In the midst of creating new schemas for both our marginalia and Four Zoas projects, our project teams have recently been coming face to face with one of the (if not THE) most fundamental aspects of the Blake archive: when organizing a manuscript for a digital platform, we focus on creating something that is, above all else, visually authentic. Of course, this can be particularly challenging to those who have devoted their lives to reading, aka every person who currently works on the archive. When creating new schemas and reworking what we already have, our innate need to read and understand everything happening in a manuscript makes keeping things visually-authentic a very backwards-feeling job.
This never-ending struggle between the archivists in us and the readers in us reared its ugly head last week when we had one mega-meeting between the TCC (Team Color Code/ Four Zoas) and Team Marginalia to discuss how Blake’s marginal comments will be encoded. Fortunate as I was, I was about 20 minutes late to the meeting, and happened upon our very crowded, and now loud, office just moments before the major outcry. As I slowly got myself up to speed, asking remotely relevant questions while the conversation builded, I noticed that we were all talking about the same thing, but also very different things: with the rather recent addition of coordinates in BADs, we all seemed to have very different ideas about how to use them. Underneath the yelling (precipitated by comments about how coordinates should work), half of us were arguing that marginal comments should be included in coordinate boxes when they were related to one another, and the other half were arguing that, no matter how marginal comments were contextually related, they needed to be grouped based on their visual location on the page.
Clearly, the Blake Archive was at a stalemate. And the fourth-floor office was not getting any cooler.
That is, until Laura came up with something genius: “We are aliens,” she said. “At the Blake archive, we are aliens, and we can understand nothing.” Obviously, this was not something that brought any immediate revelation, but ten minutes into a TCC v Team Marginalia all-out archival war, we’re just about ready to hear anything. Laura went on to explain that, as archivists, we should be pretending that we don’t understand English at all. That is to say, if we were non-English speaking aliens trying to describe the appearance of a manuscript set before us, we would only be able to tell you how chunks of markings are related to one another in physical distance or space. We would have no conception of how the meaning of one sentence binds itself to another, or how one marginal comment contextually relates to the original text. As aliens, the words on a page are only physical shapes and unidentifiable markings placed in different areas on the page itself. We are aliens, and we understand nothing.
If there has ever been an ‘aha’ moment in the Blake archive, I think this one is a major contender. Ten minutes into a TCC-Marginalia debate, with every idea we’ve ever had about the archive itself being tossed straight out the window, apparently only an alien analogy could save us. But, the analogy really does ring true. Despite our desire to group marginal comments based on their contextual relationship to each other, we need to withhold our judgement as readers and organize what we see as just that: what we physically see happening on the page. In the short amount of time I’ve been involved on the archive myself, I would say that this is also one of the most important mindsets that both archivists and readers should have when working with the Blake archive. For us, the interpretation is up to Blake himself, and we’re just here make what we see as accessible as possible to a digital audience.
Note: At the end of the day, I don’t want to say that TCC won, but this very accurate analogy provided supporting evidence for only the TCC side of the argument.