Imaginary Text

About Aldus@SFU

JMaxSeptember 14, 2023 aldus history DH
Dante, La terza rime (aka The Divine Comedy), 1502


Aldus is building a library which knows no walls save those of the world itself. – Erasmus of Rotterdam

This fall I am on sabbatical, and it’s time for me to talk about one of my major projects this coming year: the digital remediation of SFU Library’s world-class collection of 15th- and 16th-century editions from the press of Aldus Manutius. This is a project I’ve been working on for some time with my excellent PhD student, Alessandra Bordini; we were originally moved to begin digitizing the collection back in 2015, which was the quincentenary of Aldus’ death.[1] One doesn’t get too many quincentenaries to celebrate, but this one landed right in our lap: the Wosk-McDonald Aldine Collection had actually been at SFU since the 1996, and well known to us in Publishing studies (and to a coterie group of book historians and bibliophiles, here and around the world). But these amazing volumes otherwise had no public presence whatsoever.

The Wosk-McDonald Aldine Collection at SFU comprises over 100 books between the 1490s and the 1580s published by the famed press of Aldus Manutius in Venice. These books are exemplars in the history of publishing and the history of the book more generally, because they are the models and the prototypes for the book as we have come to know it today. These editions begin at the end of the ‘incunabula’ period (1450–1500) in which the printed book is still escaping its manuscript heritage, and into the beginning of the modern era, when the form of the book, its layout, typography, navigational features, and so on become recognizable to us today as what a book is supposed to like. Aldus is famous for developing Italic, Greek, and Roman typography (the “Bembo” font is drawn from his model), for developing a line of small, unadorned pocket-books (the libelli portatiles), and for being the first printer to publish Sophocles, Herodotus, Euripides, and a host of other classical, er, classics.

Valerius Dictorum et factorum memorabilium, 1502

The Aldine Press generally, and the Wosk-McDonald Collection specifically, provide a great lens for studying the evolution and emergence of the modern book, because that early evolution plays out right across these very volumes. There were other contemporary publishers in Europe, and even in Venice, but Aldus’ enterprise has long been recognized as the premiere press of the time, partly because of the scale and scope of his business (hundreds of editions, thousands of copies, and an international market), partly because of the innovations (in the form of the book, in typography and layout), and also because of his scholarly work in establishing and promoting what we now recognize as the classical canon—the foundation of humanities scholarship.

So having our hands on more than a hundred of these books is a rare fortune, and the project is simply awash with ideas and ambitions… the collection itself is an “embarrassment of riches,” and there are so many things we want to do that it’s often difficult to get our agenda to sit in a straight line. We do mean, however, to bring the fully digitized page facsimiles of the entire collection online to a web browser near you, and to provide a “generous” interface to them: easy to browse, filter, sort, compare, and so on, and providing a wealth of starting points and guided tours that create an on-ramp for interested newcomers to a collection like this. Where previously, the people who came to this collection were professional bibliographers or historians who knew what they were looking for and were prepared to go some lengths to get access to the books; but what if we turned the library’s Special Collections “inside out”[2] and let people from the general public—students, designers, publishers, collectors—in to see these things, and learn about what makes them special?

Lessons from Aldus

Ever since we started thinking about this project, we have been struck by the parallels between what we wanted to do with the collection and Aldus’ own project from the turn of the 16th century. Both are attempts to bring a body of work into the public eye in ways that had not been possible before. Aldus’ body of work was the emerging canon of classical scholarship in manuscript form, jealously guarded and circulated only through coterie groups of scholars. Our body of work comprises Aldus’ own editions, which have, for the better part of the past 400 years or so circulated only through coterie groups of book collectors. In both cases, the motivation of the project involved trying to get these things to accessible to new publics. Which is to say that these are both educational projects.

Poliziano opera, 1498

We are rooted in a scholarly community centered on the idea of “open social scholarship”—that is, making humanities scholarship open, and digitally native, and indeed ‘public’ in new ways, and we cannot help but see in Aldus’ example a similar move, a similar priority; indeed Aldus alludes to it in several of the prefaces to his volumes, like where he calls out the “book buriers” who would be “dismayed to see a benefit shared by all.”[3] Of course while the sense of “open” and “public” have changed significantly—and no doubt Aldus’ audience was largely limited to the patrician class—the relative move is toward open scholarship away from a private, tightly gate-kept environment to be inclusive to a much broader population.

On a different level, we are inspired by the literature around making and prototyping in the humanities, in which the design and creation of something is itself a mode of inquiry, a means of making an argument. Aldus’ innovative publishing program at the turn of the 16th century is nothing if not a massive prototyping project: working from a vision, a conjecture, about how the classical canon could be produced, circulated, and taught, making texts into widespread marketable objects. Our remediation is also a prototyping project, which seeks to learn how to engage broader publics (students, designers, publishers, bibliophiles) and interest them in this piece of history and its lessons.

Aldus tirelessly worked on editing and editorial standards; he worked on the design and form of his books; and he worked too on building a network of interested allies, including funders, influences, collectors, craftspeople, and scholars. These are precisely the tasks ahead of us in our remediation project. When we face a decision point, we often ask ourselves, “Well, what would Aldus do?”

Sophocles Seven Tragedies, 1502 (and a more recent relative).

  1. Props to John Willinsky, who noted the quincentennary of Aldus’ death and suggested we do something special with the collection. ↩︎

  2. I think the term is credited to Lorcan Dempsey. See, for example, https://www.slideshare.net/lisld/the-inside-out-library ↩︎

  3. He actually went on to say: If there are people mean enough to be dismayed to see a benefit shared by all, they will die of envy, succumb to grief and a miserable end, and finally hang themselves when in the future they see all the work of Aristotle printed in our typeface. (this is in 1496! in the preface to his edition of Theocritus.) ↩︎