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Here’s Gunnarolla celebrating the much-maligned comic sans serif.

I really wanted to use this in my post about digital books and fonts but I’m submitting that post as part of my coursework which is examined by crafty, official examiners who might notice that this song has no academic value whatsoever. So I posted the video on its own so that we can all enjoy the wonders of the comic sans song. I dare you to watch this song and not hum it for the rest of the day.


Honestly I have never thought much about the process of reading. I have thought about the texts I’ve read and the information or meaning they conveyed. But how the text is presented is something I have always taken for granted. This is an issue that has become so much more relevant with the growth of screen-reading. Most of our reading is now done on-screen whether it is computer monitors, smart-phone screens or tablets. We read from these sources differently which means that the text must be conveyed in a different format to suit our new needs.

This discomfort people have with these new mediums is best seen in the attitude towards eReaders. Most people who dislike eReaders will say that it is because they like the feel of a book and turning pages. This is an experience that cannot be replicated with eReaders or tablets and there is a danger that we are losing the physical qualities of books. But this is not a new danger. Christian Vandendorpe likens the potential demise of the book to the demise of the volumen or scroll in the first century AD. The codex, the Latin word for ‘booklet’, was adapted by early Christians because it was cheaper allowing both sides of the page to be written on. It was more compact, easier to carry and importantly it was easy to conceal.

This is interesting because many of its new features mirror those of Amazon’s Kindle which can be read with one hand, is “lighter than a paperback” and offers the “lowest book prices”. It is strange to think that many of the new revolutionary features of the latest models are generic traits of any book such as page numbers or balancing the contrast between the text and the page to imitate the act of reading. The book is so accepted that we don’t think of how difficult it must be to replicate its inherent qualities.

As print culture spread and book production increased, more recognizable features were made standard such as page-numbering, paragraphs, titles and fonts. These developments might seem innocuous but they have an impact on how we read. Reading without page numbers or paragraphs has always been a problem with reading on-screen and fonts can change how we interpret a text.

To see the power fonts have we only have to look at the prevalence of Times New Roman. This is a font  we associate with the oldest form of literature, the name alone suggests a classical connection. But it was created in 1932 for the Times of London newspaper. It’s original purpose was legibility and economy but it has become the standard font for books, reports and academic works. Because of this association with tradition and formal works, we tend to take this type more seriously than others. When I write or read anything in this font, I take it more seriously than other works. Online newspapers such as The Guardian combine the Times New Roman font with sans-serif fonts like Helvetica.

But standard fonts are changing as rapidly as the book form. Times New Roman is a serif font which means that it has feet and arms at the ends of the letter. These give a more traditional appearance which does not always suit a webpage that is cluttered with numerous images, videos, links or widgets. Nor does the traditional appearance always suit a digital medium which thrives on newness and frequent updates. A popular sans-serif font is Calibri.


It is in the digital world that we see the sans-serif font flourish. These are fonts that lack the feet or points of the serif font, keeping a simpler, sharper and more contemporary form. The advantage of these is their clear legibility on a webpage or smaller screens like those on smartphones. Steven Matteson, creative type director at Monotype discusses some of the fonts he designed use on the web.

The choice of font is something the average reader tends to dismiss until a hapless writer uses the comic-sans-serif script. There is no other font that generates the anger that comic sans-serif can. It goes beyond being a font that is not taken seriously, it can alienate the reader causing them to dislike the writer and their work. Comic Sans Serif is a font created by Vincent Connare in 1994 because the Times New Roman font was too severe for the user-friendly instructions of “Microsoft Bob”, an early Microsoft software.

The most dangerous text in the world.

Comic Sans Serif.

As the name suggests, the font was based on comic  books . The informal playfulness of the font was meant to convey ease and it became a regular feature in websites, shop signs and menus. But it became far too popular. Every party invitation, fast-food leaflet and even office notices were printed in the comic sans font., founded in 2002 by Dave and Holly Combs, started an international campaign calling for a ban of comic sans-serif. Christine Erickson’sNot My Type: Why the Web Hates Comic Sans” on gives a in-depth analysis of why the font is so hated. The comic sans font was not only a marker that the text was not serious, but it belittled the subject matter and patronised the reader.

Once a font is chosen that is easy for the web-user to read, then the next problem is how the text is conveyed on the screen. The vertical scroll is the standard format since the word-processors of the 1960s. But this can be exhausting on the user’s eyes, giving them no natural marker to stop reading. As the text continuously scrolls, we cannot base our reading sentences or paragraph structures as they move as fluidly as the text. The reader has little control over the page. As the eReader attempts to replicate the sensation of reading, PDF’s try to imitate the interaction we have with books, copying the text layout and format of the printed page. The user can also make notes, highlight passages and page numbers can be found at the bottom of the text or through search-bars.

Web-developers are definitely getting closer to the sensation of reading a book and though there are some qualities that can never be matched, we can’t ignore the developments in the new medium. It is book-lovers who treasure the feeling of the book who will be best able to find ways to imitate that experience as closely as possible.


Firefox offers an add-on called ‘Font Finder’ which allows;

  1.  Any font on a page to be completely analyze
  2. Any piece of an element’s information can be copied to the clipboard
  3. Font-families can be disabled from the entire page
  4. To test degradation for cross-OS support ,Any active element can have any piece of the   font’s options (such as color, size or family) adjusted inline.

This is available at

Works Cited.

Combs, D, and H. Combs. Ban comic san. Web. April 15, 2013.

Erickson, C. “Not My Type: Why the Web Hates Comic Sans.” Mashable. October 03, 2012. Web. April 15, 2013.

Garfield, S. Just My Type, a book about fonts. London ;Profile Books, 2011. Print.

“Kindle Store.” n.d. Web. April 15, 2013.

Matteson, Steve. Interview by Lynn La. “Talking fonts with typeface designer, Steve Matteson”. Youtube, Youtube. April 12, 2012. Web. April 15, 2013.

“Microsoft Typography.” Microsoft. Microsoft n.d. Web. April 15, 2013.

The Guardian,The Web. April 15, 2013.

Vandendorpe, C. ” Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

When we read a novel or look at a painting, the chances are that we look at its surface value. We appreciate a story for the entertainment it provided us with or we might admire the beauty of the image. But when we study it, we have to go further than this. We have to think of its historical and social context and the intent of the creator. We tend to assume that the final work was the desired product from its conception but this is rarely the case. Most creative works undergo a process of evolution. But if we can understand every step of that evolutionary process, then we can attain the fullest understanding of the work. This is why we are so interested in notebooks, sketches and drafts by the artist or writer and this has led to the study of the palimpsest.

The upper text is from the 13th century and the lower text is from the 6th century.

Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 90 verso, Lc 1,6-13

The cost and rarity of parchment meant that rather than destroy any pieces, the writing was removed by scratching it off the surfaces or through chemical removal. What resulted were layers of writing or sketches building up over time producing a palimpsest. They can tell us a lot about the process of writing and creating which becoming more and more an integral area of literary study. This is a tradition carried from the manuscript tradition and into the print culture. But there is a real anxiety about how this can be preserved when the print culture is falling into decay.

But John. A Walsh sees parallels between the production of illuminated manuscripts and the digitization of classics texts which he describes as “laboriously and intricately encoded, wrapped in a metatext that in its native form is often either invisible or opaque to all but the digital specialist” (Walsh, 2008).  Like a manuscript, book or painting, we see only the finished work, while the work that lies behind it usually remains invisible.  But Walsh sees the true equivalent to the digital age in the 19th century. This was a period which like our own period, saw a huge technological advance in the industrial revolution. This led to the invention of the printing press which in turn led mass production of books culminating in the rise of the novel. This huge increase in available texts is comparable to the flood of classic texts and digital texts available through the internet. More books are available to the reader than ever before through. Digital scholars are particularly excited to expand the study of 19th century writers.

But where does this leave the palimpsest? The act of writing is rapidly being replaced by the word-processor, a practice that leaves no evidence behind. The mistakes of the author can be wiped away from existence with a few taps on a keyboard, eliminating the successive drafts until the finished product is created. One website that is concerned with the workings of the author is the Walt Whitman archive. The website offers standard features such as the published texts of Whitman which includes his books and periodicals. But it also includes manuscripts, notebooks, several editions of poems and his original notes.

Poetry manuscript of "Starry Union"

Poetry manuscript of “Starry Union”

The archive preserves numerous manuscripts like “Starry Union” along with word-processed versions of the same texts with colour-coding to explain if something was overwritten, added inline, supplied from a different source or a very long deletion. This interaction with the original text will allow scholars from around the world to engage with these original sources as though they held the entire collection themselves. Another insightful feature of the archive is that it lists every repository for the different manuscripts.

While the digital age is finding new ways to preserve the scribal culture, it faces a real difficulty in preserving the works of multi-media artists like William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rosetti. On the surface, the website should be perfect for displaying the imagery and texts of an artist whose work crosses mediums. But it depends on how creatively the website can convey this, it can’t be enough to display an image and the accompanying text separately. The mediums will need to work together across the webpage to best convey the work. The William Blake Archive strives to offer the most information on Blake’s work without clouding the visual style of his work. The archive presents the users with a wide selection of Blake’s works including his illuminated books, prints, sketches, manuscripts and letters. We can see the challenge presented by a work such as Laocoon.

Laocoon, copy B, object 1 (Bentley 1, Erdman 1, Keynes 1) “Laocoon”

A work which draws on different media will always present a challenge to a digital archivist, but the archive offers editors notes, detailed descriptions of the illustrations, textual transcription as well as copy information regarding the different copies and editions of the various pieces. Various copies of works such as “Infant Joy” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, can be compared side by side.

The search engines of the archive are ingenious, allowing the user to perform a phrase search, exact or Boolean and it allows the user to search for motifs throughout the imagery. When we look at the work of a multi-media artist, we must always be aware of how text and imagery interact and here, the website editors have avoided the temptation to divide the mediums into rigid categories.

This leaves the modern reader or academic in a curious position. We are still interested in the early drafts and discarded notes of writers and we are interested in every facet of the writers work as it borrows from different mediums. This is why we create archives such as the two I have discussed. We can find inventive ways to preserve older works, presenting digital editions of manuscripts but the modern writer can, if he chooses,  leave no trail of his own work, deleting the rough drafts until the final product is all that remains. As modern scholars we should be aware that the digital medium through which we are hoping to preserve articles of the past is also the means through which we can destroy the modern palimpsest.

Works Cited.

Blake, W.  Laocoon. 1826-1827. Engraving with hand colouring. Collection of Robert N. Essick,  California. The William Blake Archive. Web. April 8, 2013.
Dodds, L.V. “Deciphering Palimpsests with Quartz Light” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 53, No. 306 (Sep. 1928), pp. 138-139

Ed. Eaves, M. Essick, R &Viscomi, J. The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress, 1996. Web. April 8, 2013.

Ed. Folsom, E & Price, K.M. The Walt Whitman Archive. Centre for Digital Research  in the Humanities. Web.  April 8, 2013.

Walsh, J.A. ” Multimedia and multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for 19th century literary studies.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Whitman, W. Starry Union, 1876. MS. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

The study of antiquity and the Classics gives us the best example of how we can merge one of the most ancient cultures with the very latest digital culture. In an article on Textualarc, I discuss why I think that the current literary culture, particularly children’s literature, is returning to a Homeric oral culture. But the technological advances of the digital age go beyond making a more interactive space, they can expand the study of the Classics on a global scale, granting anyone access to the integral area of study.

During my very first lecture in Greek and Civilisation ( my first lecture in University), our lecturer listed numerous areas of study such as literature, drama, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy etc. He went on to say that we have the ancient Greeks to thank for these areas. Nearly every discipline has its roots in Greek and Roman civilisations, yet it is a struggling discipline. T.N Mitchell of Trinity College discusses why the Classics departments of many universities are being pushed aside for modern areas such as technology and sciences. In 2012 only 628 students in Ireland sat a Higher level leaving cert exam in the Classics compared to 3804 students who sat an exam in Design and Communication Graphics. There is a definite drop in the study of the Classics but a constant growth in the study of digital technology and communication. The question we should be asking is if the digital world can preserve the classical world?

Classicists have been eager to take advantage of innovations of digital technology. But to make a real difference to how we access classical texts, we have to acknowledge where the real weaknesses lay. ‘ePhilology: When the Books Talk to Their Readers’ makes the point that we maintain the previous practices associated with the print culture such as publishing journals and writing definitive editions but we don’t take into account that these practices were developed to take advantage and compensate for the weaknesses of the print culture. This is a culture that was until recently enough, exclusive to the academic or upper-class world.  The problems, according to Crane, Bamman and Jones are that publications become static, cannot be adapted to different users and the ideas are embedded in a specialised language.

The problem of static texts is a difficult issue. It draws a fine line between the need to constantly update texts and maintaining the original form as long as possible. One of the biggest concerns people have about the marriage between literary and digital culture is that preserving anything online gives it an indefinite lifespan which the printed text is almost certain to outlast. We can’t guarantee how long something can survive in the digital world but this demand for longevity seems to clash with our expectations of the constantly modern digital text. We want the text to last indefinitely but we also want the text to be updated continuously and we are disappointed when we find texts or articles online that are out-of-date.

But the biggest issue facing a potential user is the exclusivity of the printed text. Classical texts or works based on them tend to be difficult to find and expensive. The dwindling study of the classics in second and third-level education only increases its exclusivity. It would be all too easy to blame circumstances and frown upon the new generation’s lack of interest in the area. Anyone might be interested but not anyone can have access to the texts related to the study. A lecturer may recommend primary sources required for study but the editions they recommend are costly and not readily available. Valuable or rare books are usually stored in the special collections department of the library which has restrictive opening hours and very strict rules regarding how you handle the book. This inaccessibility of texts extends to nearly every library which will safeguard their own collections of valuable books. Academic websites or catalogues usually operate on a subscription service with fees too high for anyone but an academic or specialist to invest in.

Most classicists agree that the only way to safeguard and further the study of classics is through the use of digital resources. However Crane, Bamman and Jones are keen to stress that the current framework we have is only the foundation for digital studies in the classics and the humanities and we are not sure what form this new study will take.  They list six advantages that digital resources can bring;

1. They can be delivered to any point in the world.

2. They can be fundamentally hypertextual, supporting comprehensive links between assertions and evidence.

3. They dynamically combine small, well-defined units of information to serve particular people at particular times.

4. They learn on their own and use as many automated processes as possible.

5. They learn from their human readers and can make effective use of contributions.

6. They automatically adapt themselves to the general background are current purposes of their users.

Many of these features are important in overcoming the exclusivity and elitism associated with academic studies. If these resources can be accessed by anyone in the world at any time, then an interest in the area can be cultivated by anyone, not only those with privileged access. But these features are not only concerned with making the material accessible, they make it easier to comprehend. The volume of information available about any given discipline can be overwhelming, particularly to a user who is interested in a specific area. Smaller units of information allow a user to delve into exactly what they are looking for and the use of hypertext with links allows their study to broaden when the need arises.

But for all this promising potential, there is distrust of the digital world. Open access sites like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and Librivox are called into question for their reliability. Academic texts are scrutinised several times by a committee before they can be published but there are fewer restrictions placed on open-access websites, allowing anyone with an interest but not necessarily a thorough knowledge to contribute.

Seemingly, the only solution to this problem is a collaboration between academics and open-access sites. This shouldn’t be difficult for the study of the classics when many of the primary sources are old enough to dwell within the public domain. Texts should also be preserved in a format that is open, adaptable to different networks, systems and can withstand developments in technology. The language for this format should be freely available and understood by machines and humans. Following the model set forward by the TEI and increasing the academically approved material available online, then the classics should be available to anyone who is interested in the area. It is this renewed interest that will ensure that the classics remain at the heart of our culture and guarantee its survival through the digital age.

Works cited.

Crane, G, Bamman D, and Jones, A. “ePhilology: When the Books Talk to Their Readers” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Mitchell, T.N, “The Classics in the Age of Innovation and Technology”, Classics Ireland 1 (1994). Web. April 4, 2013.

Leaving Cert Analysis, 2012.,2012. Web. April 4, 2013.

Kenneth Price’s article “Electronic Scholarly Editions discusses how the scholarly edition is evolving into a digital form. Price uses the term “digital archive” to describe the electronic edition but he is keen to point out the differences between the traditional archive which is a repository of artifacts which are rarely edited and the digital archive which should be a collection of carefully selected materials. Price’s digital archive is an exciting space that can use the scholarly values of the edition and combine it with the inclusiveness of the archive. But there are issues that need resolving such as cost, audience and shaping of the archive. In this post I will discuss Price’s concerns about the intentions of the writers, the question of the definitive edition, the cost of creating this new archive and the similarities between the archaeologist and the archivist.

Price’s language describing the archive is interesting, particularly his use of the word “artifacts” . He is drawing on archaeological language to describe the collection of literature. Both studies share the problem of not knowing what to preserve. The modern archaeologist is always trying to imagine what will be of interest to future studies. This is also a problem for the literary archivist who must decide how much of an author’s writings to preserve. Do we assume that every scrap of writing produced by the writer will be of great significance and how do we decide what to preserve and what to disregard?

This leads into another problem proposed by Price which is the question of the writer’s intentions. There is a tendency among scholars to examine and represent the ‘intentions’ of the writer over the surviving documents. By omitting the interruptions of editors and censors, the digital archive produces the text the writer wanted to achieve, even if the text he did produce is quite different. This is viewed as the “purer” text. Others argue that this is creating an ahistorical text that never existed. I would agree with the latter argument. Assuming that any alteration made by someone other than the author diminishes the text seems like blind devotion to that author. Every outlet of media requires some form of editing because it is difficult for a writer, musician or film-maker to see their own work objectively.

According to Price there is a shift away from the single text “definitive” edition. We assume that the final version of the text is the strongest representation of the author’s work. But this view creates a static writer whose style or views don’t change throughout his life. And as Price points out, the later editions would suffer more heavily from the editors and censors. The digital archive would ideally represent all editions of the text, allowing the reader to make their own choices regarding the validity of editions.

The similarities between the digital archivist and the archaeologist appear again. The archaeologist is very much aware of how his grouping of recently found artefacts will determine how these artefacts and their culture are understood by the wider audience.  The archivist accepts the same responsibility as his selection and presentation of texts send a message about how he thinks the texts should be read. Price gives us an example of this when he mentions that “an author-centred project may imply a biographical framework for reading”. Presenting the entirety of the author’s works with equal importance implies that no one work is more important than another which is rarely the case.

As exciting and innovative the idea of the digital archive could be the reality is that such a project requires a huge amount of time, a large team of trained contributors and a lot of money. The financing of the project might be the biggest issue. McGann believes that literary and historical scholars should be trained for the immense re-editing such a project would demand. But such a project as it is now would require editors, librarians, scholars and technical experts as well as access to thousands of books. Ideally art councils and university presses would support these projects but failing that, private companies will have to step in. Few private companies will be willing to invest that much time and money for little or no financial gain which could mean access fees. Access fees will enforce the elitism that open access is struggling to move away from. Paying for access to an archive is no different to a scholarly edition tucked away in a library accessible only by other scholars.

However, open-access websites such as Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and Librivox are not without fault. These websites rely on contributions by interested users but not necessarily users with the most knowledge of the field. These websites are subjected to the scorn of the academic world for their loose regulations regarding contributors and standard editions. The idea of a ‘standard edition’ of any text is a thorny issue but Project Gutenberg has actively rejected the demand for an “authoritative edition” claiming that its work is not intended for the reader concerned with exact phrasing of a text. Instead they work towards texts that are “99.9% accurate in the eyes of the general reader”.

Price raises excellent points about the rapidly evolving form of the edition and the challenges raised by a medium that is always changing. The artifacts of the archaeologist are useful to us for our understanding of the past, but there they must remain. Price is insistent that the digital archive is the only way we can ensure that the literary edition can remain a “living part of our heritage” but we must also be willing to adapt with it and change our understanding of the literary edition.

 Works Cited.

Price, K. “Electronic Scholarly Editions.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. ed. Schreibman, S. and Siemens, R. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

“The History and Philosophy of Project Gutenberg by Michael Hart” Project GutenbergAugust 1992.

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