Dr Elizabeth Savage, lecturer at the Institute of English Studies and British Academy postdoctoral fellow discusses her project aiming to establish guidelines for printing artefacts.

It’s not just digital images that are being uploaded and catalogued by the gigabyte on the internet. Their very means of production – from cut woodblocks to engraved metal plates and lithographic stones – are also being recorded for sharing. Tens of thousands survive from the last 500 years, but relatively few are accessible. 

The initiative ‘The matrix reloaded: establishing cataloguing and research guidelines for artefacts of printing images’, a play on printers’ terms for re-inking these ‘matrices’ or printing surfaces, aims to rectify this. And it has earned for its creator, Dr Elizabeth Savage, a lecturer and British Academy postdoctoral fellow in Book History and Communications at the Institute of English Studies, a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Research Award (BARSEA).

Given the new possibilities to catalogue and digitise these artefacts in order to reveal their research potential, a common framework could advance knowledge

The purpose of this innovative project is to establish cataloguing and research guidelines for artefacts of printing images. It will help collections catalogue the tens of thousands of historical woodblocks and copperplates (see below) that have survived over the last 500 years and train researchers to in how to make use of them.

Dr Savage came across a large number of these objects during the course of her work and recognised that they could be fundamental to research. There was just one problem: many of these historical printmaking and bookmaking tools are inaccessible because they do not fit into the cataloguing structures and controlled vocabularies used by the libraries, archives and museums that hold them.

Materials range from cut woodblocks (below) and etched or engraved metal plates to lithographic stones, which are of relevance particularly in fields interested in how historical printed material was – and is – produced.

An engraved woodblock

"I was frustrated that I couldn’t look them up. And I was frustrated that students have wanted to learn more about how illustrations were printed, but I couldn’t point them to a guide describing them or using them in research," explains Dr Savage. She is hoping to change this with the £15,000 from her BARSEA award.

From March 2017 until March 2018, she is leading the project to create a research network and distil a single, interdisciplinary best practice from existing standards across existing disciplines and heritage collections.

She will be supported by an international, interdisciplinary working group who will help with consensus on terminology, methodology and best practice. The global working group has members from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, UK, US and Taiwan.

After convening a two-day closed summit in London, they will finalise the recommended framework.

Black ink on carved pearwood by Albrecht Dürer
Black ink on carved pearwood by Albrecht Dürer

Dr Savage says the theme is highly topical, and the project is supported by major scholarly societies for book history, art history and historical printing, such as The Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) and the Print Council of America.

"Digitisation projects in a number of collections are starting to move from printed material to the objects used to print that material. Given the new possibilities to catalogue and digitise these artefacts in order to reveal their research potential, a common framework could advance knowledge of image-printing processes and images’ role in the print trade."

Her claim is backed up by the fact that the working group include research leaders in book history, art history, and hand press printing; curators of major collections of blocks and plates in museum collections worldwide; and editors of the standard cataloguing languages used by heritage institutions to describe their collections.

After the summit in September, the working document will be trialled at a free training day for early-career researchers in December. PhD and postdoctoral students from the varied disciplines that make use of historical printed material are welcome to apply.

In keeping with the BARSEA scheme’s aims to help early-career researchers shape their fields and cascade benefit, the framework will be published open-access in March 2018.

About Elizabeth Savage

Dr Elizabeth Savage is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in book history and communications at the Institute of English Studies (IES). In 2016, she won the Wolfgang Ratjen Award for distinguished research in the field of graphic art, and Printing Colour 1400-1700: Histories, Techniques, Functions and Receptions, which she edited, was recognised at the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) Book Awards.

About the project

Tens of thousands of printing materials (cut woodblocks, etched/engraved metal plates, lithographic stones) survive from the last 500 years, but many are inaccessible. Given new possibilities to catalogue and digitise these artefacts to reveal their research potential, a common framework could advance knowledge of image-printing processes and images’ role in the print trade. This project will create a research network and distil a single, interdisciplinary best practice from existing standards to train researchers to engage with them.