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Mining the material archive: balancing sensate experience and sense-making in digitized print collections

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Stefania Forlini, Uta Hinrichs, John Brosz

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Large-scale digitization appears to put literary collections at one’s fingertips, but, as some critics warn, the books themselves are increasingly out of reach as university libraries continue to shift from being ‘physical repositories’ to becoming ‘access portals’ to digitized materials (Stauffer, 2012). People who are drawn to print books often find that digital surrogates ‘lack feeling’ (Piper, 2012). Digitized texts preserve linguistic content of print works but not their many meaningful physical features that fundamentally shape interpretation (McGann, 1991) and contain valuable historical traces of print technologies, markets, and readerly interactions (Stauffer, 2012). Changing how we physically interact with texts also changes how we sense and make sense of them. How can we harness the potential of digital media to better represent and analyze print collections? How can we accentuate their unique historic, aesthetic, and material qualities while also allowing rich linking supported by computer-assisted content analyses? How can design critically engage with the sensory differences between reading print materials and on-screen reading in order to promote different modes of meaningful textual engagement? Addressing these questions, we introduce synesthetic visualization as a speculative approach to creating digital on-screen and tangible representations of print collections that translate — not replicate — sensory experiences of interacting with print collections by coupling visual representations with cues for other sensory modalities (e.g, sonic, tactile) that are routinely engaged by print texts. Drawing insights from aesthetic theory, book history, reception studies, literary studies, information visualization, human computer interaction (HCI), and digital arts, we propose possible ways to experiment with digital on-screen and tangible representations of print collections that explicitly aim to translate — not replicate — sensory and sense-making experiences inherent in interacting with print collections. We illustrate this through our own ongoing work with the Bob Gibson Anthologies of Speculative Fiction, unique hand-crafted booklets composed of science-fictional items culled from popular periodicals published between 1844 and 1992.


Original languageEnglish
Article number35
Pages (from-to)1-36
Number of pages36
JournalOpen Library of Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 23 Nov 2018

    Research areas

  • Digital humanities, Cultural collections, Multimodal interaction, Visualization, Synaesthesia, Materiality, Synesthesia, Aesthetics

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