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MPCO, MMO, and Digital Display

I had originally conceived of this project as a pictorial book. My wish to reproduce and interpret the 420 prints supplemented by other visual images was rendered unattainable by the economics of scholarly publishing in the early 21st century. Fortunately, digital technology had evolved to such a degree by 2020 that this digital display is in many ways preferable to a printed book. Although my catalog entries are structured primarily according to the national schools of the artists whose images Melville collected, visitors to the site can use hyperlinks to see all of the works by a certain artist or engraver in his collection; all of the works from a certain publication or printed with a certain engraving technique; all of the seascapes, landscapes, or genre scenes; all of the portraits or architectural images; or all biblical or literary images.

In designing how to display such materials in a digital format, I had an excellent model in Melville’s Marginalia Online, designed by Steven Olsen-Smith with assistance from Dennis Marnon and Peter Norberg (MMO). The primary goal of that site is to make visible to the world the annotations and other marginalia Melville made in books that he owned that survive today. Building upon Walker Cowen’s pioneering Melville’s Marginalia from 1965 (a twelve-volume doctoral thesis recording marks that Melville made in books from his private library) and Merton Sealts’s Melville Reading from 1966, revised and expanded in 1988 (a comprehensive listing of more than six hundred books Sealts had verified as being owned or accessed by Melville), Olsen-Smith has created a digital site that allows viewers to see with their own eyes Melville’s annotations (and even some of his erasures) exactly as he wrote them on the pages of those books Olsen-Smith has been able to incorporate into his site. Visitors who wish to examine the marginalia on the MMO site will see three kinds of information for each page on which Melville has written an annotation or other marking. Occupying the large window on the right side of the viewing screen is a reproduction the printed page to which Melville has added words or marks of his own. A smaller window on the upper left side of the viewing screen identifies the book or other printed source in which that page was published. The window on the lower left side of the viewing screen includes descriptions and transcriptions of the marginalia that is seen in the large window to its immediate right.  By allowing the viewer to see Melville’s actual markings on the actual pages of books he is known to have owned or accessed, Melville’s Marginalia Online brings the viewer much closer to Melville’s tactile and imaginative experience as a reader than was previously possible for any reader not able to physically access the actual book he had owned or marked.

Melville’s Print Collection Online is designed to allow the viewer to see and to read about each print Melville is known to have collected. Most of these are prints I have seen with my own eyes, beginning with the 285 I discovered in storage at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and extending to those I have located in the homes of Melville descendants in Virginia, Massachusetts, Maine, and Ohio or in other collections in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Texas. As described above and in the Guide to Use of Catalog, a reproduction of each print will be accompanied on the Exhibition level by a caption and a general discussion of the print in relation to art history and Melville’s life as an author and collector. On the Catalog level of the site, the image of the print is accompanied by the official Print Identification, by metadata tags connecting this print to other prints throughout the collection, and by a reproduction of the back side of the print (verso) if it contains any significant annotations. The image of the entire engraved sheet at this level is also searchable in great detail through a roving zoom function.

At the time I decided to explore the creation of such a site in July 2020, I was fortunate to have the assistance of Clementine Farrell, an Honors student and Computer Science major who did excellent work in my class on Moby-Dick and the Arts during the 2020 Spring Semester. We were soon joined by Samuel Otter, professor of English at the University of California—Berkeley as our co-creator of the site. Sam had recently completed two successive terms as editor of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies after having served as assistant editor under John Bryant, its founding editor. In his own research and writing, Sam has a keen interest in the visual arts, and in printmaking in particular, in addition to his comprehensive immersion in the world of Melville scholarship. He is also expert in finding otherwise elusive images and information on the internet.  

Now, in February 2023, we are completing an enhanced version of the first three chapters of our proposed eight-chapter site, cataloging, displaying, and interpreting the first 184 of the 420 prints Melville is known to have collected. As Clementine is now about to graduate from Northern Kentucky University, Emily Godfrey, a freshman Library Informatics major, is succeeding her as our webmaster. Our small editorial team remains excited about the opportunity of providing digital, visual, and interpretive access to Melville’s entire print collection to viewers anywhere int the world. We present his prints not only as a collection of 420 visual images that he found the time, the funds, and the space to collect and preserve, but also as an imaginative construct of the cultural space he had traversed in the books he had written, the travel he had taken, and the books and the poetry he was writing still. 

MPCO, MMO, and Digital Display