What Is the Archaeology of Reading?

While the body of early modern scholarship on the history of reading practices has burgeoned during the past several decades—guided in large part by the initial scholarly work of our project partners, Lisa Jardine† and Anthony Grafton—as a collective body of knowledge the history of reading has nonetheless remained limited to isolated, partial, and impressionistic studies of single texts read by single annotators.

Click to view the types of annotations captured by AOR and displayed in the viewer in our broadside poster

As researchers, we conduct this work in the conspicuous absence of comparative evidence of the larger range of early modern historical reading practices, strategies, and agendas. Scholars also find it physically impossible to effectively penetrate the dynamic array of information preserved in annotated books for the purpose of systematic analysis owing, in many instances, to their sheer density of content relative to the original texts on which the annotations comment. By creating a corpus of important and representative annotated texts with searchable transcriptions and translations, we can begin to compare and fully analyze early modern reading, and place that mass of research material within a broader historical context. In so doing, we could also approach—not in isolation but as a dynamic, internally and institutionally complimentary, research team—the traditionally subjective study of reading in a demonstrably empirical, comparative, and systematic way.

To facilitate this approach to these materials, the team behind the Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe has elected to focus on a distinct and roughly contemporary dyad of clearly identified early modern readers: Gabriel Harvey and John Dee. While the identities of a large majority of early modern annotators remain unknown in extant collections, this focus on known readers will enable the project team to analyze and more precisely situate the processes of reading and annotation within their respective historical contexts.

The Project and Its Development


The Archaeology of Reading is an international collaboration among the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University, the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL) at University College London, and the Princeton University Library. Phases 1 and 2 have been conducted with major funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and in collaboration with a host of research libraries and academic institutions.

Phases 1 and 2 of AOR concentrated on two of Elizabethan England’s most prolific annotators: the scholar and professional reader Gabriel Harvey and the polymath and magus John Dee. Both of these readers left behind a uniquely large corpus of personal manuscript annotations in the thousands of early printed books that comprised their libraries and that are now scattered throughout scores of research collections in the UK, Europe, and North America. The breadth and range of these annotations have already proved an invaluable resource for scholars of the Renaissance period, though the exploration of these materials has, for centuries, been severely limited by their physical disposition, along with other practical obstacles to research and discovery, such as the expense and time involved in long-distance travel the need for accurate cataloging.



Listen to our archaeologists discuss the AOR project and its possibilities




The Archaeology of Reading has digitized and transcribed the annotations in thirty-six of these scattered volumes, offering users a range of opportunities to explore and mine their notes for data, match up marginalia from one book to related notes and direct cross-references found in another, create links to other book citations, and reconstruct reading strategies by stitching together seemingly random patchworks of marginal information as well as continuous themes and practices of annotation across both the Dee and Harvey corpora. These functions are enhanced by a commitment to making both printed text and manuscript annotations legible and searchable both in the languages in which they originally appear in the sources and through English translation. Transcribing and translating these early modern books drew on the combined expertise of all members of the AOR project team, including the graduate and postgraduate researchers coordinated by CELL and JHU.

International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) Endpoint Viewer

The Archaeology of Reading technology team has worked closely with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) protocol and community to develop features and use cases that will enhance AOR within this larger framework. IIIF features a set of protocols, application programming interfaces (APIs), and shared technologies for the presentation of web-based images. In the case of AOR, these images are digital surrogates of rare book materials containing manuscript annotations by Gabriel Harvey and John Dee, which users interface through AOR’s adapted version of the Mirador (version 2.0) viewer. The technical infrastructure for AOR includes a data archive, an image server, a IIIF image service, a corresponding IIIF presentation service, and the IIIF-compliant Mirador viewer.

The data archive for this project provides the framework for long-term access to, and preservation of, all project content: an important contribution to Digital Humanities more generally, insofar as this issue has not yet been unaddressed within IIIF. The technology team has defined an archival data model that can be mapped to other data models for data access and presentation over time. Another layer of the infrastructure that has been developed in Phase I of AOR consists of an image server that accesses content from within the data archive. Currently, the team is utilizing a commercial FSI image server, though comparable image server resources (e.g., djatoka) may also be used.

While AOR has been deployed using the versatile Mirador 2.0 API, the AOR technology team has developed IIIF endpoints for any available image service and presentation service, so long as they can be accessed by an IIIF-compliant image viewer. All AOR data can be accessed through our Mirador2 IIIF-compliant viewer, which has been specifically enhanced to meet the use requirements identified by the team for both current and future users. Over the course of AOR 1, the technology and scholarly teams have worked closely together to define and implement a set of use cases related to image viewing and manipulation, transcription viewing, and dynamic, query-building search capabilities. The current AOR viewer is the culmination of this iterative development process, which involved computer engineers, data specialists, and specialist humanities scholars. It presents users with a wide-ranging set of functionalities that enable new forms of research on the history of reading practices through previously inaccessible manuscript marginalia within printed texts.

This is Version 3 of the Archaeology of Reading site, updated in January 2019 to include books annotated by John Dee, an upgraded viewer and new contextual content.