A Visit to Down House

Down House sign

Many times I have written before that I want to write more. Life during and after a PhD can do things to one’s attitudes to writing and particularly public writing. Blogging is an excercise that requires practice. Blogging post-Facebook and post-Twitter is very different to what it was before them. A culture of constant surveilance is paradoxically entrenched in a hyper-competitive economy of attention in which people won’t click on your links even if you pay them to.

When people in a competitive culture realize that attention is a commodity, and that ‘sharing’ can be measured, those not keen to non-self-interested collaboration are likely to use lack of attention as a form of capital. I personally find it hilarious some people are so keen on paywalling their research in this climate, in which no one seems to care about what anyone else is doing. The selfie is the sign of the times after all. (Remember those years in which the main criticism of blogging was that it was all about narcissism? How little did we know of the joys of social media and “viral” selfies!).

Anyway I wanted to write this quick blog post about our visit last weekend to Down House. It was a gorgeous Spring day and that was perfect as the house has a lovely garden, and one can go walk along the beautiful Sandwalk, Darwin’s own “thinking path”. The web site in the previous link will give you a good idea of how awesome this place is and what an excellent job has English Heritage done to preserve it and keep it open to the public. It is more than worth the entry price and visiting it will be a great experience for adults and children alike. I took a lot of pictures but the ones on the Down House web site (and the 360 panoramics if you have the right software in your computer) will give you a very good idea of how gorgeous the place is.

I have been fascinated and intrigued by Darwin’s life and work since I was a kid.  (Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne‘s Darwin: A Graphic Biography is a lovely book that should get anyone who isn’t already into Darwin). Visiting Down House was a very good complement to the fragmented knowledge I had of Darwin’s life. Some bullet points of the ideas I took with me:

  • The vital importance of the work that English Heritage does in preserving England’s historical buildings and cultural memory, keeping them alive for the enjoyment of the community and visitors alike, turning an educational activity into one of leisure and enjoyment and vice versa
  • The beauty of the Kent countryside in Spring
  • Confirming that Darwin was born into social, economic and intellectual privilege, and that his name and fame are not independent from that of his ancestors, the same way some of his children’s academic careers cannot be disconnected from that of their father
  • Confirming that Darwin’s greatest achievement was a consequence of his leaving England and traveling on the Beagle
  • Confirming that intellectual/academic/scientific work cannot be disconnected from its social and material conditions of production
  • Confirming that Darwin couldn’t have possibly worked and published his theories had he suffered adverse material and social conditions
  • Discovering how much Darwin packed into his day, even when he was physically ill, performing lots of physical activities such as handwriting, working in his garden, doing his walk every day before lunchtime
  • Confirming he did not have to do the washing up and other domestic chores
  • Confirming that walking and exercising are important parts of the researcher’s day, providing time and space to think differently
  • Discovering the importance that the post had for Darwin’s work; he used written correspondence over the post the way some of us use email, blogs and social media to communicate with our colleagues
  • Confirming that in spite of the long itme he self-embargoed his Origin, Darwin did share a lot of information with others, via the post
  • Confirming that Darwin used librarianship and information science skills to do what he did; that collecting, cataloguing, classification and curating were essential parts of his research;
  • Confirming that taxonomies, schemes, metadata creation was a contribution to knowledge
  • Seeing with my very own eyes how beautiful and amazing his journal and notebooks were; that he wrote and drew, combining the written word with visual thinking
  • That his scientific publishing career was defined by the culture and conditions of his time, and also spurred by competition rather than collaboration
  • That there’s no such thing as total originality, and that scientific/academic success is not just about the ideas or the work (ask Wallace)
  • That research that does not get disseminated becomes forgotten and ignored, and that ideas that get widely disseminated do live a life of their own outside their original platforms/vehicles of dissemination
  • That “science”, in spite of its pretense of “objectivity”, is always-already the result of empyrical experience and the particular conditions/positioning of the subject that does the research
  • That gardens are a work of art and a source of scientific and literary/poetic inspiration and discovery

Visiting Down House definitely inspired me to try to keep on writing more, to keep using my notebooks and to keep doodling and sketching.

Ah, and we bought Ruth Patel’s Darwin: A life in Poems at the shop. Listening to a couple of the poems in the voice of the author in the audio guide along the Sandwalk was a moving experience, though one also felt the urge to remove the earphones to listen to the sounds of that beautiful English Spring day.



#LibPub Session 3: Comic Books, Libraries and Challenges in the Digital Age

Watchmen – from comic book to graphic novel to folder… Image by Ernesto Priego. Watchmen © DC Comics
Watchmen – from comic book to graphic novel to folder… Image by Ernesto Priego. Watchmen © DC Comics

A book is a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in the country and made available to the public.”

-UNESCO, 19 November 1964

My work is dedicated to the proposition that the academic enterprise as a whole needs access to appropriate historical documents.”

-Randy Scott, 18 October 2001

For our third session of our Libraries and Publishing module at City University London, we will focus on comic books as an interesting case study whose analysis might help us understand some key issues around publishing and librarianship in the digital age.

“But comics?” You might ask.

The history of comics  has been defined to a large extent by comics’ stigmatised nature as subcultural material. In turn, this stigma has been incorporated in the ways in which the language itself is expressed in the form of different types of publications, such as hand-made mini- comics or luxurious slip-cased hardback limited, signed and numbered editions, a phenomenon which is related to the medium’s struggle for cultural recognition (Groensteen 2007; Lent 2001).

Moreover, self-imposed or external stigmatisation is expressed as formal and thematic constraints that have generated specific and complex cultural phenomena, including types of texts (newspaper strips, periodical comic books, graphic novels), genres (superheroes, political satire, humour, horror, romance, pornography, crime, biography, reportage, etc.) and dedicated ‘subcultures’ -there must be a better term- around them. Paradoxically, what arguably started at the dawn of the 20th century as an art form of and for the masses has been in danger of becoming a niche market only for the initiated. The artistic complexity of the texts has reached very high levels of sophistication, and so has the expense at which the books have to be produced, therefore increasing the cover prices substantially.

As the comic book market has become more specialised, its products have become more expensive, and its audience more elitist. As seen in the development of comics inthe last few years since the first publication of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) onwards, digital technology would only further complicate things, sometimes in unprecedented ways.

The literature discussing the past, present, future and after-lives of books is considerable and increasing by the day, but comic books have been so far greatly excluded from the debate. With the notable exceptions of The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010) and Bettley’s The Art of the Book (2001), most literature in the fields of book history and topics concerning the history of writing and digital textuality, including studies of books as artistic objects and of the material page make no mention of comics at all, in spite of the fact they do refer to other forms of multimedia or text-and-image publications such as collage books and illustrated books.

The relationships between “content” and “document”, “text” and “publication”, “medium” and “message” are intricate, and today’s information professionals need to be aware of this. If, as Randy Scott puts it, comics “ can help librarianship as a whole break some new ground in terms of proactive information handling”, it is because they are examples of multimedia that defy previous forms of categorization and description, both as messages (that which could also be described as “content”) and as publications (that which could also be described as “medium”, “form”, “material support”, etc.).

Randy Scott, the head librarian and founder of the Comic Art Collection, Special Collections Division of the Michigan State University Library, remains one of the best-known comics librarians in the comics scholarship field. In his pioneering Comics Librarianship. A Handbook, (1990) he writes:

A major reason that there are not enough histories, analyses and reference books about comics is that collecting comics is a very difficult job, and libraries have not been collecting well enough. Although there are some significant university collections of comics material, there are very few libraries that routinely acquire the best of what is newly published, even of political and non-fiction comics (1990:9).

The Library of Congress has never provided cataloguing for comic books as it does for almost every other category of published material. Until the late 1970s, no librarian anywhere on Earth would have been able to prove, using any standard library catalogues, whether such titles as Wonder Woman, Superman, or The Amazing Spider-Man even existed as bibliographic entities (1990: 14-15).

The need for specialized skills, the needs of a specialized readership, and a sense within libraries that the time is right to begin giving comics more serious attention, all these things make it seem possible that comics is a field that can help librarianship as a whole break some new ground in terms of proactive information handling (1990:23).

Scott’s remarks are relevant because they offer the context in which comics as publications were  located in relation to academic information handling and humanities research at the time he was writing. During the same now-distant 1990s, George P. Landow, some seven years later, would argue that “any information medium that encourages rapid dissemination of texts and easy access to them will increasingly demystify individual texts” (1997: 84). If our understanding of “individual texts” has changed with the inception of the Internet (not to mention the Web), our understanding of comic books as “texts” (in this case as “publications”) should also change. How have things changed 24 years after Randy Scott’s Handbook was published?

The book Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging was released in April 2010. Edited by Robert G. Weiner, includes an article entitled “Webcomics and Libraries”, by Amy Thorne (pages 209-213) and includes an updated take by Scott on the Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University (pages 123-126). However, the volume seems to me very ill-equipped to deal with the transformations in comics publishing and libraries brought about the digital age.

During the first part of the lecture we will discuss the challenges that comics, as specific types of publications, pose to librarians, publishers, and booksellers of today.

Comics, in any form or format, are of course an international phenomenon. Casey Brienza (@CaseyBrienza) is a sociologist and Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media at City University London’s Department of Culture and Creative Industries. I am incredibly pleased to say she will be our guest speaker for the second part of the lecture tomorrow. She has done extensive research on different aspects of Japanese comics (manga) publishing, focusing on, amongst other topics,  the rise of manga in the United States and its implications for the globalisation of culture. Looking forward to tomorrow!


Bettley, J. (ed.) (2001) The Art of the Book. From Medieval Manuscript to Graphic Novel. London: Victoria and Albert Publications.

Groensteen, T. (2007) The System of Comics. Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press

Landow,  G.P. (1997) Hypertext 2.0. The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lent, J.A. (2001) “Comic Books”, entry for Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, A-D, Jones, D. ed. London: Fitzroy Daerborn

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press

Priego, E. (2012). “Audio: Randy Scott on the Superpowers of Librarians (2001)”. The Comics Grid  [blog post]. 29 June 2012. http://blog.comicsgrid.com/2012/06/audio-randy-scott-2001/ Accessed 13 February 2014. Web.

Scott, R. W. (1990) Comics Librarianship. A Handbook. Jefferson and London: MacFarland & Company

Suarez, M.F., Woudhuysen, S.J. & Woudhuysen, H.R. (2010). The Oxford companion to the book: Essays, A-C / Vol. 1, Oxford University Press

Weiner, S. (ed.) (2010). Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging. Jefferson, N.C. and London: MacFarland

This post is part of my residence during February 2014 as blog curator of the Digital Reading Network, covering the topic of “digital comics“.

Superhumans: my interview with Stephen Lowther (Wellcome Collection)

The Comics Grid banner

Stephen Lowther, Assistant Librarian and Ephemera Curator at the Wellcome Library, London, will give an ‘Insights’ talk on Thursday 30th August 2012, 7-8pm, titled ‘Superheroes, or bulging biceps and pulsating pectorals.’

I interviewed him for The Comics Grid, here.