A Hornbook for Digital Book History

Whitney Trettien

A 45-minute RBS lecture followed by 15 minutes of Q&A held on Thursday, 18 June, 2020, 7–8 p.m. ET, via Zoom.

In the 1980s and 90s, book history and digital humanities (then more commonly called “humanities computing”) both emerged at the margins of literary studies. They did so in reaction to separate quantitative turns—the Annales school on the one hand and computational and corpus linguistics on the other—and coalesced around a set of shared questions: How do platforms like the codex or the web mediate texts differently? And what do digital methods reveal about the past? As scholars at the cusp of a new millennium faced their own moment of media in transition, the last great information revolution—as Robert Darnton has called the invention of movable type—came newly into view.

Many decades later, book history, media studies, and digital humanities have become deeply entangled. After taking a brief look back at the origins of what we might now begin to call “digital book history,” this lecture took account of several emerging research clusters that are using new technology to transform how we study old books. These include projects to build vast social networks linking together people and their texts; collaborations between historians and scientists to scrape DNA from medieval manuscripts or count wormholes in woodblocks; and new cataloguing initiatives that fundamentally change how we index the printed past. While this lecture provided a primer on these new methods, it also took a broader view on the stakes of this shift, arguing that it presents an opportunity to reimagine bibliographical practice along radically different lines.

Follow the conversation on social media using hashtags #RBSOnline and #TrettienDigHornbook.

This lecture was presented live in June 2020. You are invited to watch the recording of the event below via our RBS YouTube channel. 


Whitney Trettien is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where she researches and teaches book history and digital humanities. Her first book, Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments of History, tells the story of three seventeenth-century communities of amateur publishers who experimented with scissors, glue, needles, and thread to design bespoke books. It is a hybrid print/digital project, staged on Manifold Scholarship through University of Minnesota Press. She has published on Isabella Whitney, print-on-demand publishing, botanical book metaphors, and other sundry topics, and is currently researching the earliest electronic books. Visit her online at: whitneyannetrettien.com.