What has William Morris to do with DH?

A brief recommendation: UMD Libraries’ Special Collections is currently featuring an exhibit  (“How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris,” Sept. 2012-July 2013) on the life and works of William Morris, the 19th-century English author, designer, socialist, and — arguably most famously, though perhaps I’m not objective on this point — founder of the Kelmscott Press and printer of the Kelmscott Chaucer.  As a medievalist with a particular interest in manuscript studies, I’ve long found Morris’s work appealing and admired his taste — for example, what lover of books would not appreciate the discussion of the relative aesthetic merits of various typefaces and guidelines for margin widths found in his “The Ideal Book“?  That having been said, though, I never found Morris particularly relevant to my own work — that is, not until I read Bethany Nowviskie’s very thoughtful MLA talk, “Resistance in the Materials” (posted here on her blog).  Nowviskie uses a quotation from Morris as a jumping off point for discussing the role of craft and collaboration in DH, as well as for some reflections on the casualization of the academic workforce.  Not only is her essay directly pertinent to our discussion of making and building in DH, but for me reading it also gave new relevance to UMD’s Morris exhibition.  In particular, it got me thinking about the tension between the hand- and machine-crafted object in Morris’ work, and about the resonance of his attempts to translate both the aesthetics and the ethics of the hand-crafted book into the technological context of printing. In that sense his work now strikes me as particularly relevant to our moment, when at times the future of books as physical objects seems to be in doubt — not to mention the viability of a career devoted to writing and studying them. But rather than take my word for it, why not read the essay — and take in the exhibition — for yourself?

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