In her first book, Whitney Trettien of the School of Arts & Sciences experiments with printed and digital assets while examining bookwork from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Whitney Trettien standing in a stairwell.
Whitney Trettien, assistant professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences, has just published her first book, "Cut/Copy/Paste." 

In examining experimental bookwork of 400 years ago, Penn’s Whitney Trettien wrote a publication that is itself an experiment, both a printed volume and an open access edition online, with extensive accompanying digital resources critical to fully understanding the project.

An assistant professor of English, Trettien researches the history of the book and other text technologies from print to digital, exploring the past to better understand the media environment in the present.

Cover of book Cut-Copy-Paste by Whitney Trettien

Her first book,Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments from the History of Bookwork, journeys to the fringes of the London print trade in the 17th and 18th centuries centuries to uncover collaborative maker spaces where works were cut up and reassembled into radical publications.

“I’m really interested in the fact that we tend to see print and digital as oppositional or in an antagonistic relationship,” Trettien says. “In my work, but also my teaching, I try to blur that boundary because there’s a long history of print and new media being mutually beneficial or working together.”

At Penn since 2017, Trettien teaches Introduction to Digital Humanities and Cultures of the Book to undergraduates and Digital Humanities to graduate students in the School of Arts & Sciences.

She works with Penn’s Price Lab for Digital Humanities, and is on its executive committee. She’s also involved in the History of the Material Text working group and spends much of her time with her students at the Penn LibrariesKislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts working with curator John Pollack to share original materials with her classes.

“Cut/Copy/Paste” is an experiment in digital publishing, existing as both a printed object and an open access edition staged on Manifold Scholarship, where the text has been enriched with images, datasets, and other digital assets.

Whitney Trettien sitting among students in a classroom.
Trettien taught the courses Introduction to Digital Humanities and Cultures of the Book in the spring semester. 

Penn Today spoke to Trettien about the publication and her interest in bookwork and digital humanities.

How did you get the idea for the book?

The project began when I read a footnote in ‘Used Books’ by William Sherman that mentions this religious community at Little Gidding in the 17th century. I became really interested, wanting to know everything about what the women in this community were doing with books. They’re binding books; they're cutting up bibles and pasting them back together; they’re writing boutique manuscripts for circulation within the community but also outside the household. They were making and being around and living with books and print media and paper media. Now, to a modern person, that immediately strikes us as sacrilegious. Why would a religious community be slicing up books as part of their devotional practice? To understand it, I had to work myself into a 17th century mindset and think about what would have to be in place, technologically and ideologically, for this process to make sense for this community.

After I had graduated with my Ph.D., that led me to a bigger project of looking at other communities that were cutting and pasting and remixing found materials into bespoke, boutique publications. What I was uncovering was an alternative history of communities who were working with scissors and paste and found materials to produce a different kind of book and a different relationship to publishing.

You often use the word bespoke in the book. What do you mean by bespoke?

I first learned the term through fashion. A bespoke dress is something that’s made for you. It’s a one-off; it’s made to your body. It is the opposite of something mass produced. When thinking about bookwork, I think bespoke is a useful term because the communities I study are assembling individual books for particular audiences, choosing different bindings or layouts or illustrations for a specific reader or imagined reader. For example, when the women at Little Gidding made a concordance now at St. John’s College, Oxford, they had in mind Archbishop William Laud; so they pasted together the pieces of the book in a way that spoke to that powerful patron's interests or conveyed what they want to say to that person.

These publishing projects sit somewhere between print and manuscript. They’re not always unique one-off copies, but they’re definitely not full editions. I see the word bespoke as trying to name that in-between.

How do libraries handle the ‘in between?’

These materials are all over the place in the library; some are in rare books, some are in manuscripts, some are in just the regular stacks. Penn Libraries actually has a special category for hybrid books, which most libraries don’t have.

In fact, the Libraries has a lot of interesting scrapbooks and hybrid books, which I love to share with students. There are scrapbooks pasted with feathers and silk, 19th century albums with ornate arrangements of chromolithographs, and of course commonplace books. Some students have written about these on a class Wikipedia page that I maintain for Cultures of the Book. Although a lot of these items didn't make it into ‘Cut/Copy/Paste,’ they feature prominently in an article I’m working on, which addresses how to classify assembled or hybrid books like these.

How did you combine your interest in bookwork hundreds of years ago with modern digital humanities?

Seeing this alternative history of publishing with scissors and paste in the 17th century made me think, What’s keeping us from experimenting in similar ways? I always knew that I wanted to treat the form of the book as an opportunity to do something different with publishing, drawing inspiration from the people I was studying. The result is a printed book that also is enriched with digital resources that I produced, mostly in collaboration with student researchers here at Penn.

I was really trying to take seriously, and to show, the ways that digital tools have become an integral part of my method and my writing process. Part of the experiment was to see if committing to publishing a book digitally and committing to publishing my data and these additional resources alongside it would change what I could say. In other words, would it change the kind of history I wrote? I would say it absolutely did.

Why did you choose to focus on book makers who were once prominent and who are now obscure?

I’m very interested in how the obscurity, or not, of certain objects or ideas or beliefs changes over time as archival technologies themselves change. For instance, John Bagford is a largely unknown figure in studies of the period, but he compiled hundreds of volumes that have had an indirect influence on the way that later historians, including ourselves, have conceptualized the history of the book and the history of text technologies. Bagford’s albums include things like samples of parchment and paper, alongside long catalogs of watermarks used to identify the source of different papers. These were resources for later antiquarians, who used them the way we use digital databases today. By compiling these volumes, Bagford changed the way that future bibliographers could access the past.

But we don’t use his volumes in this way today. Now, we use printed catalogues and digital databases, compiled by modern historians. And so Bagford’s baggy books have become kind of odd and useless, unindexed and so inaccessible. You can’t use them unless you go to the British Library and get special permission to see them, and then the enormity of what they contain is overwhelming to a researcher more accustomed to a keyword search box. So now we’re in a moment where what used to provide access to the past is something that we ourselves can’t access.

For me, as I was writing this book, digital technologies offered a means of making accessible those objects or ways of knowing and being in the world that have become obscure. So by including digital facsimiles and datasets that show and share what is in, say, some of Bagford’s albums, we can make them visible to our particular moment. We can bring back to the fore the immense creativity and care put into them. Bagford himself was trying to produce a digital database. He just didn't have access to those technologies.

Why did you choose to research someone who wrote bad poetry?

I do write about some bad poets. My interest in someone like Edward Benlowes doesn’t come from reading his poetry, though; it comes from looking at how he assembled his poetry into bespoke books. I looked at as many copies of his poem ‘Theophila’ as I could, and I noticed that every copy is completely different. He’s getting someone to print the poetry for him in London, and then at his home in Essex he’s assembling these sheets of poetry into different orders, inserting other materials at various places. He commissioned engravings. He commissioned some of the verses to be set to music. The result is a vibrant, multimodal package that weaves all this extra material, a lot of it found and recycled, into and around the printed poetry. You might not want to read a modern printed edition of his poetry, but, when you look at many different copies of his hand-assembled books together and see the entirety of his publishing project, then his inventiveness comes into view. Yes, he’s a bad poet, but he’s a deeply creative book artist.

The ability to do scholarship digitally is changing what we see in archives and libraries. For instance, no one saw the value of Benlowes’ work in the 19th century, when a scholar might have access to one mangled copy of his book. But now that we can travel to different libraries and take photographs or ask librarians from around the world to send photographs or keep datasets to organize this information, it’s possible to construct a more holistic understanding of Benlowes’ publishing process and his place within a network of collaborators. It is possible to see a book like ‘Theophila’ in a completely different light.

What did you discover in completing the book?

The history of the book, of publishing and print, is a lot weirder than we tend to imagine, and we need to remain open to that. At the same time, digital media are more limiting than we think in comparison with print. A lot of digital tools take fuzzy categories and imperfect ideas and squeeze them into data. Which is to say that digital media are quite rigid; building a website within the dictates of a particular platform offers you fewer possibilities in terms of design than the women of Little Gidding had with scissors and paste and a pile of prints and a sheet of paper. Researching this history really made me think very seriously about the affordances of different media and how we can make better use of those affordances, as opposed to always just assuming that what is newer is better.

I hope that the book will encourage further experimentation with digital scholarly publishing. It’s increasingly easy to produce a book that’s enriched with digital assets, and doing so would be transformative to many fields. It could completely change the types of stories that we tell.

Trietten wrote “Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments from the History of Bookwork” with the support of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, a 2020 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Open Book Fellowship, and an NEH-Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publishing.