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Big Thinking Podcast with Claire Battershill
Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time.
Gabriel Miller, President and CEO of the Federation, is our host.
Digital technologies are reshaping every aspect of our society, and books are no exception. But as physical objects, books have a powerful connection to us and our culture. As our world continues changing, it’s worth asking what books mean to us and to our future.
Miller is joined by Claire Battershill, Assistant Professor cross-appointed in the Faculty of Information and the Department of English at the University of Toronto.
Thank you to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for making this podcast possible.
Follow us on our streaming platforms for more episodes!
[00:00:00] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time. I'm Gabriel Miller, and I'm the president and CEO of the Federation For the Humanities and Social Sciences.
[00:00:22] Digital technologies are reshaping every aspect of our society, and books are no exception. But as physical objects, books have a powerful connection to us and our culture. As our world continues changing, it's worth asking what books mean to us and to our future. I'm joined by Claire Battershill, Assistant Professor cross-appointed in the faculty of Information and the Department of English at the University of Toronto.
[00:00:53] You're a historian of books among other things, but I wanna start by asking you about your own history with books. When do you remember discovering your own love for books?
[00:01:07] Claire Battershill: Oh, I love that question. So I grew up in Dawson Creek, BC and that's a relatively small town, and one of the sort of places that a lot of kids used to go on the weekends or after school was a public library and even before that, right, for circle time and all the activities that our wonderful public librarian, Jenny, used to run for us when we were little kids.
[00:01:28] And so the library, even when I was very tiny, was my favorite place in the world. The Dawson Creek Public Library - and my granddad used to take me there often, and there's actually a plaque for him in the reading corner where we used to read all the time. So it's a very, it's like it started very early, my interest in all this and with a lot of encouragement from the library and from all of the wonderful programming that they ran and still continue to run for kids now, right?
[00:01:56] So it's a place that I think everybody really does often feel welcome and feels valued and honoured, and I really sensed that very early in my life.
[00:02:05] Gabriel Miller: That’s amazing. What's an early book you remember really enjoying?
[00:02:09] Claire Battershill: So I really loved and continue to love Goodnight Moon. And that book has a funny modernist history too, so it has a relationship.
[00:02:21] There's been some really interesting work on Margaret Wise Brown and her connection to some of the ideas in modernist thinking. So if you think about, there's some weirdness in that book, right? It's like you say goodnight to everything and then you say goodnight ‘nobody’ right? So it has this kind of like strangeness that I think I always really liked.
[00:02:41] And it's one of those books that the whole visual of it, I think is, has been in my mind for a really long time.
[00:02:47] Gabriel Miller: In addition to being a reader and a scholar of books, you've been an author yourself. And I wanted to ask you: what are some of the things you learned from writing books that you hadn't learned from reading them?
[00:03:03] Claire Battershill: Yeah, it's a really, it's a wonderful question to think about for me still, because I think that reading has always been felt very natural from my perspective, feels like breathing, it comes very easily. It's one of those things that just feels, and it feels immersive and it's not that escapist exactly, but it's very different than the work of writing, which never feels exactly easy, but it does.
[00:03:26] It can feel, I think like play or like experimentation. And I think that there's something about writing that I feel like I have to be just a tiny little bit brave whenever I'm doing it like I have to be. I have to be ready to show up myself for something. And I think that only comes from the making side of things.
[00:03:43] And it doesn't come so much from the receptive side. I think I do feel that way. It's about academic writing too, that it's creative. I think there is a way in which academic writing, even though it's not creative in the sense of being fiction, it is an act of creating and interpretation or an argument and crafting a thing.
[00:03:58] And I think all of those metaphors that we use about stitching arguments together or weaving them, a lot of them come from that world of material craft. And so I do really love that process in a different way.
[00:04:08] Gabriel Miller: When we talk about creating books, I want to tap in for a moment into your expertise as a historian, and I think you actually, teach a course on the history of books at U of T, about how long have human beings been reading and writing books?
[00:04:25] Claire Battershill: There’s an important aspect of that question to sort of address almost before you answer any kind of chronological part of it, which is such an academic answer. Sorry. But this idea of what a book actually is is kind of foundational to that question.
[00:04:38] Gabriel Miller: Yeah
[00:04:38] Claire Battershill: So a lot of people associate the idea of the book with the Western Codex, right, which is a thing with two boards and a spine and pages that opens in a certain kind of predictable fashion, right? And the history of text on substrate, which is to say some kind of writing on some kind of surface, is extremely old and global and has taken place for a very long time, and you can think as far back as drawings on cave walls as examples of that kind of text on substrate or pictograph on substrate kind of idea.
[00:05:12] So I think in some ways, like tracing the beginning is almost an impossibility if you have that capacious understanding of what a book actually is, which I think is something I do try and impress upon my students, right, that there is a history of, for example, letter press printing. That sort of has a mythological origin with Gutenberg and so on.
[00:05:31] But there's, there were also wooden printing blocks in China, much, much before that. So there's lots of different traditions that have used book-like or book adjacent objects for communication, I think really almost forever.
[00:05:48] I think that's the almost the answer is that there is no one origin story and it's not a linear path. And I think it's also helpful in the history of the book, I think, to be suspicious of some of those origin stories as told linearly. Because they're often actually products of fits and starts of innovation and sometimes some new technology comes in, but then, It doesn't totally replace the old one, and so the old one coexist with it for a while, and those kinds of stories of revolution are often a little over-determined in their narrative, right?
[00:06:18] It's like it's much more common for there to be a more complicated truth.
[00:06:23] Gabriel Miller: There is, I think the simplistic idea that I've had is for hundreds of years, books really consisted entirely of people writing on paper or something like paper, and that at some point there was a real revolution, which we associate or I associate most with the name Gutenberg, but as you say, has roots in other parts of the world as well and in other historical moments.
[00:06:51] Which ushered in the possibility of books being shared with a much larger audience. What's the role of the letter press in that? And maybe can you say a couple words about what a letter press is?
[00:07:03] Claire Battershill: Sure. So letter press printing is a, it's a type of printing. Like there is of course like one set of transitions, which again is like a messy stuttering sort of transition.
[00:07:13] But is this idea of moving from manuscript, which is often one handwritten copy of a text into print, which is to say you can produce multiples of the text, which can circulate among many people. And there are, again, lots of different forms of printmaking with woodblocks and other items that similarly create multiples.
[00:07:30] So this idea of going from one copy of the text to many of copies of the text is like one of those kind of transformations of communication that does happen at different moments in different places. So letter press printing specifically, is a practice that involves taking usually individual letters, which are called sorts in this, in the language of this work, and lining them up together to make the words that you want.
[00:07:54] And then setting those into lines and then setting those lines into the shape of the page, which is called a form. And then printing the inking them up. Putting ink on the letters and then printing them on paper using, uh, printing press and see. Obviously letter press in some way is descriptive, right?
[00:08:09] You're pressing the letters into the page using the printing press. But one of the things that is really interesting about this process is that it does involve each letter taking up a physical space, right? And having a physical presence in a body. So when you type on the keyboard on your computer, the letters appear and you're use, but you're using the same key multiple times, and the letter might appear multiple times on the page.
[00:08:35] In letterpress printing, every E has to be a physical object that has an E on it, and you have to put that into the page. So there's a one-to-one relationship between the letter and the work itself. And that practice, like it was the dominant form of printing throughout the 19th century there, there were no other options for a certain amount of time before you get into all manner of innovations that happen in the 20th century.
[00:08:56] A little bit into the 20th century. And it was used really in lots of different kind of configurations and with different incremental advances on the technology. So there's one in the mid 20th century called the Linotype, or the Monotype is another option where basically, um, the option is to set the whole line at once using a keyboard and the lead still comes down and makes the letters, but it's all done at once on a line.
[00:09:17] And then you set the, so that's like a, takes one step outta the work process that was used into the eighties. Commercially, these things are essentially used until there's something that supplants them for efficiency, right? So now of course most digital printing is done, or most printing is done digitally. Offset is another innovation that kind of is a lot faster and more expedient.
[00:09:36] Now letter press is something that we tend to use in historical context or also in artistic practice. So it's been really revived by artists recently.
[00:09:47] Gabriel Miller: And I'm really interested in hearing a little bit more about that because the easy way to think of this is these are museum pieces now, and that their days of disrupting or revolutionizing our society are well passed.
[00:10:03] But artists are, among others, are using these, I don't know, established or older technologies in ways that can challenge us today. How are they doing that?
[00:10:14] Claire Battershill: It's been really interesting to observe even in the sort of decade or so that I've been working on this kind of stuff, the real flourishing of this work actually in activist and artist circles, a good example is that letter press it.
[00:10:27] A lot of large 19th century wood types, which were used for posters and advertisements and things like that. They really make excellent protest posters. Those type faces, they work really well because they're very large and visible and they have this kind of distinctive aesthetic that seems to carry a certain visual appeal, right?
[00:10:45] So people use them for that purpose and to support all different kinds of activist causes, and that's been a kind of real reactivation of the medium. The idea of the museum pieces, which I wanna return to just for a minute. It's like, it's a delicate dance, I think sometimes for those of us who work with these materials, because we do use 19th century presses and we use 19th century wood type and, and metal type.
[00:11:07] And so they are historical artifacts which need a certain amount of conservation and in, in different climate conditions and other things like that it, it impacts the wooden objects and you have to be careful about how you approach that. So there is the balance of the need for conservation and care, and then also the idea that like, if you're really gonna preserve them, you also wanna preserve their use, right?
[00:11:28] You wanna preserve them as the things that they actually were intended to be, which is vehicles for communication, right? They were designed for people to share their poems or their protest ideas. So to my mind, like a full museum practice around letterpress involves also ensuring that they're fit for use.
[00:11:45] And so that's been something that we've worked on a lot with the collection, various different collections that I've been part of, is just making sure that the materials are available to people to share their own new ideas. I think that's how they maintain relevance and don't become display objects.
[00:11:59] Which they were never intended to be. Right?
[00:12:01] Gabriel Miller: But part of what you've said is, as I understand it is: know there's an aesthetic experience in interacting with a book that goes beyond something that can't be reduced to quote unquote data. And that it challenges this idea that a book shouldn't be judged by its cover or that a cover of a book doesn't tell you anything important about that.
[00:12:22] Claire Battershill: There was a really interesting way of putting it that Leonard Wolf had in his autobiography where he talked about the material outside of a book and the immaterial inside. And that's a metaphor, right? There's the outside, inside thing is a little complicated, but there I do believe in the idea that there is a material existence of a book and also a conceptual kind of experience deriving from the language.
[00:12:46] But I think that both of those play into experiences of reading. And I also think that eBooks have a materiality. Your kobo is a material artifact with which you have a relationship. However, hard or not hard, you think about that. Our phones have a materiality that we also engage with every day, all the time that our thumbs get used to and that we have this kind of tactile experience with.
[00:13:09] And so I think it has, this has always struck me as something that's really interesting that happens in academia is that sometimes the ideas take precedence over the embodied experience and a lot of scholars who are in some way thinking about feminist or queer approaches really do question that kind of like separation of embodiment and thinking, because thinking is actually an embodied process, right?
[00:13:33] Like neuroscientists will tell you that too. So it seems to me very important to continually reiterate those kind of complex connections and entanglements that exist between material experience and cognition or thinking.
[00:13:46] Gabriel Miller: Is this, is that the sort of example that illustrates how using feminist or critical methodologies are informing your approach to the study of book history?
[00:13:58] That that allows you, gives you conceptual tools to challenge those sorts of assumptions?
[00:14:04] Claire Battershill: I think so, and I think in some ways part of it is foregrounding the embodied elements of the work that we already do. It's noticing the things that maybe have been gone unremarked in the practices that we have and or even maybe just ramping it up a little bit.
[00:14:19] So an example is that when you do book historical work, you do often examine physical copies and special collections. That's long been the case with this discipline. That's there's a long history of people looking at many copies of the same text, for example, to try and figure out the variances and to try and learn what the, what they call the ideal text might be.
[00:14:38] But that too is an embodied practice. And so when I teach my students about these kinds of experiences, we, I try and do it in a way that incorporates their own kind of like physical making activities into their historical experiences. So if we're gonna learn about historical book findings, we might also try that style of book finding, like using a needle and thread and try out making it ourselves just to see what that actually feels like.
[00:15:03] Because that kind of embodied learning does also reinforce the embodiment of the processes that went into the making of the book in the first place, right? The parts of, and those are the parts of history that sometimes are harder to document, right? Because they don't survive in the record in any way. The movement of people's hands or those kinds of things.
[00:15:19] So yeah, I think that the feminist approaches that I take largely have to do is trying to speak into silences a little bit. And trying to open up those spaces where maybe we know that there was a person or a body, but it's not really articulated and trying to make that articulation.
[00:15:35] And also to kind of like foreground those elements of embodiment and of the feeling that you have in the archival, in the library.
[00:15:43] Gabriel Miller: Ok. So I have to ask you about this because my own undergrad was woefully lacking in hands-on creation. So let me ask you, when you say that some of what your students do is make to learn, I, these are students in your history of books class?
[00:16:00] Claire Battershill: I do it everywhere. I'm like, I'm notorious about the suitcases, but I roll around campus with the material. Um, yeah, so, no, I, I mean, book history for sure. I also am currently teaching a creative writing class that is about making chatbooks, and so the students are writing their own texts and they're also making their own books, so they're gonna circulate together in their class.
[00:16:20] So I, I bring it into a lot of things, even in my culture and technology class at the high school, I have to make […] and stuff like that. Like we, I try and do it as much as possible to be honest, because I think it is de-familiarizing still, I think for a lot of, and there's more of it happening in different maker spaces than other innovations like for sure.
[00:16:37] And I find the High School at Toronto, which is the information faculty where I'm partly appointed, is very pro embodied learning and other kinds of making. There are lots of us doing that kind of work, but um, it's still for a lot of undergraduate students in, in traditional humanities or science programs, it's not a huge part of their academic life.
[00:16:55] These kinds of hands-on activities, but they really love them. And I think they sort of learn differently from 'em. And I also think it kind of makes them nervous in this interesting way, like it, and it's, I think, a helpful nervousness that says, this is something new that I don't know how to do. And then coming out the other side of that and realizing that you can try and experiment in some ways it goes back to the Virginia Wolf thing, right?
[00:17:17] Like the book might not look beautiful the first time you make one, but there's a value in doing it that kind of goes beyond that, that what you might think, that you might learn about things by doing it.
[00:17:27] Gabriel Miller: And it seems to me there's a lot of hands-on knowledge in the work you're doing, learning how to bind a book, but also when it comes to the issues around digitization.
[00:17:39] You haven't just been studying these in the abstract. You've been using digital tools for your work, and I'm thinking specifically about the Modernist Archives Publishing Project, which I understand connects collections in different parts of the world so that researchers can access them. What made you want to be part of this?
[00:18:04] Claire Battershill: Yeah. That project is a collaboration, a long-standing collaboration now that I, I sort of became part of when I was a PhD student still. And my collaborators are Alice Staveley at Stanford. Helen Southworth at Oregon, Elizabeth Willson Gordon is at King’s University of Alberta, Nicola Wilson at Reading and Matthew Hannah, who's at Purdue.
[00:18:25] And the team has evolved over the years with lots of different students. We've worked. We also have a project archivist called Helena Clarkson, who's wonderful. So this is a really quite a large collaboration with lots of different folks at different institutions. And it was sort of born out of this shared frustration that we all experienced when my first academic book was on the press, and that was my dissertation book was about that, and which is Virginia Wolf's Publishing House that produced that book that I described earlier.
[00:18:50] The Hogarth Press archives are mostly housed at the University of Reading in the UK. However, as happens often with archival collections, little pieces of the archive have been bought by other institutions, either because they had some kind of other academic interest, or they were sold, it was sold piecemeal, and so you do often come up against this problem where you get partway through an archival research trip and you realize that actually what you need to see is in Texas and it’s not in Reading, UK.
[00:19:19] And so you, the trail goes a little bit cold on your historical investigation, right? So that is frustrating for the researcher, but it's also something that is, it creates these kind of slightly different narratives of history, right?
[00:19:34] Because you have stories that go in different directions that can't be pursued, and so then you get certain myths that get perpetuated or other things, or a part of the archive is gone. And so it seems like a substantive issue as well as a practical one, and all of us who work on that project, had really had that experience at some point, right?
[00:19:50] Of, of noticing that we didn't have the access to the whole story no matter how much we traveled, right? Cause there's enough places and that also has a carbon cost. And so that also motivated, part of what we were thinking is that we were also all thinking a little bit about climate and travel and what that means.
[00:20:07] And how often we really should be hopping on a plane to, to see two documents for example, like probably not, right? So a lot of times collections will do a little bit of digitization for you, but never on a holistic or systematic way like this without some assistance because they don't have the resources and that's not the fault of the collections, that’s just how it is.
[00:20:25] So we really envisaged MAPP as, which we call it MAPP for short, Modest Archive Publishing Project. We envisaged it as a collaboration between library partners and we have many in the UK and the US and Canada. And academics and archivists and all of us are working together to think about how we can interact with these collections in a digital space in a way that the physical collections don't allow us.
[00:20:49] But at the same time, we're trying to point users back to the physical collections as spaces of possibility. In other ways. So it's always this kind of two-way street I think for us with MAPP and we've created our own kind of metadata schema so what I was mentioning before about making sure that in our case, like one kind of really clear cut example is that of a feminist intervention, it’s the metadata.
[00:21:10] Is that we always include the typist of a letter, so where we know that information. So that secretarial work in the 1930s was this rising profession. Very seldom acknowledged in the documents, right? But often you'll find the initials of the typist at the top of the letter. So if you can couple that with the business records, you can say like, this is the person who typed this letter.
[00:21:31] And that kind of, again, reengages the embodied labour that's gone into the making of those documents. And those documents in turn show you how books were made, right? Cause they're letters to editors to and from authors and editors, and they're letters about what choices you're gonna make about book cover, right?
[00:21:46] So you have the background story on the dust jacket often and all of those kinds of details. We saw it in many ways as this kind of aggregating resource, but also as a way of thinking critically about this process of digitization by making a project ourselves. And our thinking has evolved a lot over the 10 years that we've been working on this together and has, I think, maybe the most important thing that I've learned from it is the importance of collaboration across these different spheres and of working together in order to kind of understand these different processes.
[00:22:15] This is always something that books are never made alone, right? And digital resources are never made alone. And so collaborative work is really crucial.
[00:22:23] Gabriel Miller: This relationship between the digital and the book feels like for me throughout my life, there’s been a sort of dread about technology associated with books.
[00:22:36] For the longest time, it was about the television was going to gonna be the end of books, and then the internet would make them irrelevant. Now, it doesn't seem like that's actually the way things have played out, but what's so striking about listening to you is, at least to my mind, there isn't, I don't hear a defensiveness about the status of books in a digital world, but I might be a mis-assuming too much.
[00:23:04] So I just want to ask you, how are you feeling about the state of books in a digital world in 2023?
[00:23:13] Claire Battershill: I feel good about it. You're right. I don't feel defensive at all. I think it's inter, it's an, it's something to think about and certainly there's been a lot of ink spilled on the question, right? About the fate and the future and all of these different kinds of questions around the book.
[00:23:26] And in some ways, book history as a discipline actually arose out of this kind of fear about 20 odd years ago, right? This idea that maybe we have to have a history of the book because its time is coming to an end right there, there's a level in which that actually is an origin story, one origin story for this discipline, it really hasn't come to pass.
[00:23:46] I think there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful. If I can take it in this direction, I think it also comes back in some ways to the way that people learn how to read and read in childhood. And I think that books are still so much a part of many or most children's elementary educations, right?
[00:24:02] It's, you know, you learn still to write with the pencil and to do it on paper, and there is certainly like device literacy among young children, but it's still something that we're being introduced to pretty early in our lives. And that feeling also of making a book. Or writing a little book yourself is like really empowering for children.
[00:24:22] And so that's something that I've seen doing community workshops and stuff around letter press and bookmaking is just that children feel very proud when they're able to make a book and it looks like a book and it's a codex and it has that kind of […] to it. They feel great about that. And so I think there is just something to me that points to a sort of natural inclination to it that I think we still tap into all the time.
[00:24:45] So, Yeah, I don't feel worried at all. I think it's also occasioned a lot of really awesome art. So I get excited about the kinds of like artists’ books that like ask you to question what a book actually is by through their form, right? Whether they, whether it's a book that's shaped like a snow globe, or whether it's a book that's bound all the way around the edges so that you can't actually open it without breaking it in some way.
[00:25:09] Or whether it's a book that is mounted page by page on a gallery wall, or all of these kinds of conceptual experiments and playful engagements that artists have with the book form. I get really, I get jazzed about that. I think it's an exciting development of being forced to think about it more, right? I think its invisibility
[00:25:29] is no longer a given the book form. It's not something we just take for granted. Now, you have to think it through and I actually think that's so productive and great.
[00:25:37] Gabriel Miller: What are the topics you are excited about exploring in your own research in the next few years?
[00:25:43] Claire Battershill: So I'm working at the moment on a new, brand new project that I'm just starting to think about, which is about opening up special collections access through creative practice.
[00:25:54] So it does dovetail a little bit with some of the things we've been talking about, but one of the things I wanna figure out is like, how do we take a special collection, a library like the Thomas Fisher Library Rare Book Library here in Toronto, which typically has as a closed tax library, has also relied on a retrieval process where the researcher has to know what they want to ask for, and then they ask for it, and then it comes to them.
[00:26:17] So the project that I'm about to start working on and the questions that I wanna think about with that or how, what are the other ways you can see those collections? So either using digital tools to, for example, visualize the catalogue so that maybe you could see what's in, in it in a different way, like in a conceptual way, or kind of to have artists respond to some of the materials, to have the materials kind of come forward in, artistic work, or creative writing work.
[00:26:42] So yeah, that's the, that's like my, my next kind of area of inquiry is to really sort of more forcefully bring together creative practice and book history work. And to try and do a little bit of that myself. So I want to also participate in the writing and making of art in relation to these collections.
[00:27:00] Cuz I think that's something that for a long time, these two channels have coexisted for me on parallel. But it's time to bring them together.
[00:27:12] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to the Big Thinking Podcast and to our guest, Claire Battershill, Assistant Professor cross-appointed in the Faculty of Information and the Department of English at the University of Toronto. I also want to thank our friends at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council whose support helps make this podcast possible.
[00:27:32] Finally, thank you to CitedMedia for their support in producing the Big Thinking Podcast. Follow us for more episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Google Podcast; à la prochaine!