Database Aesthetics and Ergodic Ephemerality: Remediating the Scrapbooks of Edwin Morgan

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Bridget Moynihan

    University of Edinburgh

  2. 2. Jonathan Armoza

    New York University

  3. 3. Anouk Lang

    University of Edinburgh

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As forms of digital textuality proliferate, genres such as the periodical and the scrapbook have come into view as productive lenses through which to understand the relationship between digital texts and print culture artefacts. Observing that the process of digitally remediating a periodical can lead to the emergence of “surprising affinities” between the two categories, Sean Latham suggests ways in which such remediation makes it possible to see periodicals as forming a bridge between print and digital media (33). Similarly, Ellen Gruber Garvey points to the connections between scrapbooks and contemporary information management practices, arguing that just as individuals in the present day “manage digital abundance with favorites lists, bookmarks, blogrolls, RSS feeds, and content aggregators,” so “nineteenth-century readers channelled the flood of information with scrapbooks” which allowed them to save, organise, and reprocess this information (4). These reflections on how the affordances of particular print culture genres produce particular reader behaviors chime with Johanna Drucker’s call to think about what a codex book
does rather than focussing on what it
is: to “understand it in terms of what is known in the architecture profession as a ‘program’ constituted by the activities that arise from a response to the formal structures” and, through this process of denaturalizing, come to better understand its specific structural and technological features (qtd. in Latham 37).

In this paper we describe our digital prototype,
Working from Scraps (, which remediates a 200-page subset from the scrapbooks of Scottish Poet Makar Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) held at the Glasgow University Library Special Collections. A sample two-page spread from one of the scrapbooks is provided in figure 1, and a screenshot of this prototype is given in figure 2. In considering how our prototype engages with some of the questions above, we seek to address the gap in the scholarly literature around the specific utility of
scrapbooks as objects to think through questions about the relationship of material texts to their digital analogues, to digital textuality more generally, and, we will argue, to other genres such as database and narrative. Remediating a set of scrapbooks as a relational database and a digital interface provides the opportunity not just to “denaturalize” a scrapbook and consider how its elements relate to one another, but also to better understand what is involved in ‘traversing the text’, to repurpose a phrase of Espen Aarseth’s from his discussion of ergodic literature: the effort required to tie image to text and carry out other meaning-making activities.

Constructing a database-backed digital prototype from a set of fragile scrapbooks which cannot be moved from the archive has the obvious benefit of bringing these artefacts, and the period of twentieth-century life which they meticulously capture, to a wider public than those individuals who are able to consult the artefacts in person. From the perspective of digital humanities, however, such a remediation has additional value in shedding light on the interplay between database form and more conventional book historical and literary critical categories. Drawing on art historian Ervin Panofsky’s characterisation of linear perspective as a key “symbolic form” of the modern age, Lev Manovich proposes that the database can be understood as “a new symbolic form of the computer age,” one which offers “a new way to structure our experience of ourselves and of the world” (81). If digital interfaces present us with an endless, unstructured array of images, texts, sounds, and other kinds of data records, Manovich maintains, it makes sense to model these records as a database, with the further consequence that we then need “to develop a poetics, aesthetics and ethics of this database” (81). The
Working from Scraps prototype seeks to advance this project of working through what database aesthetics, poetics, and ethics might look like, but with the additional imperative of engaging questions around materiality, ephemerality and copyright restrictions which are not ordinarily so prominent in such discussions.

When “deforming” a set of scrapbooks into a digital prototype, opportunities to learn arise from the process of thinking about the underlying data structures. Latham, borrowing terminology from Aarseth to describe the digital archive
The Modernist Journals Project (, describes how creating a digital edition of a periodical involves first identifying its textons—the discrete parts which form its basic units—and then determining how those might be assembled into scriptons—the unbroken sequence of information that is delivered to the user on the screen (53). This identification was one of the core conceptual tasks involved in the construction of the
Working from Scraps prototype, and it included the following challenges:

As the scrapbooks were created between 1931 and 1967, and thereby fall squarely into the copyright “black hole” of the twentieth century, the time and financial costs of copyright clearance for the thousands of third-party materials prevented us from simply displaying digital facsimiles of pages and the clippings constituting them for our users. Information about each page needed therefore to be communicated legibly enough that a user who had never seen the page at all could understand it. This activity, borne of practical necessity, quickly became ekphrastic and raised specific identification questions: How much description should be provided? To what level should a scrapbook’s visual components be broken down: pages, clippings, or other units? How could we recuperate some of the visual presence of the clipping components through non-verbal means, so as to not rely solely on this ekphrastic practice?

As databases aim to provide machine-readable data which can be queried by users, they present an imperative for a degree of standardization. With scrapbooks, however, as with so many other real-world objects, such standardization can be difficult to produce, and is not always desirable to impose. Chronological data present one example of this problem. If a date is provided either by Morgan or as part of a clipping in his scrapbooks, the form in which it is given varies: as a year, a month and a year, or as a precise date. How should such dates be standardized, if at all? How would such standardization account for the (many) undated items? And does this standardization erase the “messiness” of the scrapbooks’ presence?

A similar challenge arose around the task of quantifying elements from the scrapbooks that were not inherently quantitative, for example finding ways to register how clippings are layered on the scrapbook pages. Our database uses a z-index format in which 0 denotes something drawn directly onto a page, 1 a clipping pasted onto a page, 2 a clipping pasted on top of another clipping, and so forth. However, an occasional “foldout” clipping with clippings pasted onto the back of the fold disrupted this schema, as it was unclear whether the attached clippings should be coded as 1, as 2 (given that they were additionally layered when the fold was closed), or as something different altogether. Difficulties such as these betokened an additional challenge: to avoid presenting the scrapbooks too thoroughly through quantitative lenses such that description, natural language, images, and so forth would be obscured.

In presenting
Working from Scraps as an exemplary prototypical object for working through these and other challenges arising from the remediation of print culture artefacts into data structures and digital textual forms, we also offer our interface as an apt illustration of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s point that platform studies and editorial studies share significant common ground, concerned as they both are with “the material substrates through which a text takes shape and acquires meaning” (Latham 57). In addition to revealing a wealth of detail about twentieth-century life, Scottish culture, queer identities, technological developments and a wide range of other topics, the Morgan scrapbooks and their digitally de/reformed versions seek to contribute to the conversations around how a reader’s “asynchronous, contingent, nonlinear encounter with the text” (Latham 57) may be remediated, and how the modelling of unruly print culture objects can be used to interrogate our assumptions around what constitutes a literary text.

Fig. 1. Double page spread from Edwin Morgan’s Scrapbook 1 (1931-53), pp. 227-8. Made available by the Glasgow University Library at

Figure 2. Screenshot of the
Working from Scraps prototype, showing different views on the data contained in the clippings.


Aarseth, E. J. (1997).
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Garvey, E. G. (2012).
Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayles, N. K. (2005).
My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kirschenbaum, M. G. (2008).
Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Latham, S. (2017). Unpacking my digital library: Programs, modernisms, magazines. In Irvine, D., Lent, V. and Vautour, B. (eds),
Making Canada New: Editing, Modernism, and New Media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017, pp. 31–60.

Manovich, L. (1999). Database as symbolic form.
5(2): 80–99.

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