Archaeology of a Book: An experimental approach to reading rare books in archival contexts


In 1539, less than twenty years after the fall of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the first printing press was established in the New World. For the next sixty years, that printing press (and the ones that followed) would become a central part of the growing intellectual culture in New Spain, producing secular and religious texts including grammars of indigenous languages, medical treatises, and religious manuals. Today, these books, which we call here the primeros libros (first books), are valued both as cultural heritage items and as valuable scholarly resources.

 The Primeros Libros project is a multi-year, multinational effort to produce a digital collection of all surviving exemplars of all books printed before 1601 in the Americas. This collection is freely and publicly available online in the form of digital surrogates. "Archaeology of a Book" has been designed as a companion to that collection. Its purpose is to demonstrate methods for approaching the digital surrogates in the Primeros Libros collection, and to tell some of the stories that are made available through a close examination of the social and bibliographical history of these books. It focuses on how the meaning and value of these books has changed over the course of more than four hundred years of history.

To tell this story, "Archaeology of a Book" traces the long history of the Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales, a confessional manual printed at a Franciscan convent and school in Tlatelolco, Mexico around 1601. Like many confessional manuals, the Advertencias was written to be used as a field guide for new Spanish missionaries; for this reason, it is a trilingual text written in Latin, Spanish, and the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl. 

While its rich multilinguality and theological significance makes the Advertencias interesting for scholars, it has remained in the background of early colonial Mexican texts. The combination of impenetrable prose (mostly in Latin) and heavy borrowing from other texts has often led the book to be overlooked in favor of more culturally, linguistically, or theologically innovative texts, like the Nahuatl grammars of Alonso de Molina, Andrés de Olmos, and Antonio del Rincón, or the proto-ethnographic writing of Bernardino de Sahagún. Nevertheless, more copies of the book are held in archives and popular collections than any other printed book from the same era.

As a result, this project is primarily concerned with the stories a book can tell when we look beyond the pages towards the material evidence of their production and use. Bibliographical methods - examining catchwordswatermarks, typefaces, and bindings -  can allows us to understand how the book was written, printed, and read. Studies of provenance can help us to understand where the Advertencias fit in the context of early colonial Mexico, and how that context may have changed over time. Collectively, these stories offer one path through the long history of the book. The goal is not, however, to provide a single comprehensive narrative of book history. Instead, the project is conceived as a sequence of case studies which gesture towards the many competing stories that a book may tell.

Navigating the Project

"Reading the First Books" has been published using Scalar, "a free, open source authoring and publishing platform that's designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online." Scalar allow users to find multiple pathways through the material. You may explore this project by following tags or media, or you may use the Table of Contents on the drop-down menu to move quickly through the entire project.
The most straightforward way to explore the project is through the paths listed in the main menu and described below. Each path leads the user through a sequence of short multimedia essays that offer a close reading or analysis of the Advertencias. 
Introduction: This path (which you can follow below) will provide an overview of the Advertencias, including information about authorship, content, and use.
Production: This path explores the scene of production of the Advertencias, considering who printed the book and where it was printed. We consider questionable colophons, duplicated pages, and irregular catchwords.
Collection: This path considers how the Advertencias was collected in religious libraries across Mexico during the early colonial period, using firebrands, manuscript evidence, and archival records to trace the early collection history of the books.
Acquisition: This path considers the movement of the Advertencias into private collection and public institutions from Mexican independence to the present day. Focusing on a few specific case studies, we consider the national, intellectual, religious, and financial forces that drive the movement of these books as sources of information and as heritage items.
(Digital) Futures: In this final path, we discuss the material and digital futures of the Advertencias, and point to some areas for future research.
References: Here we provide a list of references that were used in the development of this project.
Terms: Here we provide definitions for key terms used in the study of early book production.

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