...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