Reading Renaissance Marginalia in a Digital Environment: ‘The Archaeology of Reading’ Project

mariegcullenMarie Cullen, Assistant Librarian at Maynooth University Library, talks about a recent seminar organised by The Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI), the Digital Arts and Humanities (DAH) PhD programme, Marsh’s Library and the School of History at UCD which took place in the Royal Irish Academy on Wednesday, 7th September 2016. Dr Marc Caball (UCD School of History), Professor Earle Havens (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) and Dr Matthew Symonds (University College London) spoke at the event.

This seminar organised by the DRI and Marsh’s Library introduced participants to the ‘The Archaeology of Reading’ which is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project to digitize, transcribe, translate and make searchable the marginalia, annotations and other interventions preserved in books from the libraries of Elizabethan scholars, Gabriel Harvey and John Dee. Their books were selected as they are heavily annotated and have good handwriting.

Dee and Harvey’s libraries have been scattered and sold over time, however, despite this thirteen books were identified from the collection of Gabriel Harvey. All interventions were captured, including annotations, drawings, sketches, corrections and underlining.  They were then transcribed and converted to XML and displayed in the AOR viewer, an optimized version of the Mirador image viewer.

Scholarship of reading practices and reading strategies has grown based on the work of Professor Anthony Grafton and the late Professor Lisa Jardine, both partners in this project.  Based on the marginalia and other interventions captured, this project has begun to compare and analyse early modern reading, and its place within a broader historical context.

Reading Renaissance Marginalia in a Digital Environment at the Royal Irish Academy.   Photo by Yvette Campbell, Maynooth University Library

The digitised images of the thirteen books owned and annotated by Gabriel Harvey are fully searchable.  Transcriptions of all of Harvey’s annotations and other interventions are accompanied by the text.

To celebrate its launch, the project has published some facts. These are just some of them, which illustrate the vast amount of data produced.  The full list can be found at the link below.

  • 13 books
  • 5,877 page images taking up 511 GB of storage space
  • 3,095 marginalia in L. Domenichi, Facetie (1571) & L. Guicciardini, Detti et Fatti (1571) made up of 36,332 words
  • The most mentioned location in the marginalia is Rome at 41 times
  • The most mentioned person in the marginalia is Julius Caesar at 153 times


This was a fascinating seminar. Each of the speakers spoke knowledgeably and in an accessible manner.  Their enthusiasm and engagement with the project was very clear.  The Archaeology of Reading project is well worth looking at for anyone with an interest in books and their former owners.


Archaeology of Reading viewer


What is the Archaeology of Reading?


The history of the book


Archaeology of Reading corpus


Marie G. Cullen


December 2016


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