Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Robert Burns Lives!
Burns in the heat of the South: rare books and modern technology By Craig Lamont

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

Craig Lamont is from Glasgow. He earned his MA and Master of Research degrees at the University of Strathclyde, moving to the University of Glasgow to work with Prof. Murray Pittock on his PhD, completed in November 2015. His PhD thesis, titled “Georgian Glasgow: the city remembered through literature, objects, and cultural memory theory,” was part of an AHRC-funded collaborative project between the University and Glasgow Life, which included a major exhibition How Glasgow Flourished: 1714-1837 at the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum. In the fall of 2016, Craig will be teaching in the department of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.

This is a different type article for Robert Burns Lives!, one like I’ve never seen before and one which will open up new work by Lamont and others and hopefully some of our own readers. You will see how they go about their research by comparing one, two or three copies of previous original works. I have found the efforts in this brief article to be of great interest and will add another dimension to the study of Burns for us all. It is a treat to welcome Craig Lamont to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! and I look forward to his return in the future.

My thanks to Patrick Scott for the introduction paragraph above on Craig and for providing me with his article below. (FRS: 9.14.16)

Burns in the heat of the South:
rare books and modern technology
By Craig Lamont

Recently, I was able to make a two-week visit to the G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, at the University of South Carolina. For the past eight months, I have been working on a new bibliography of the early Burns editions, to update and expand Egerer’s long-standard work published in 1964. This project is some of the preliminary research already underway for the later volumes in the new AHRC-funded Burns edition, headed by Gerard Carruthers. The new bibliography, which I have written about for the next Burns Chronicle, is currently focused on the early editions (1706-1802), but it goes beyond Egerer’s level of description, for instance by providing full contents lists, showing not just the first time a Burns poem was published in book form but each time it was included after that.

So far, the research had kept me mostly in Glasgow, consulting editions in the Mitchell Library and the University’s own special collections, and then taking trips also to Alloway to the Birthplace Museum, and, more frequently, to Edinburgh to the National Library of Scotland. As I learned from studying Elizabeth Sudduth’s published catalogue, however, the Roy Collection has both a large number of the early editions and some rarities that are not available (or extant) in Scotland.

The main library entrance, University of South Carolina\

I arrived in the middle of July. The temperature reached 98.6°F (37°C) on the first day, and stayed around 100° for the rest of my stay, with occasional relief from late afternoon thunderstorms. Suddenly, writing “Burns” under “research topic” on the library sign-in sheet felt more appropriate than ever. The library itself is kept cool, and there was a shelf-full of editions ready for me to begin work. It reminded me of the Glasgow library between semesters: that eerie silence interrupted by the creak of a centuries-old page, printed on with centuries-old ink. You might imagine that there is little left to say about the story of these books, but these early books invite a different sense of awe from a manuscript, and tell a much different (sometimes much larger) story. The visit to South Carolina also allowed me to work directly with Patrick Scott (who is one of the project advisers) as questions came up, rather than by email as in previous months. Columbia and the University were more than welcoming. I’ve felt right at home, despite the consistent appearance of that unusual simmering object in the sky.

The Roy-Scott Room in Hollings Library, University of South Carolina
(photo: Robert P. Smith)

The primary purpose of my visit was to develop and type up bibliographical descriptions for the rare editions in the Roy Collection. One special item that I had never previously seen was the second of the “Gray tracts.” In 1799, George Gray, an Edinburgh bookseller, published two small chapbooks. Egerer hadn’t seen either of them, but included a description of one, Elegy on the Year Eighty-Eight (Egerer 37), based on a photo copy sent him by Davidson Cook (Egerer 37, pp. 58-59). The other one, Sonnets from the Robbers, which includes “Bruce’s Address” (“Scots wha hae”), doesn’t even have an Egerer number, though Egerer footnotes a newspaper report that it had once existed. When Professor Roy found it, there was no other recorded copy, and there are still only two others reported worldwide.

Sonnets from the Robbers ... Bruce’s Address (Edinburgh: John Gray 1799)
Image courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection, University of South Carolina Libraries

I also wanted a chance to examine additional copies of editions I had seen in Scotland, especially where the library copies I had used first had been rebound or seemed irregular in some way. In Glasgow, I hadn’t been able to make a side-by-side comparison of the 1787 copies of Burns Poems with the Belfast and Dublin imprints on the title page, seeing a Dublin copy in the Mitchell and going across to Edinburgh to see a Belfast, but the Roy Collection has both. Towards the end of my first week, for instance, Patrick Scott and I sat down in the reading room with seven copies of the 1787 Edinburgh edition (Egerer 2; Roy). Most Burnsians know about the two type-settings for the major portion of the edition, known from the most famous misprint as the “Skinking:” and “Stinking” settings, but there are hundreds of other minor variants between the two (Murdoch), and we were able to assess what kind of research will be needed in future. Alongside work for the bibliography, we were able to ask new questions about the story behind these variants. How much of a role did Burns himself play while the Edinburgh edtion was being printed and reset? What was the exact relationship between the two Irish title-pages? My visit seeded questions for future work and let us begin collaboration on two articles that will look at these questions in a way that bibliography itself won’t allow (one down, one still to go: see Scott and Lamont, forthcoming).

There is certainly more than one library where these questions could be investigated, but the visit to the University of South Carolina let me get experience with some technology that might help. This kind of research involves “collation,” or close comparison, in this case of details from multiple copies of the same edition. In Burns’s time, printers sometimes made small changes to a page while they were printing, so that some copies show the first variant and some the second. (Confusingly, the word “collation” is also used in at least two other senses, by textual editors for comparison between different editions and manuscripts, and by bibliographers to describe the way the sheets of a printed book are folded and assembled to form the finished volume.) The kind of collation we needed to do for the Burns project is tedious, and if it is done by simply looking backwards and forwards between two copies of a book (the so-called “Wimbledon” or “ping-pong” method), small differences often get overlooked. Over the years, scholars have developed several optical and digital ways to tackle the problem.

For the Burns editions, I tried out three different optical “collating machines” (Smith 2002). These all use a system of mirrors so that the image from one copy of a book is seen as superimposed over the image of the same page in another copy, and you can notice even small changes such as a new comma, apostrophe, or spelling correction. I tried first with a Lindstand Comparator, a large, desktop, contraption with a stereoscopic eyepiece like a pair of binoculars, developed by a professor at South Carolina in the late 1960s, but it is bulky and I found it tricky to use.

I had better luck with a more recent invention, Carter Hailey’s Comet. Professor David Lee Miller, a distinguished colleague of Patrick Scott’s, has a Comet for his research on Elizabethan editions of Spenser, and he kindly set it up in the library’s Roy-Scott Room for me to try. The Comet is portable (folded up, it fits into a small briefcase), and it allows you to compare a printed book in one library with the digital image on a laptop of a different copy elsewhere. I tried it out for sample pages from a copy of the Edinburgh edition and the digitized version (ECCO) available in the Glasgow library. Like the Lindstrand, the Comet works like a stereoscope, meaning you need two good eyes, but it doesn’t have an eyepiece. The mirrors are like anglepoise lamps, so that it takes a great deal of practice to get them aligned just right, till you can lean in and get the two pages, one seen with each eye, to merge. However, the effect is quite impressive when you trick your brain into letting it happen.

Prof. David Miller demonstrating the Comet, in the Roy-Scott Room
(photo: John Sawvell)

The third collator I used, the Hinman, is the oldest but still the gold standard for optical collation. It was invented in 1946 by Charlton Hinman, who had spent the war in naval intelligence. The long-running story was that he got his idea from the way aerial photos were compared before and after bombing raids. The more recent account is that he adapted the key element from a device that let astronomers compare successive time-lapse photos of distant galaxies (Smith, 2000). Hinman himself famously used his invention to collate fifty-five copies of the Shakespeare first folio, discovering hidden variants on one page out of every six. Between 1946 and 1979, Hinman and his collaborator, a retired engineer, manufactured and sold just over fifty machines, mostly to libraries, but some to pharmaceutical companies, and probably one to the CIA (don’t ask). The Hinman machine now at South Carolina (they used to own two) was purchased in 1973.

Craig Lamont comparing two Edinburgh editions on the Hinman Collator
(photo: John Sawvell)

The Hinman is huge (about six foot high and five feet across), it’s certainly not portable, and it requires a nearby electrical outlet. Instead of relying on stereoscopic vision, it alternates images from the two pages so the differences stand out. Its accuracy also comes from using permanently aligned mirrors and eyepieces, and from lighting up the pages being compared. You place the two copies in the two book-cradles, with the pages held flat by glass covers, switch on, and line the images up by moving the right-hand cradle. Then, when you nudge against a lever in the knee-hole, the bulbs flash intermittently, images of the two pages alternate second by second, and you see the differences. I found it to be the most effective of the three collators. It was particularly good in doing comparison of the two 1787 Irish title-pages, and to my surprise it also worked to identify variants between the two different settings of the Edinburgh edition.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the chance to try out a fourth method, a new digital alternative to the optical machines. Professor Miller is not only an English professor but also Director of the University’s Center for Digital Humanities, and he arranged a demo for us of a new software model, Paragon, that they have been developing for work on the Spenser project (Miller and Wang). Paragon is an intelligent digital collator that does much of the work for you, once you have obtained good digital scans of the texts you want to compare. While there are different kinds of comparison (pages from two copies, pages from multiple copies against a single master copy, and so on), for each comparison Paragon produces a screen of at least three images: one for each original page, and a third Paragon-made image with red boxes around the differences it has detected.

Using PARAGON to collate two copies of the Kilmarnock Burns
Image courtesy of Center for Digital Humanities, University of South Carolina

After the initial demo, I tried it out with sample pages from the Kilmarnock copies that had been digitized by Glasgow and the NLS. Paragon doesn’t interpret what it finds, so if there is a small ink-smudge, or if one letter has got damaged, on one of the copies, it picks that “variant” up as “difference.” The differences highlighted in the right hand image shown here are just that, not the kind of variants that show Burns making corrections during printing. But if it picks up differences as small as these, you can bet it will pick up any actual printing variants—wording or spelling (including vernacular vs formal spelling), punctuation, misprints that got corrected midway through printing. It gives you the chance to analyse the results of something, without having to rely on your ability to see every difference for yourself. Paragon is a new beginning in collation, potentially enabling new research into how the Kilmarnock was printed.

With all these new experiences and ideas, I headed back to Scotland. The original bibliographical project is now almost complete, but the work has highlighted the potential for a lot more detailed investigation into the early printing history of individual editions. The last attempt at a full comparison of variants between the two settings of the 1787 Edinburgh edition appears to have been in 1895, and there seems never to have been a systematic collation of multiple copies of the 1786 Kilmarnock edition. Getting to use the Comet, the Hinman, and the preliminary version of Paragon, gives me new ideas about how such investigation could be done. And if Ross Roy could find a previously-unrecorded copy of a chapbook that had eluded Egerer, perhaps another unrecorded Burns pamphlet still lurks awaiting a lucky visitor on the dusty shelves of some unsuspecting (and one hopes airconditioned) library.

Murdoch, J. Barclay, “The Second Edition of Burns,” Burns Chronicle, 1st series, 4 (1895), 107-120:
Egerer, J. W., A Bibliography of Robert Burns (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964; Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965).
Lamont, Craig, “The beginning of a new bibliography of Robert Burns editions,” Burns Chronicle for 2017 (forthcoming).
Miller, David Lee, and Song Wang, “Paragon,” Center for Digital Humanities, University of South Carolina:
Roy, G. Ross, “How Many Copies Were Printed of Burns’s Second (Edinburgh) Edition?,” Robert Burns Lives!, 150 (August 29, 2012), at:
Sudduth, Elizabeth, The G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, An Illustrated Catalogue (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009).
Smith, Steven Escar, “’The Eternal Verities Verified’: Charlton Hinman and the Roots of Mechanical Collation,” Studies in Bibliography, 53 (2000), 129-162.
________________, “’Armadillos of Invention’: A Census of Mechanical Collators,” Studies in Bibliography, 55 (2002), 133-170.
Scott, Patrick, and Craig Lamont, “The First Irish Edition of Robert Burns: A Reexamination,” Scottish Literary Review (forthcoming).

Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus