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The ‘aha! moments’ of new book history professor, Claire Battershill

Submitted on Thursday, March 04, 2021

Claire Battershill may have begun her academic journey by pursuing a love of physical manuscripts, but today she is equally entrenched in the cutting-edge world of digital databases. For this new Faculty of Information professor, embracing digital did not mean abandoning her love for physical objects, but rather expanding her view of the manuscript’s journey.

“For me, what has become increasingly clear is that there’s a logical extension of the history of the book into the digital future. So to think about the full lifecycle of a book, you have to take it forward into digitization as well,” says Battershill, who is cross-appointed with the English Department.

To understand this pathway even further, it’s helpful to know that Battershill began her journey with an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford, where she literally paged through the original works of Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries. That’s where she became inspired by the realization that these canonical authors that she held in such high regard were also working writers experimenting with their craft.

“When I saw the hand-printed books, it felt very moving, because they really seemed kind of unprofessional, sort of DIY. You have this reverence for these prolific and famous authors, and then to see something that so clearly represented trying things out, that really humanized Woolf for me in a way that I found very compelling. That was the beginning of my interest in this discipline,” recalls Battershill.

Claire Battershill, Book History Professor

Claire Battershill, shown here with a printing press,  sent her students a package of bookbinding materials so they could have some hands-on experience while attending remote classes during the pandemic (Photo by SFU Communications)

From there, she came to do her PhD in Book History at the University of Toronto, focusing on biographies and autobiographies published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, examining the excellent archive at Victoria College’s E.J. Pratt library. Her work resulted in her first book, Modernists Lives, published in 2017.

After finishing her PhD in 2012, Battershill taught for a year in OCAD’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, then went on to pursue postdoctoral studies at the University of Reading in England, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Her postdoctoral research extended her PhD research, focusing on biographies published in the UK in the lead-up to the Second World War, an era that saw a huge expansion in the form. She also published her first collection of short stories, Circus, in 2014.

Returning to Canada, Battershill held a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and a SSHRC Impact Award at Simon Fraser University before returning to UofT, where she was a Northrop Frye Visiting Fellow and then began work as an Assistant Professor last summer.

Recently, Battershill has started to work in the area of digital archives. Along with colleagues in her discipline, she created a digital critical database called the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP) to incorporate the Hogarth materials along with other publishers’ archives in the UK. A primary motivation for the project was to digitally re-unite archival collections.

“You can start reading one correspondence in London, and then realize that the other half of it is in Texas, and so it’s a very resource-intensive to travel to the whole bunch. Part of what we wanted to do was to bring together these archives that had been pulled off in different batches all over the world,” she says.

While the project was initially ecologically motivated to reduce travel while increasing scholarship, it also turns out to have been prescient given the needs of researchers during a global pandemic. The database now contains some 4,000 records and works in partnership with various libraries including the E. J. Pratt library at Victoria College, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and the New York Public Library.

Battershill says another aim of the project was to create a model for future collections, given that the process of figuring out digitization is fairly new. “There’s a lot more methodological thinking happening in the building of these services, especially since it’s all happening alongside the rise of mass digitization. It’s an important zone for conversations,” says Battershill, adding that she enjoys the collaborative nature of working together to create such a resource.

Battershill also loves that she gets to pass along her original love of the book as object to her students. Although she’s currently teaching online due to the pandemic, she sent each of her students a package of bookbinding materials. “I really like to have some hands-on learning experiences as part of that class, because I think really does make it a lot more immediate for the students,” says Battershill.

She’s teaching a historical overview course about the history of books and publishing, which is comprehensive to say the least. “We start from the very earliest kinds of text attached to objects, like paint on tortoise shells, and we go all the way up to Amazon. I think it really expands and extends what students think of when they think of the idea of the book.”

-By Suzanne Bowness