17 December 2021

The COVID pandemic has caused many ARC-supported research projects to be redesigned, particularly those which relied on overseas travel to conduct fieldwork, access research infrastructure, or visit rare collections. One such project that was affected is the 2019 Discovery Early Career Researcher Award of Dr Tully Barnett, based at Flinders University, whose research is looking at literature and the digitisation of books, in the ‘post print’ age. 

Dr Barnett’s DECRA project was to investigate the cultural effects of digitisation, and the policies that determine how we access digital literature, what happens in our brain and how our reading experience changes when we access digital facsimiles of cultural objects. A large part of the project involved comparing original books in libraries overseas with their digitised versions, so when the pandemic began, Dr Barnett realised that she needed to take a different approach. 

‘I had found some really interesting specimens of artefacts in Google books,’ says Dr Barnett. ‘Sometimes in the process of digitisation, the labour conditions under which people are working for Google and other digitisation projects means that they have to work very fast – and as a result, interesting things get caught in the digitisation such as ephemera that readers leave behind on or between pages.’ 

One incident that Dr Barnett wanted to explore further was the accidental scanning of a letter from the Chicago School of Medicine thanking a prospective student for his application inside a Michigan library copy of Crime and Punishment, a book which is about a medical student who goes mad.  

‘The fact that objects like this letter become part of the digitised version of the book means that we have some kind of new text-hybrid object, which is neither a physical book nor a letter … in fact we don’t have the contextual language for it,’ says Dr Barnett. 

‘Part of my plan was to go to the library Michigan to visit that library and rediscover the object – I can’t do that now.’ 

With international travel halted for much of 2020 and 2021, Dr Barnett looked at alternative ways to tell the story about what digitisation means for our libraries and our access to literature – and to explore in detail what happens when we take a physical object and turn it into something digital. 

Weaving in-between lockdowns, Dr Barnett established a series of four workshops in which a group of participants would print on a letterpress, create and then digitise their own ‘zine’, to explore the process of publishing a physical object. Dr Barnett would then interview the participants to discover what conceptual architecture they were using to understand the experience. 

The first workshop was held with Damien Warman at the Stone & Quoin Studio using a letterpress machine, to typeset a few meaningful lines of text. This is a laborious process whereby every individual letter is physically placed in position for printing. Once they had set up the type, their chosen text was printed on a few different types of paper and with a few different types of ink. 

The next workshop investigated what it is like to turn a page into a book and how the invention of the photocopier, with its low cost of reproduction, transformed the accessibility of the printing industry (particularly in the few pre-internet decades of the 20th century) for low budget books and pamphlets – ‘zines’. 

‘My participants had to take the page they had developed in the printing press and put it into a book-like thing, a zine, along with other pages made from items that they found meaningful. – People brought mementos from concerts, one participant, an author, brought one of his early novels that he’d had to disassemble for scanning. Then we each made a mini zine of 8 pages.’ 

‘A digitisation workshop will then enable participants to create digital facsimiles of their handcrafted works which will require them to make decisions about how to represent an object that has a lot of meaning for them at the material and tactile level as a digital artefact,’ says Dr Barnett. 

For the very final stage of the process, which is still underway, all the digitised zines are being compiled into a library on a raspberry pi (a kind of lo-fi computer) that will then be placed in random places around Adelaide, such as a hollowed-out tree, or on a shelf in a physical public library. These could then be accessed by anyone with a mobile by detecting the wifi signal.  

‘I was inspired by projects like ‘book crossing’, where you leave a book out in the wild and it makes a journey,’ says Dr Barnett, who hopes that these raspberry pi libraries might take on a life on their own in their journeying around the city, while continuing to explore the question of ‘what is a page?’, ‘what is a book?’, and ‘what is a library?’ in the digital age – and in the COVID age. 

 

 
Images from the digitisation workshop using a letterpress machine. Credit: Liz Grandmaison.