MLA 2020 SHARP Session: “Databases and Print Culture Studies”

Friday 10 January,10:15 AM-11:30 AM, 303 (WSCC)


Katherine Bode is Professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her books include A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018) and Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (2012).

Anthony Glinoer holds the Canada Research Chair in the history of publishing and literary sociology and is a professor at the University of Sherbrooke (Quebec). His work focusses primarily on the history of publishing (Naissance de l’Éditeur with Pascal Durand in 2005), on the study of representations of the literary life (La bohème. Une figure de l’imaginaire social in 2018) and on groups of authors and artists (L’âge des cénacles with Vincent Laisney in 2013). Anthony Glinoer also leads the Socius project, which has produced re-editions of the classics in literary social theory, re-edited or original bibliographies, and a lexicon of concepts (see the open-access site

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of three books. His most recent, Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (Chicago, 2019) explores a corpus of more than a hundred thousand nineteenth- and twentieth-century works obtained through HathiTrust Digital Library.


Katherine Bode, “Data beyond representation: From computational modelling to performative materiality”

Computational modelling has become the central paradigm for data-rich research in literary and print culture studies (e.g. Bode World, Piper, So, Underwood). Because models are arguments about, rather than descriptions of, literary phenomena, modelling offers a richer, more flexible framework for such research than earlier, positivist approaches (Bode “Equivalence”). But what are the things-in-the-world that we model when we transition from print cultural objects, such books, to mass-digitised (and digitalised) collections? Or, to put the question another way, what connections and/or distinctions are we justified in drawing between an individual text in these collections; other texts, either referred to or on the same platform; the platform itself; the entity that created and/or owns the platform; and the wider digital and non-digital ecosystem?

This challenge is part of what Alan Liu describes as a wider transition from a regime of “rhetoric-representation-interpretation” to one of “communication-information-media.” That shift renders indefinite, even unintelligible, foundational concepts in the emerging field of digital literary and print cultural studies. Data “leaks past the margins of” rhetoric-representation-interpretation, while models are “not exactly like any of the[se] concepts …. Models, uncannily, are all, and none, of the above” (4). With the old regime “hollowed out … from the inside,” and the new one hopelessly abstract, what are we to do? Liu’s solution is to embrace (while remaining wary of) the terminology of the new regime. In asking where our new “texts” begin and/or end – and whether we should think of them as “texts” at all – I outline an alternative case for a performative materialist approach to data-rich research in literary and print cultural studies. Recognising that literary phenomena have always been performatively produced rather than self-evident enables a form of data-rich research that is adequate (but not exclusive) to the changing methods, forms, and materials of literary research.

Works Cited

Bode, Katherine. A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History. Michigan University Press, 2018.

Bode, Katherine. “The Equivalence of ‘Close’ and ‘Distant’ Reading.” Modern Language Quarterly 78.1 (2017): 77–106.

Liu, Alan. Friending the Past: The Sense of History in the Digital Age. Chicago University Press, 2019.

Piper, Andrew. Enumerations: Data and Literary Study. Chicago University Press, 2019.

So, Richard Jean. “All Models Are Wrong.” PMLA 132.3 (2017): 668–73.

Underwood, Ted. Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change. Chicago University Press, 2019.

Anthony Glinoer, “Developing and Using Databases in Book History. The case of the platform.”

This paper aims to present the new internet platform Archives éditoriales ( and the research partnership project of francophone publishers’ archives, which made the platform possible. This project gathers archivists and researchers from various institutions (universities, archives centers, publishers’ associations) and various regions (Belgium, Canada, France, Switzerland) in the francophone world. Our main objectives are to advance and to study archives of the publishing world between 1945 and today. Amongst the tools made available on the platform (a database of more than a thousand interviews with francophone publishers about their publishing activity, digital exhibitions, a blog, etc.), this paper will focus on the database of publishers’ archives, addressing the questions of why, how and when publishing houses tend to donate their archives to public institutions.

Ted Underwood, “Toward a Distant Reading of Reception”

The collections used by distant readers have often emphasized literary production, neglecting questions about circulation and reception that are central to book history (Bode). Book historians have addressed this gap in several ways. Anne DeWitt and Ryan Cordell have used computational methods to trace nineteenth-century literary circulation; Lynne Tatlock et al. have studied gendered reading patterns at the Muncie Public Library in the 1890s, and Peter Boot has created corpora of recent responses to fiction. But work of this kind remains difficult, especially if we seek to study reception across a long century-spanning timeline.

To make that easier, a group of scholars centered at the University of Illinois has started to build a database of journalistic responses to English-language fiction, distributed across the timeline from 1840 to 2009. The team includes Kent Chang, Yuerong Hu, Wenyi Shang, Aniruddha Sharma, Shubhangi Singhal, Jessica Witte, and myself. The reviews and review excerpts are drawn mostly from British, American, and Canadian periodicals, and from reference works like the Book Review Digest. We already have 25,000 responses, and expect to have 100,000 by the end of the academic year.

Pairing text from book reviews with the texts of the books described has allowed us to start to ask whether the claims distant readers have advanced about literary works themselves also hold true about larger systems of literary circulation. For instance, distant readers have argued that textual differences between literary works can measure the strength (or weakness) of generic boundaries. If these degrees of textual difference really tell us anything meaningful about literature’s social existence, readers’ responses to the books ought to display the same patterns of difference or similarity. The Illinois book review database has allowed us to demonstrate that this is true. On the basis of this enlarged evidence, we have begun to make a case that genre boundaries generally become clearer between 1870 and 1930.

Works Cited

Bode, Katherine. “The Equivalence of ‘Close’ and ‘Distant’ Reading; or, Toward a New Object for Data-Rich Literary History.” Modern Language Quarterly 78.1 (2017): 77-106.

Boot, Peter. “A Database of Online Book Responses and the Nature of the Literary Thriller.” Digital Humanities 2017, Montreal.

Cordell, Ryan. “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers.” American Literary History 27.3 (2015): 1–29.

DeWitt, Anne. “Advances in the Visualization of Data: The Network of Genre in the Victorian Periodical Press.” Victorian Periodicals Review 48.2 (2015): 161–82.

Tatlock, Lynne, et al. “Crossing Over: Gendered Reading Formations at the Muncie Public Library, 1891-1902.” March 22, 2018, Journal of Cultural Analytics.