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“…and an unknown artist”: the history of collaborative knowledge making

I’m reading Susan Dackerman’s Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe right now, one of the more beautiful illustrated books I’ve picked up in a while (with two hands, very heavy). It was produced in conjunction with an exhibit I saw at Harvard’s Sackler Library and it concerns the relationship between print, instruments, and “science” broadly conceived in the sixteenth century.

Among the many thoughts inspired by this gorgeous work, I was struck (again) by how infrastructurally dense print was as a medium. It required very large pieces of technology and it required a great deal of different kinds of expertise to utilize. Take this sentence for example:

Woodblock carving was a complicated and painstaking technique. [Georg] Hartmann would certainly have hired a local Formschneider to do this woodcarving for him and would have required a book press and a printer to produce the sheets.

As I engage more and more with the tools and techniques of computational reading, I’m constantly bumping up against the technological demands that they require, both in terms of the machines but also the skills to manipulate them. In response I seek out people who know more to help me. At times it feels like I’m running an early-modern workshop, which makes me somewhat uncomfortable (I was trained to work by myself in a book-lined chamber). I now see it makes great historical sense.

Hartmann was one of the great craftsman of sixteenth-century Nürnberg, a time and place that was crawling with great crafstmen. And yet there is always that “unknown artist” involved in most of his projects — the local assistants and experts he hired to help him realize his vision and who will never be known. This to me is a strong allegory of digital humanities today.