Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Wintersession looks forward, to the past

"If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil'd,
Which laboring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child."
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 59, lines 1-4


Methods of production—from movable type to multimedia authoring—were examined at this year’s Wintersession events.


By Beth Giudicessi, HCL Communications

January 28, 2014 – In a 2007 excavation of Harvard Yard, archeology students unearthed a handful of metal fragments, each imprinted with a letter. The pieces, which were determined to be 17th century movable type, root the history of printing at the feet of current students and gave context for Houghton Library’s letterpress printing workshop during this year’s Wintersession.

Across campus, faculty and staff explored editorial production on the other end of the technological spectrum. "Multimedia Exposed," a series of symposiums led by the Expanding the Boundaries of Authorship group, Lamont Library’s Multimedia Lab and other campus organizations, investigated emerging tools for authoring with digital media.

The events punctuated 10 days of lectures, hands-on presentations and panels hosted throughout the Harvard College Library and FAS Libraries as part of this year's January term. The sessions are built to enrich learning in a relaxed setting removed from the demanding pace of the semester schedule.

At the print workshop, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students used Houghton’s 19th century iron hand press to set type as they learned to examine books as physical objects. Philip Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts Hope Mayo explained that the type found in the Yard was mostly "Ls" and "Is" and other narrow forms of the alphabet. "My theory," she said, "is that they were letters that fell into cracks in the floor and got lost, so they stayed there when the house was deteriorating."

The "house" is the former residence of Henry Dunster, Harvard College's first president, and home to the North America's first printing press. It was used to create the first book printed in America, The Bay Psalm Book. Of 1,700 originals, only 11 known copies exist, including one recently on display at Harvard's Houghton Library and one sold at auction in November 2013 for $14.2 million – the highest amount ever paid for a printed book.

"A good bit of the history of printing in North America happened right here in Cambridge and in Harvard Yard," said Mayo.

That history is playing out.

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At the first Multimedia Exposed session, African and African American Studies Fellow Carla Martin demonstrated how her students go into Boston's traditionally-African American neighborhoods to record accounts from Ethiopian, Nigerian, Cape Verdean and other voluntary immigrant groups. In response, they create custom interactive cultural maps, online encyclopedia entries and mini-documentaries that are archived for future classes and to record the city's diversity.

At another discussion, Associate Professor of Music and Historical Musicology Sindhumathi Revuluri demonstrated how music builds on prior works. She played examples of "borrowing" by Herbie Hancock, Sting and Jay-Z, and the disc jockey Girl Talk. Her students use audio editing programs like GarageBand and Audacity to critique ethical, legal and artistic approaches to interpretive collaboration.

"The students reference various issues we talked about in class: authenticity, digitalization, commercialization," she said. "One student said 'sampling is an art' and that was a big contentious moment in the class about people who use samples and whether they're artists or thieves."

The issue was raised later in the week during a panel of copyright experts and librarians. The panel, which included Harvard Copyright Advisor Kyle Courtney, spoke on licensing Harvard’s photography and other visual resources and on new questions of provenance, permission and citation raised by the expansion of HarvardX's massive open online courses.

"In our digital age we have tools in everyone's hands that can be used in a very simple way," said Marty Schreiner, head of Maps, Media, Data and Government Information. "I think the interesting part of this conversation is it seems like there's a need to borrow: that this how we work, this is how scholarship is done. We’re building on other people's work."

That conversation, like the arch of this year's Wintersession, is likely to be informed as much by the earliest days of Harvard's history as by those yet to come.