Metadata and Digital Pedagogy: Surfacing Romantic-Era Book Histories with Captions

[Note: This talk, “Metadata and Digital Pedagogy: Surfacing Romantic-era Book Histories with Captions,” is part of the panel called “Communicating Book Histories with Metadata” with Lindsey Eckert (Toronto) and Laura Mandell (Texas A&M). Presented at HASTAC V, Ann Arbor (U Mich), Dec. 1-3, 2011. Find the slides here: Kirstyn HASTAC2011 PPT. Find Karen Petruska’s generous review of our panel here.]

In Andrew Piper’s influential work Dreaming in Books, he singles out the romantic era—which roughly spans the years between 1770 and 1840—as an especially bibliographic moment in Western print culture history. In his introduction, he says,

While books had by the turn of the nineteenth century been a constant of Western cultural life for over 1500 years, what was new around 1800 was the imminent sense of too-muchness that surrounded the printed book. It was precisely this notion of the surplus of books that lent the book its cosmological identity in the romantic age—that it was both everywhere and could contain everything. . . . The book, like the society it helped reflect back to itself, was increasingly marked by a key element of heterogeneity, as different book formats and literary genres were mobilized to regulate the growing problem of bibliographic surplus. (5)

I’m sure you’ll agree when I say that the physical form of romantic-era print editions is not divorced from their content, but is itself vital content—as it is for any book. But due to their proliferation at a time when experiments with book form and content exploded, and machine-produced books began to flood the market for the first time, romantic-era texts, in particular, require that digital editors clearly communicate their uniquely “bookish” book histories to contemporary readers and scholars. Failing to do so means that we’re losing this singular bibliographic moment in print history, as well. Romantic-era texts provide a perfect lesson in avoiding the pitfall of allowing one electronic copy of the text to stand in for the thousands of physical copies of this work that bespeak its abundant, heterogeneous circulation, and the way that readers used and left their traces in a sea of unique print editions.[1]

To think about communicating book history metadata in new ways, I collaborated with James P. Ascher, Rare Book Cataloguer at CU-Boulder’s Norlin Library, to curate an exhibit in Special Collections for my students to visit, handle, and learn from early editions of British books and other objects, like 18th-century maps. We also designed a caption-writing lesson that became the platform for students to create a collaborative digital exhibit of the objects they worked with in Special Collections.[2]

I decided to use captions as a way to communicate romantic-era book history because I theorize them as short narrative and pedagogical expressions of bibliographical metadata—the kind of data Lindsey just talked about that you would normally find in a teiHeader that describes an electronic text, its source, and its encoding methodology and history.[3] While collation statements and TEI metadata publish crucial information about a book’s form and contents, they do a poor job of being interesting, and of teaching. The caption is ideally rich in content delivered with humanism and pathos, rhetorical qualities that are essential for communicating information in meaningful and exciting ways.[4]

As miniature essays full of useful information, captions are related to the genre of the “abstract” and have their roots in descriptive bibliography. They are also related to narrative expressions in comics. According to the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) abstract guidelines, an abstract “enables readers (a) to identify the basic content of a document quickly, (b) to determine its relevance to their interests, and thus (c) to decide whether they need to read the document in its entirety” (2). NISO’s definition of an abstract is missing two ideas that I find central: description of the physical traits of the object, as well as the idea that the abstract itself must provide a patheticrhetorical appeal. The discipline of descriptive bibliography adds the former, and comics theory provides the latter.

Descriptive bibliography is the close physical description of books—a discipline often associated with rare book sales, collecting, and cataloguing. Using knowledge of print technology history as well as circulation and reader practices at various time periods, descriptive bibliographers try to answer questions about a book’s unique anatomy, if you will. For example, what sort of type is used and on what kind of paper? How are illustrations incorporated into the book? And how is it bound? Descriptive bibliography is not just a practice, but also a genre of writing seldom introduced to literary scholars, and importantly, one that has the power to link the materialist turn in literary theory with the actual early editions of these objects whose prose and verse contents we so assiduously study.

To add sex-appeal to bibliographical syntax, like collation statements, that sometimes read like equations, I also theorize the bibliographical caption as relating to comics theory’s “thought captions.” Scott McCloud describes these as “intimate” exchanges of information, usually in narrative, that a character seems to soliloquize directly to the reader (Making Comics 110). As a consequence, a thought caption “embodies each thought in a way that encourages us to assume ownership of it as we read” and “creat[es] an instant bond” with a narrator (“That Hand”). When data is relayed with narrative intimacy, immediacy, and encourages “reader ownership” it becomes pedagogical and has the potential to make bibliographical description more meaningful and memorable through mixed-media story telling. [Aside: this echoes a point Josh Greenberg made in his excellent keynote address this morning, that data, and especially “big data,” becomes meaningful when you use it as a way to tell a story.]

I suggest that multi-media captions are an experimental method of communicating book history metadata that may not be uniform or of library quality in that sense, but they encourage the making of memorable and meaningful bibliographical exhibits that are suitable for a dynamic user interface. And as a pedagogical project, multimedia captions introduce students to working with rare books and artifacts in a library’s holdings, the basics of descriptive bibliography, and questions about differences between digital and analog media and how they function rhetorically. They are also an opportunity for students to give back to the library and donate their caption to the use of Special Collections staff for future exhibits.

The caption assignment is a tiered, semester-long project that progresses from text-only to multimedia captions, and I’m teaching it for the very first time this semester in an undergraduate English course called “Masterpieces of British Literature.” An introductory in-class lesson on caption writing led to a class trip to Special Collections early in the semester, where students selected an object in the exhibit to write their caption on, and they began taking notes on a worksheet. Students turned their notes into a narrative caption of 300 words or less and submitted the caption on their course blog. For my class, those steps were all required. About half the class chose to participate in the extra-credit portion, and they are in the process of creating the collaborative multimedia caption digital exhibit. The project requires them to go back to Special Collections; collect more data about their object, including photos and video; and learn a few basic elements of bibliographic description, such as the names of a few book parts and how to identify chain-lines and wire-lines to see if the paper in their book is laid or wove paper. Finally, they incorporate this data into our WordPress exhibit, in a template of pages that I set up for each artifact. They have free reign to convey their multimedia caption data in any way they want to, given their proficiency with digital media, and in the way that they feel teaches their book best.

The Multimedia Caption Exhibit project uses the advantages of digital media to help deliver pedagogical descriptive bibliography and encourages students to think about the challenges of representing physical objects in a digital environment. This last challenge is, as our panel shows, a very real issue for romanticist textual editors and scholars right now, as we experience a book market similar to that of the romantic era, flooded for the first time not just with print editions, but first-generation digital editions of these books, as well.

Lesson plans, handouts, and other materials that I used to put together my Special Collections exhibit and execute the entire caption project are available for you on the “References and Thanks” page at Students gave written consent for me to show their work in my HASTAC presentation.

Works Cited

ANSI/NISO. Guidelines for Abstracts: An American National Standard Developed by the National Information Standards Organization. Approved November 27, 1996, by the American National Standards Institute. Bethesda, MD: NISO Press, 1997.

Ascher, James P. “Organic Description, Teaching about Stuff, and Computers.” Mémoire for the Digital. Presented at the 52nd Annual RBMS Preconference, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

ENG1500-004. British Travel Writing From Chaucer to Wells: An Exhibit of Extended Captions.

Eckert, Lindsey. “Material Metadata: Troubleshooting TEI.” Delivered at HASTAC V, Ann Arbor (U Mich), Dec. 1-3, 2011.

Mandell, Laura. “Can Data Ever Be Meta.” Delivered at HASTAC V, Ann Arbor (U Mich), Dec. 1-3, 2011.

Mazella, Dave, and Julie Grob. “Collaborations between Faculty and Special Collections Librariansin Inquiry-Driven Classes.” Libraries and the Academy 11.1 (Jan. 2011): 467-487).

McCloud, Scott. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York and London: Harper, 2006.

—. “That Hand on Your Shoulder.” Blog Post. 22 March 2010.

Piper, Andrew. Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age. U of Chicago P, 2009.

[1] Neil Fraistat and Andrew Stauffer also made this point at the 19th Annual NASSR conference in their seminar on “Textuality,” Park City, Utah, August 11-14, 2011.

[2] Dave Mazella also writes about pedagogical collaboration between faculty and librarians in Special Collections, and his essay stresses the need for long-term projects that require students to return to Special Collections—that is, use these resources more than just in a single introductory class visit—to make the experience of working in the collection more integral in coursework outcome.

[3] Lindsey Eckert (Toronto) gave a talk that preceded mine, which is entitled “Material Metadata: Troubleshooting TEI.”

[4] Ascher’s paper, “Organic Description, Teaching about Stuff, and Computers,” poses this central question as well and suggests captions as a medium for enlivening bibliographical data. My talk and students’ digital project take this idea as a platform and expand upon it by offering pedagogical and theoretical applications that move from text-only to digital representations and publishing.



  1. Kirstyn,

    This is a fascinating project! I wonder, how do you get students to reflect upon the connections (and disconnections) between print-based bibliography and the issues in digital culture?

    1. Kirstyn Leuner

      Roger, I would say that, based on their responses to the digital project, and their blogging all semester, that the connections are formed in the process of translation (to use Lori’s word) — translating their ideas into an electronic medium for describing the work that has a range of possibilities that print doesn’t offer, but also has its own set of limits. What I need to do is develop a more in-depth response and reflection part of this assignment. (Do you have suggestions?) This is my first semester teaching this long project, and the reflection part, I think, needs to not come during the very last week of class, but a week or two earlier. It’s a scheduling problem as much as a methodological one.

  2. I’m so glad – and no in the least surprised – to hear that your paper, posted here, was such a success at HASTAC. I actually had to take a descriptive bibliography course as a Master’s student at the University of Victoria in the late 90s. Too bad it hasn’t been until now that I appreciate the importance of D.B. More, since D.B. is an act of translation that – because of the nature of translation – can never create a perfect equivalent, I think your idea of using multimedia captions as another layer or another kind of translation is a great one.

    1. Kirstyn Leuner

      Thank you for your response! I’m jealous that you had graduate D.B. training. It’s pretty rare now in literature programs, I think. (Could just be my experience and peers’ experiences.) Certainly chomping at the bit to dig into it more, and will be applying to the RBS course for summer of 2013. In the mean time, I have a growing D.B. reading list that’s calling my name. As far as translation, my paper and Laura Mandell’s paper, “Can Data Ever Be Meta,” both make the point that layers of representation are implicit in using codes and literary data to represent a book in a digital medium. Translation happens between a physical book, a collation statement, TEI encoding, XSLT, and HTML output, but what is missing oftentimes, I feel, is the ability to leave the hand in the picture of the book, so to speak (that’s supposed to be a faux pas when photographing page images): all those levels of data and their representations tell the story of the book, but fail to do so in a pedagogical way. (Point already made …) Thanks again.

  3. I’m with Lori. This sounds like it was as super fabulous panel altogether addressing issues of materiality, bibliography, and digitalness. Nice work here!

  4. John Russell

    As I hope you are aware, I loved the panel and your presentation. I like how you are trying to get the students to consider a “thick” description of the book (understandably within the limits of their knowledge) and I’m a huge advocate of getting students to handle rare materials. A minor quibble, though, that might be productive: descriptive bibliography, strictly speaking, is not a translation, but an attempt to represent aspects of a book in order to tell a story about the construction of an ideal copy; the kinds of bibliographic descriptions (in the loose sense) used by booksellers are narratives that are shaped by a desire to instill desire/wonder/a sense of value in the reader. Thinking about bibliographic description as narrative might lead students to think about the object itself as conveying a narrative (about gender, race, class, among other things), but also how different consumers of books create narratives about books as objects. My sense from reading some of the student descriptions is that there isn’t a particular narrative goal and that lack leads to over-generalizations and a generic quality. Perhaps asking the students to “take up” a narrative position and tell a story would help them engage the books (and other supporting material) in interesting ways.

    1. Kirstyn Leuner

      Hi John, thanks for your comment. I’m seeing the same challenge with the “story telling” outcome of this project, though the goals are to “teach this data to your audience” and “tell the book’s story” — students are on the whole more concerned with acquiring and delivering data about the book than experimenting with the rhetoric of the delivery. Some problems include the assignment’s value, it’s scheduling, and, maybe, assumptions about digital media – though I have to probe further on this. The digital exhibit is an extra credit project, and it falls at the very end of the semester. One pair of students agreed to complete their work in time for my HASTAC prez (I had similar feelings about their attempt at “story telling”), and the rest are finishing by tomorrow — and finals for CU start on Saturday. I’m finding that the last thing on their minds is a rhetorical analysis of their information. Disappointing, but also hard to blame them. Also: I’m noticing that discussions about what it means to tell a story in pictures are one thing, but practice has occasionally been another, and perhaps there’s an assumption that data published on WordPress has more pathos for a receiver. But a *good* example is “Seahorses” – the illustration of Cook’s voyages. I think, e.g., the way the video pans across the illustrations, left to right, is narrative, and showing the heaviness and scale of the pages conveys an expensive, decadent display book, as opposed to a pocket book of poetry. We also get the narrative of this book from seeing the narrative of the prints before and after Seahorses. Maybe what’s needed next time is an exercise in which students have to write an artist’s statement about *how* their representations tell the story of the book, and make sure their exhibit delivers this intent.

      1. Kirstyn Leuner

        Hi John – students finished their projects on Friday, and I have to say that I’m on the whole pretty impressed. Take a gander — there are only a few that didn’t finish or that were too rushed to fiddle with data conveyance. The students who worked on the maps (also Sea Horses) did a really fabulous job, and the Ellesmere video is awesome. 🙂

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