Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a Controlled Vocabulary...

...or, at least, to start a conversation about one.

A "controlled vocabulary" is a standard used in taxonomies to help control ambiguity about objects and resources. It cuts down on syntactic clutter.

What sort of clutter? Consider the word "football." The term means one thing in America, sure. As soon as we are out of the US, however, it could easily refer to what we yanks call "soccer," or even (in other parts of the world) rugby. As a descriptor, "football" is a poor one.

In the worlds of Iconic Books and Material Scripture, we have a similar problem. Our terms, especially terms like "book" and "text," are imprecise and (at worst) utterly confusing. Since these are the core objects of our discussions, it makes sense to take up discussions to adopt a standard of terms, a "controlled vocabulary," that will allow us to reduce ambiguities as we move forward in our research.

I am by no means the first person to call for such a move. Those who attended the third Iconic Books symposium in 2010 will remember Deirdre Stam's "Talking About 'Iconic Books' in the Terminology of Book History." I feel now - as I said then, as we were commenting on her paper - that this is the single most important matter facing our research. Hands down.

Now that SCRIPT is viable and attracting new members, we are at a perfect point to undertake a serious conversation about finding a scholarly standard for our bibliographic terms - a shared, controlled vocabulary that we can endorse and encourage the use of in all SCRIPT-related endeavors and publications. (Think of this is terms of the SBL Style Guide, for example - in principle if not in execution - offering a standard reference to writers in the field.) Now, precisely when things are still small and manageable, is the ideal time to put such standards in place.

I speak from bitter experience. In the process of writing my dissertation, I concocted an 80-page chapter where - in my utter ignorance - I attempted to develop a vocabulary out of whole cloth for theologians to talk about physical books. It was terrible; a Frankenstein's monster sort of affair. Moreover, it was executed in complete ignorance of the excellent groundwork in bibliographic studies that already exists.

It is my fear, if we don't establish such a standard, that my experience will be shared by many SCRIPT scholars to follow. Each will take their turn at the attempt to define their subject from the ground up, wasting time and effort that could be spent advancing the conversation in new directions.

For those who have never thought about these issues before, let me suggest two starting points for discussion. The first (shorter) is G. Thomas Tanselle's "The Arrangement of Descriptive Bibliographies," from Studies in Bibliography, Volume 37 (1984) and available online here. In the article, Tanselle suggests the second (longer) starting point, which I'd like to also include here, Principles of Bibliographic Description, by Fredson Bowers.

What is needed, ultimately, is a set of terms upon which we agree, that we will use moving forward to reduce ambiguity in our scholarly conversations. Tanselle and Bowers are two sources I have come across in my own research, but I have no doubt many readers of this blog have encountered others that they might suggest. Please do.

My hope (my Christmas wish!) is that this discussion will be taken up across all quarters of the SCRIPT universe in the next couple of years. I encourage my colleagues to follow Deirdre Stam's lead, and to present papers and perhaps whole conference panels where options for standards can be presented and debated. I also encourage robust discussion on these blogs about the question.

There are well-established, robust standards of bibliographic description out there. Let's share them, search out new ones, and eventually decide on the one that will best serve our scholarship. Then let's agree on it, use it, and move forward to the frontiers.

I'm very interested in suggestions and responses. Please share them in the comments below! Thank you, and happy holidays,

David Dault, Washington, PA


Jim Watts said...

Deidre Stam's article, "Talking about 'Iconic Books' in the Terminology of Book History", will appear very soon in Postscripts and shortly thereafter in the volume I'm editing from Equinox, Iconic Books and Texts (2012). I agree that it provides a very useful orientation to vocabulary necessary for bibliography and book history.

I think, though, that many of the phenomena that most interest me about iconic books have much more to do with use than with history of publication, and the latter only because it responds to trends in usage. That's why I employ categories like "iconic text" and "relic text" to describe how people ritualize texts. Such ritualization sometimes draws their attention to one or another detail of publication and bibliographic history, but in other cases it proceeds with remarkable lack of concern for such issues (as Brian Malley documents in detail in How the Bible Works). As a result, we may have to deploy our vocabulary as much for its power to provoke thought and debate (so Vincent Wimbush in the first IB Symposium) as for its ability to control ambiguity.

dault said...

Well said, Jim, and thank you for your response. I certainly am with you on the wish to continue to provoke thought and debate. To that end, there is definitely a place and a use for ambiguity (and the ambiguity of our terms).

With that said, though, I do want to keep a careful distinction between ambiguity and confusion.

What I think is very exciting about the questions Iconic Books is raising has precisely to do with these matters of use you mention. In that regard, I find your own tri-valenced vocabulary of icnonicity to be an invaluable resource (for readers: see Watts's "The Three Dimensions of Scriptures" in Postscripts vol. 2/2006. There's a link to it under the Iconic Books bibliography page).

What I'd like to see happen, eventually, is a clarification of what could be useful ambiguities in our collective research in SCRIPT, over-against "re-inventing the wheel." The former will give inspiration, certainly. The latter, however, risk pulling discussions into surface minutiae (I envision a twenty-minute discussion after some future paper about whether the central term X the author used might not be supplanted more profitably by term Y).

It's for these kind of digressions that something like a "controlled vocabulary" - settled in advance and available as part of a sort of loose "SCRIPT style guide" might prove useful - in helping to drive us deeper, from confusion to ambiguity (where, as you rightly point out, Jim, the really good questions linger).

I hope I don't sound like I'm arguing against you here - that is not my intention at all. I think there's a point worth pondering in all of this (or a couple): how to have a controlled vocabulary without rigidity and limitation, and how to arrive at one through an open conversation of bottom-up "best practices" as opposed to some arbitrary imposition?

All to say, I think I've discovered the topic I'm going to write my proposal about for the SCRIPT-EIR call for papers!

Thank you again for the thoughtful (and thought-provoking) response.