Aldus at 500: Digitizing the Wosk-McDonald Aldine Collection at SFU

Simon Fraser University marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of pioneering printer-publisher Aldus Manutius with a groundbreaking online resource

Printer’s device of Aldus Manutius

2015 is Simon Fraser University’s fiftieth anniversary; it is also the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of one of the leading figures in the history of bookmaking: the Venetian scholar, printer, and publisher Aldus Manutius. To mark these occasions, Publishing@SFU and SFU Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books are joining forces to create an online resource comprising a world-class selection of Aldines from the Wosk-McDonald Collection, acquired by the University in 1995.

Turning these precious volumes into a digitized collection available for perusal on the open Web makes the books “public” for the first time in five centuries. The online resource is intended for the benefit and pleasure of not only academics, students, librarians, and collectors, but also the wider community of bibliophiles.

We hope to publicly launch the online collection of SFU Aldines in August 2015 as part of the annual Public Knowledge Project conference.

Significance and Innovation

Our aim is to reveal the enormous and varied contributions of Aldus to the worlds of printing, publishing, education, and public knowledge by showcasing his beautiful, innovative editions – especially the libelli portatiles, the pocket books – in a simple and elegant manner on the Web.

Portrait of Aldus Manutius, by Augustin de Saint-Aubin

The Wosk-McDonald Collection consists of more than 100 volumes from the Aldine Press, many of which were published after Aldus’ death in 1515. Our efforts involve the digitization of twenty Aldines produced between 1501 and 1514. This is the period during which Aldus, driven by his intellect, passion, and discipline, developed and perfected the innovations that would permanently transform the landscape of printing and publishing.

It is our hope that this remarkable collection will become the basis for a range of downstream projects and possibilities for subsequent scholarship: from close readings and textual analysis of the books to gathering layers of additional metadata, commentary, annotation, and criticism. Another goal is to provide a well-described online resource that can become part of a much larger and richer project going forward, enabling us to take advantage of the serious opportunity that the World Wide Web offers: interlinkage. Indeed, this online resource has the potential to link together digitized collections from other libraries around the world, to create a distributed, collaborative platform for Aldine scholarship in many keys. Imagine a networked set of digital Aldines worldwide…

Aldus Manutius: The Past and Future of the Book

Gutenberg may have developed mass production movable type for the Western printing press, but Aldus developed the movable book.

– Yosef Wosk, 1996

Aldus’ most famous contribution to publishing – the development and promotion of the portable edition – is remarkably apt today. Just as Aldus did, we in the early twenty-first century are facing the end of the “desktop paradigm.” In Aldus’ time, this marked the shift in books and literacy away from a set of practices centred on large, immovable objects. For us today, the same shift seems afoot with our computing devices and our relationship to digital media. Indeed, the notion of the “mobile app” owes Aldus an enormous debt. Making the digital Aldines available on portable networked devices is our way of paying tribute to him and his lasting legacy.

Our digital Aldines will be available online in August… watch this space for updates.

For more information about this project, please contact Alessandra Bordini at

Building Publishing Workflows with Pandoc and Git

This fall, I subjected some MPub students to working out a book publishing workflow, using Pandoc, the amazing document processor tool created by Berkeley philosopher John MacFarlane.

Pandoc is a remarkably flexible document conversion tool. It takes text input in a variety of open input formats (most usefully markdown and HTML) and can convert to more than a dozen outputs, including a variety of web-based formats (HTML, EPUB, markdown, and other blogging markup), word processor formats (RTF and OpenOffice’s ODT), and to a couple of TeX-based typeset outputs (that is, to PDF). That’s useful, but what makes PanDoc really great is that it works bloody well. It’s solid as a rock, totally well organized and documented. In short, the attention to detail in it is really superior.

I say that I “subjected” the students to it, because you run Pandoc almost entirely from the Unix command line. That’s a bit of a stretch zone for people raised on the Adobe Creative Suite. But if you’re comfy working with the shell (and even moreso if you’re happy with shell scripts) it is stunningly efficient. Read more

Coach House #retrotech – An Update for Sept 2013

I’ve been working for some time on a research project tracing the technological innovations at Toronto’s Coach House Press. The Coach House, a small literary publisher and fine printer, was founded by Stan Bevington in the mid-1960s and specialized in typography and darkroom-driven production. In the early 1970s, the Coach House took a leap into the then-new world of computer-driven phototypesetting. That move, along with a fortuitous connection with the University of Toronto’s computer science program (one of the very first Unix installations anywhere), led the Coach House onto a long-term agenda of innovation, invention, and a culture of serious tinkering.

My research began a few years ago with a handful of interviews with Stan Bevington and others close to the early project. But over the past year while on sabbatical, I consolidated my research, working to flesh out the story and its many, many fascinating subtexts. Read more

A Bird in the Hand: Index Cards and the Handcraft of Creative Thinking

Haig Armen and I presented this paper (actually, we wrote a lot of index cards and stuck them on the wall in front of a projector!) at Congress 2013 in Victoria this past June. The talk was part of a session called Mediating Creative Practice that was put together by Frederik Lesage and Ben Woo. I don’t know why it took so long for me to put it online, but here it is.

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