Online incunabula

My latest podcast is up at ITConversations. Here’s the intro I wrote for the show:

Although Tim Berners-Lee once famously declared that “Cool URIs don’t change,” factors beyond our control make it hard for most of us to avoid link rot. Geoffrey Bilder is the director of strategic initiatives for CrossRef, a company whose mission is “to be the citation linking backbone for all scholarly information in electronic form.” CrossRef, in other words, is in the business of combating link rot.

The world of scholarly and professional publishing revolves around reliable citation. In previous podcasts with Tony Hammond and Dan Chudnov I’ve explored some of the technologies and methods used by these publishers — including digital object identifiers and OpenURL — to assure that reliability.

CrossRef plays a key role in that technological ecosystem. In this conversation, Geoffrey and I discuss how everyday blog publishing systems could offer the same kinds of persistence, integrity, and accountability provided by scholarly and professional publishing systems. And we explore why that might matter more than most people would think.

The title of this item refers to a fascinating riff by Geoffrey toward the end of the show. The word incunabula isn’t something you run into every day, or even (in my case) every decade. It refers to books that were produced before 15011, during the infancy of printing when, as Geoffrey explains:

People were clearly uncomfortable moving from manuscripts to printed books. They’d print these books, and then they’d decorate them by hand. They’d add red capitals to the beginnings of paragraphs, and illuminate the margins, because they didn’t entirely trust this printed thing. It somehow felt of less quality, less formal, less official, less authoritative. And here we are, trying to make our online stuff more like printed stuff. This is the incunabula of the digital age that we’re creating at the moment. And it’s going to change.

So much of the apparatus that we take for granted when we look at a book — the table of contents, page numbers, running heads, footnotes — that wasn’t common currency. It got developed. Page numbers didn’t make much sense if there was only one edition of something. This kind of stuff got developed and adopted over a fairly long period of time.

If you treat Vannevar Bush as Gutenberg, we haven’t even gotten to Martin Luther yet, we haven’t even gotten to 1525. In fact, whereas people stopped trying to decorate manuscripts by 1501, we’re still trying to replicate print online. So in some ways they were way ahead of us in building new mechanisms for communicating, and new apparatus for the stuff they were dealing with.

When I try to tell people what we’re doing at CrossRef, I say that we’re trying to help define what the new apparatus and infrastructure will be.

And that’s what we’re doing in the blogosphere too. One of the bridges I’d like to help build is one between these two domains, each of which has so much to learn from the other.

1 It’s unclear (to me) why that cutoff date is always given as 1501.

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7 thoughts on “Online incunabula

  1. Wikipedia says 1501 is arbitrary, with extensive discussion but no linked sourcing, so take with typical grain of salt.

  2. Incunabula are–by definition–printed books produced in the 15th century, the same century that saw the advent of printing with movable type in Europe. The 15th century ended on Dec. 31, 1500: there being no “year zero,” the century ends with the “00” year, not the “99” year. At least, it does according to this scheme!

  3. If you don’t set a cutoff date, then about one-third of the books in our public library are incunabula with cartoons, marginalia, etc.

  4. “Why isn’t the Internet Archive sufficient for this purpose?”

    It’s possible that in hindsight, for certain people and for certain purposes, it’ll turn out to have been sufficient. But there are no assurances. Some people, for some purposes, will require — and wish to pay for — assurances.

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