careful reading; that those characteristics can differ even among copies of individual editions; and that there is a consequent need to preserve as many copies of printed editions as possible in order to maximize both the quantity of evidence available and the access to that evidence. The usefulness of textual reproductions is not in question, but it has no bearing on the rationale for the preservation of artifacts.


Those who wish to read further on this topic might turn to several of the papers in the published proceedings of the Houghton Library fiftieth-anniversary symposium (ed. Wendorf), especially the papers by Nicolas Barker, Werner Gundersheimer, Alexandra Mason, David McKitterick, Ruth Perry, and me (my comments are largely reprinted in section 2 above). Other useful readings are Elizabeth Witherell's presidential address to the Association for Documentary Editing, D. F. McKenzie's concluding remarks at the Elvetham Hall conference on humanistic scholarship and technology, and my "Reproductions and Scholarship" (which contains many references to related material, as does a forthcoming article of mine entitled "The Future of Primary Records").

The committee hopes that the present addition to the literature of this subject—in the form of the statement and the articles offered below—will arouse further interest in the cause of preserving textual artifacts. By the end of 1995, various members of the committee will have spoken on this subject at the New York Public Library, the University of Kansas, and meetings of the American Library Association, the American Institute for Conservation, the College Language Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Rare Book School of the University of Virginia. The committee has also scheduled two sessions at the 1995 MLA convention in Chicago, one to be presided over by Philip Lewis, on decision making in libraries, and the other to be chaired by Alice Schreyer, on shared decision making. A sharing of ideas and discussion among relevant professional organizations (many of which have already given thought to these questions) is the heart of the recommendation made at the end of the statement, and the proposed task group would provide a way for all interested parties to pursue the issues together. The MLA can usefully act as a catalyst in setting this joint activity in motion; it has taken the first step in implementing the committee's recommendation by accepting an invitation from the Preservation of Library Materials Committee of the Association of Research Libraries to form a joint working group. In this spirit of cooperative action, the committee encourages members of the MLA to distribute the statement to persons who might not see it otherwise and to bring it to the attention of other organizations with which they are connected. The MLA office welcomes letters from members reporting on such initiatives or commenting on related matters.

The author is Vice President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Works Cited

Franklin, Phyllis. "Scholars, Librarians, and the Future of Primary Records." College and Research Libraries 54 (1993): 397–406.

McKenzie, D. F. "Computers and the Humanities: A Personal Synthesis of Conference Issues." Scholarship and Technology in the Humanities: Proceedings of a Conference at Elvetham Hall, Hampshire, UK, 9th–12th May 1990. Ed. May Katzen. London: Bowker-Saur, 1991. 157–69.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. "The Future of Primary Records." Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Vol. 58. Ed. Allen Kent. New York: Dekker, 1996. Forthcoming.

———. "Reproductions and Scholarship." Studies in Bibliography 42 (1989): 25–54.

Wendorf, Richard, ed. Rare Book and Manuscript Libraries in the Twenty-First Century. Proc. of Houghton Library Fiftieth-Anniversary Symposium, Sept. 1992. Cambridge: Harvard U Lib., 1993. Also printed as Harvard Library Bulletin ns 4.1 and 4.2 (1993).

Witherell, Elizabeth Hall. "ADE Presidential Address." Documentary Editing 16 (1994): 1–2, 20.

 | Continue >