The Advantages of the Society of the Cincinnati

I’m back after almost a week away, mostly in Washington D.C., where I spent two days at the always-wonderful Society of the Cincinnati (SoC) library. I’ve mentioned it before, but it deserves a bit more attention. The SoC has a number of fellowships to defray the costs of short-term research trips – the deadline is usually in November and I’ll try to remind everyone on the blog as it approaches.

But why bother traveling all the way to D.C. just to look at a few old books that you can get online? Nowadays we have oodles of digitized works available to us via Google Books, EEBO/ECCO and the like, and these have truly revolutionized historical research for EME particularly (thanks to the modern focus of copyright laws). So why bother? I’ll tell you why. A visit to a rare book collection will offer reminders that digitized texts are not the same as the physical objects, and these reading rooms offer some significant advantages.

First, there is no ‘staff’ to assist you with the digitized works available online – no helpful personnel to let you know of newly-acquired items, or how to tweak your catalog searches, or which of their holdings include manuscript marginalia by the owner, or even to place requests for new works (all of which the helpful staff at the SoC have provided for me).

Second, many digital copies are far from perfect. Personally, I can survive the occasional scanned condomed-finger in a Google Book, as long as the text is legible – heck, many of my pictures from the archives/library aren’t much better.

Unsafe Finger Reading - Wear a Condom!

More annoying, most digitized copies do not include the full illustrations and maps which were included in many works, especially fold-out maps and diagrams that are common in military histories and manuals. Here’s a too-common occurrence in a Google Books book that you’ve undoubtedly experienced yourself:


But now that an increasing number of rare book libraries are allowing photos (for personal research purposes, of course), you don’t need to scribble a version of a map/illustration in your notes, but can instead get a rough-and-ready photo for later perusal.

Third, despite Google’s scanning efforts (which are slowing down, by the way), there are still a fair number of early modern books that have not been digitized – the Society of the Cincinnati has a number of them, several of which were very useful in my Vauban book. And some of these inaccessible titles are purely a function of Google Books’ imperfect procedures. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice that Google has decided that The Present State of Europe (an English language translation of the Europische Mercurius newspaper published from 1690) is public domain, except for the years 1704, 1710 and 1712, which it insists cannot be downloaded for fear of copyright infringement! I’ve made several attempts to get those years cleared, to no avail. And we haven’t even mentioned the millions of pages of manuscript sources still locked away in archives, as well as those acquired by libraries such as the SoC.

Fourth, various editions. As I’ve mentioned before, we can get lulled into a false sense of security once we download a copy of a book from Google Books/EEBO/ECCO/Gallica. I discovered this first hand at the SoC. I was ecstatic to discover a few weeks ago that Google Books had posted a copy of Courtilz de Sandras (under the alias Buisson), La conduite de mars, necessaire a tous ceux qui font profession des armes, ou qui ont dessein de s’y engager: autorisée d’exemples arrivés dans ces derniers temps: avec des memoires contenans divers évenemens remarquables arrivés pendant la guerre de ce temps, La Haye: Chez Henri van Bulderen, 1693. Since I’d never seen the work before and it was on my list of things to check out at the SoC, I assumed my work was done and crossed that title off my to-get list. Fortunately I noticed that the SoC had multiple editions of this work (under slightly different titles), including one published in 1711, so I thought I’d compare the editions just to be sure. What did I find as I compared all four SoC editions (1685, 1690, 1693, 1711) on the table in front of me? I discovered something rather odd: the 1693 edition has 18 chapters defining what makes a good soldier and officer, the 1685 edition has the same 18 chapters as the 1693 edition, but the 1690 edition has 44 chapters instead of a mere 18!* And these additional chapters were completely different from the first 18, and much more relevant to my current research project. Further, the 1711 edition also appended a Practice for Cannoniers at the end, yet another addendum that was lacking in the other editions. Had I been content with what Google Books provided me, I would have missed half of the fuller work. In short, a book with the same author and approximate title is the same as any other as far as Google is concerned, so it only bothers to scan one. The reality can be quite different. I’m not necessarily blaming Google for looking at the bottom line here, just that we need to recognize Google’s motives and how their practices influence what they provide us.

Fifth, specific individual copies of works might vary from one to the next. This is particularly true if you want to look at any stray marginal comments made by readers. Jardine and Grafton’s analysis of Gabriel Harvey’s copy of Livy is the best-known example of this – there is currently a project to scan and post online Harvey’s copy here. So if you want to look at General William Howe’s commentary on a mid-18C manual of field warfare, you’ll need to head to the SoC and nowhere else. Considering how little marginalia I’ve seen in EEBO/ECCO copies, I wouldn’t be surprised if their criteria for which copy to scan was based upon finding the cleanest (unmarked) copy possible. Which is fine, unless you want to know what readers thought about the work.

In short, digitization is revolutionizing EMEMH, but as with everything early modern, we need to keep the exceptions in the forefront of our mind. This means you should:

  • Assume that each copy of each edition in each library is a unique work. For many purposes it doesn’t make sense to track down each one, but if a particular author or title is key to your work, it’d probably be a good idea to look at as many copies and editions as you can.
  • Assume that a search of the English Short Title Catalogue/Google Books/EEBO/ECCO/Gallica is not a comprehensive listing of all publications (in fact, Morgan’s Bibliography on Queen Anne’s reign mentions numerous works that have no identifiable extant copies, or perhaps only one).
  • Avoid confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence. For example, don’t claim that author X didn’t write about topic Y in title Z until after you’ve looked at all of the editions of title Z. This is what scholars (usually of a literary bent) do when compiling scholarly editions of texts.

* This does make one wonder how half of the book might have been missed in the 1685/1693 editions. I think the 1690 edition was published by a different publisher, which explains why the additional chapters weren’t included in the later 1693 edition. But it’s possible that this other publisher simply added some material from somewhere else under “Buisson’s” authorship. There are various ways to explain the variations from one edition to the next, but whether explaining it is important or not depends on your purpose. If you are studying Courtilz de Sandras (who himself wrote under various aliases and combined fictional and non-fictional accounts), it may matter. But if you are interested in what lessons readers drew from the work, it’s less of an issue (unless you are looking at the lessons drawn by a specific individual, in which case you need to know which edition they had access to).

P.S. Never fear, I shall return to forage. In fact, I found a few interesting tidbits at the SoC library that I might even share.

P.P.S. Remember that all the works mentioned in the posts can be found in the blog bibliography (link to the right).



3 responses to “The Advantages of the Society of the Cincinnati”

  1. learnearnandreturn says :

    That is such a good summary of the arguments against relying on digitized copies. Thank you.

    I would add one more, especially for the early modern period – that relying on EEBO or similar can give you a false impression of how widely read people were! Most people in the English Civil War, for instance, could never have had access to the number of ECW pamphlets available on EEBO.

    • jostwald says :

      Good point. In fact, such a good point, that it’s been made elsewhere! 😉

      On the other hand, there was so much that was passively known back then that we can’t recover, including their ability to combine what they read in print with shared manuscript sources and oral reports. Probably no living Englishman/woman alive in the 1700s had a larger collection of English publications (1701-1712) than I have managed to collect digitally, but I could imagine that contemporaries were able to keep up with the daily newspapers (at least) in a way that we can’t today if we are trying to divide our time between 2012 and 1712. I would think some of the gist of other pamphlets were spoken about, some lucky enough to be rebutted in counter-pamphlets. It does create a whole new series of issues for us historians to think about.

      I don’t want to give up all the PDFs I’ve downloaded over the past 8 years, but if we want to be thorough, we’ve got to get our fingers dirty.

  2. jostwald says :

    Update: Google Books now (in 2014) has a 1711 edition of Buisson for full-view, although it does *not* include the manual for new gunners at the end, like the SoC edition does. The publisher seems to be the same, so this *might* be explained by the fact that various book owners would bind together related works in the same binding. Yet more reason to check out as many editions and copies as you can.

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