From Order to Configurability of Books

From Order to Configurability of Books: “Distant Reading” of Foreign Titles in the Woman’s Library at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition

This site follows a collection that began as an exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition’s Woman’s Building Library across the time dimension to its absorption into material collections and integration with the literary and national canons. The project theorizes the bibliographic fact and presents a methodology for reading forms and structures using a digital archive which can be continually configured.

Literary criticism (new criticism in particular) has developed excellent approaches and models over the past forty years that have allowed for the separation and interrogation of individual works, creating an “atomicism” of the works. This atomicism has resulted in the “destruction of any historical sense of literature as a result of its dismemberment” (Guillen, p. 578). What we are attempting with this project is to allow for a supranational ordering and reading of the texts, and a “comparatist’s search” for understanding that extends past “national differences” (Guillen, 1971). We are attempting to realize what Raymond Williams (1981) wanted to pursue when he wrote, “If I had one single ambition in literary studies it would be to rejoin [relations between language use and human physical organization] with experimental science” (p. 341). Moretti (2005) notes that a reconfiguration of literary history requires a prioritization of “explanation (understanding larger structures) over interpretation (reading of individual works).” By creating this open text from the WBL, we are helping reintegrate the “lost 99 percent of the archive” or the “Great Unread” into the “fabric of literary history” (Moretti, 2005). If, as Derrida claimed, no archive can be separated from the “outside” then this distant reading of the 1893 Women’s Library attempts to both reconfigure and resurrect.

– Paper presented at SHARP 2011 in the Library of Congress in DC with Marija Dalbello.

The alpha draft of the site can be found here.



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