Dec 7, 2020 Todd Samuelson, Fall 2020 DM Faculty Grant
Negative Space: Illustration as Historical Engagement
Todd Samuelson is the Assistant Director for Special Collections at the J. Willard Marriott Library, where he works with other archivists and curators to provide access to the Library’s manuscript, print, and media collections. Todd’s research agenda addresses the technologies of historical book production, often in a digital humanities context, and he has been part of the leadership of two recent Mellon Foundation grants. He serves on the faculty of Texas A&M University’s Book History Workshop and prints artist’s books in his home pressroom.
Briefly describe your project and the challenges, lessons learned, and obstacles overcome in the execution of it. What were the professional, academic, and personal motivations underlying your project?
Much of my scholarship draws upon equipment and material used to produce historical books. By examining, measuring, and representing a printing press or set of typographical tools from the seventeenth century, for example, I attempt to reconstruct technical and cultural practices related to labor in the printing house during the hand-press period.
My goal in the Negative Space project has been to develop a framework for distinguishing period illustration processes in preparation for machine learning. During the grant period, my primary focus has been to build a logic model that plots the various techniques in relation to one another. I’ve also been building a corpus of high-resolution macro photographs of each style. The next phase of my project will build upon this foundation as I train an engine to identify discrete features under magnification and provide analysis of a given print or detail.
My efforts have been complicated, though not thwarted, by the challenges of this unusual year. The University’s travel guidelines, the difficulties of gaining access to collections of original publications, and the need to focus on competing priorities have demanded an unanticipated degree of adaptability in my project.
How did the Digital Matters Faculty Grant dovetail with your academic pursuits? What interested you in applying for this grant?
This project aligns with traditional scholarship I’ve been pursuing, including an article analyzing eighteenth- through twentieth-century illustrations forthcoming in Printing History. I’ve found that both critical and creative dimensions of my work have connected in dynamic ways with the digital strategies this grant has allowed me to explore.
Recently, my attention centered upon paired woodblocks used in wood engraving, the dominant illustration process of the nineteenth century. For the grant, I’ve enlarged my scope in time and in technique, working to establish a method for identifying the full range of book illustrations. Beyond the project’s potential for individual scholars, I am particularly hopeful that libraries could utilize a tool like this one to augment catalog records by automating the identification of illustration features in rare books and printed ephemera.
What insights have you gained in regard to your specific field as a result of your project and grant experience?
In the field of book history, growing attention is being paid to issues of materiality within the practices of book production. While analytical bibliography – the process of examining a book’s physical features to chart its development from written copy to published volume – has long been recognized as a core practice of the discipline, recent work has placed increasing emphasis upon the examination of historical objects. Collections of printing equipment and related archives are relatively uncommon, though examples are extant in certain museums and libraries, and remain available for study.
Opportunities to link digital humanities approaches – carrying all the promise of newly-developed digital tools and an ethos of interdisciplinarity – with the established scholarship and methodologies of book history provide fertile ground for this type of digital project.
What would you tell potential faculty grant applicants to help them shape their own digital scholarship project?
This is a great moment for interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m thrilled by the many initiatives on campus dedicated to connecting multiple fields of study. The Marriott Library, Special Collections, and Digital Matters all support innovative projects built on these vital exchanges.
What do you see as the upcoming important issues surrounding digital scholarship in your field? What areas/issues could students and scholars investigate to extend the knowledge in this area?
Among the most promising opportunities offered by this experience has been the chance to view a familiar field from a new vantage. Applying fresh modes of approach to a known topic can result in unexpected realizations and openings for additional inquiry. As my project developed, I saw that it required another dimension drawn from a related line of exploration.
Part of the investigation of book production practice invokes the consideration of contributions from often-anonymous laborers who worked within the printing house. This component of the study strikes me as especially significant in reconstructing cultural and individual experiences in printing history. Rather than taking an archival approach, my examination of material equipment and products such as presses and blocks (particularly through the use of digital readings) provides fascinating glimpses into the social practices of these figures within their workspaces and guilds. As a result, the parallel creative component of my project involves designing a letterpress-printed artist’s book depicting notable early presses and tools, highlighting the marks in their surfaces left by these laborers.
“My goal in the Negative Space project has been to develop a framework for distinguishing period illustration processes in preparation for machine learning.”
–Todd Samuelson, Fall 2020 DM Faculty Grantee