I’ve just come back from the second of my two weeks of skills-building workshops this summer, and the connections between the two—the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and the Rare Book School—demonstrated again how past and present moments of media change continue to overlap. As I described below, during my week at DHSI in June, I learned how to use the TEI guidelines for digitizing manuscript documents. Last week at RBS, I studied paleography, acquiring the ability to read secretary hand. In both cases, I was amazed at how quickly it was possible to pick up the basics of the notation system in question; what was previously completely illegible rapidly gained meaning. As the images I already posted show, a TEI markup requires translation and interpretation just as much as early modern secretary hand does. And handwriting, conversely, is a technical—technological, even—skill, just as much as computer code is. A field like bibliography can help us understand these connections, exploring the material aspects of texts produced over hundreds of years.
Well, it looks like the government reading our letters isn’t only a historical analogy: in the wake of the NSA leaks, the Times reveals that the government records metadata for all paper mail, too. It should remind us once again that what we think of the quintessentially private form of communication—the sealed letter—in fact travels through many hands and many levels of government bureaucracy before reaching a recipient. This ongoing debate about publicity and privacy in a digital world becomes increasingly complicated, and revealing, when we put it in a long history of communications media and the relationship between the domestic sphere and political exigency.