A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
78: The death of the book?
We have reached the end of a journey of 2,000 years and find ourselves in a time when there are great changes in the way in which information is stored and transmitted. Every week brings news of new developments and the warnings of the death of the book which began to appear in the 1960s are urged incessantly on us by the digerati. But throughout the past 2,000 years there has been more than one way of storing and transferring information and the development of new techniques need not mean the death of the old.
In the 1880s the polymath vicar of Lew Trenchard, Sabine Baring-Gould, was scouring Devon for folksongs. He soon found that the farmers and yeomen were not a suitable source for this type of material. All the songs they knew were such as had been published early in the 19th century in song books or broadsheets. It was necessary to drop to a lower level (as he terms it) and seek out men that could neither read nor write. Many of the words Baring-Gould was hearing were corruptions of broadside ballads, the texts of which had been received by printers from itinerant singers who had received them orally, and he was often able to verify this from his large collection of printed ballads. He found the older folksongs, unadulterated by recent printed versions, among such informants as stone breakers, road menders, hedgers and thatchers in the remote fastnesses of Dartmoor or north Devon.
These songs had often been transmitted orally over several generations, some even betraying origins back in Tudor times. Inevitably corruptions had crept in. For example the song "Northern night" had become "Northern cat". The words of "Sweet nightingale", collected in Cornwall, were from Bickerstaffe's Thomas and Sally, a ballad opera first performed in 1760 with music by Dr Arne. The words had travelled down to Cornwall but the music was taken from a local tune. (Baring-Gould 1925, 184-215)
Popular culture in the early nineteenth century, the formative years of many of Baring-Gould's informants, was an interesting mixture of the printed and oral traditions. The village bard and travelling hawker were a part of rural life, written and printed sheets were being posted around the towns and villages and pinned on tavern walls. The hustings were a time for speeches and printed squibs, during the assizes country folk were snapping up execution broadsheets, each week newspapers were being read to interested groups and passed around the villages, as a disapproving Beavis Wood reports from Tiverton. It was a period of active participation in the communication process, quite unlike today's passive acceptance of what the mass media pump at us. By the later 18th century the mental baggage of common people in Devon was not exclusively made up of orally transmitted folklore, it was also weighted down with printed material. However oral traditions survived the advent of the written word and of print. There are in Devon communities where there is an added edge to sporting and other encounters and it is alleged that this is a not so hidden folk memory of the time in the Civil War when loyalties were divided between royalists and parliamentarians. And family traditions need not always be scorned. In the 1980s a visitor to the Westcountry Studies Library sought verification of a tradition that an ancestor had witnessed a public burning in Exeter. This must surely have been a memory of the burning of Rebecca Downing in 1782. There has been a revival of interest in the value of oral tradition and in Devon a number of projects have recorded or transcribed personal memories. Examples are the Okehampton Oral History Archive, compiled in the 1980s and Devon's testimony of war, a survey conducted on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy in 1994. Thus the oldest method of preserving and transmitting information can survive alongside the most modern information technology.
In fact communities have always received much information in other ways than by reading it themselves. The pulpit was one source of information on the outside world and the people of Devon learned of earthquakes, fires and other disasters through the announcement of church briefs to collect money for the relief of sufferers. Wandering players visited Exeter from medieval times, not always to the great delight of the authorities and we have already seen how the printer Andrew Brice encouraged the theatre in its struggles in the 18th century. Neither a series of disastrous fires, nor the advent of the cinema could kill off the live theatre in Exeter, nor has the temptation to slump at home in front of the television or a video.
The advent of print failed to kill off the written word, not just as a medium for daily or informal communication but also as a means of storing large quantities of carefully garnered information. We have seen how the collections of Devon's antiquaries failed to get into print and were handed around and copied painstakingly by hand in the 17th century.
Late in 1995 a café called Internet Express was set up next to Exeter Central Station in Queen Street by Jon Parker. It was possible to buy time on the Internet which could be explored on one of eight computers in relaxed and friendly surroundings with a cup of coffee. It was quite early in the field as the first internat café in England had only been set up in 1994. The range of users in the two and a half years until it was taken over by James Gardiner of Digital Horizons and relaunched as Hyperactive in 1998 proved to be wide, with regular customers ranging from business people to college students and pensioners. It was used not only for searching information at a time in the mid 1990s when the public library had no public access internet points, but also for computer games.
This enterprise brought to the street corner the ever growing computer networks which had been available to academic, government and commercial circles since the 1970s. The University of Exeter had long been linked to the Joint Academic Network (JANET) and had led the way in the city in providing a large number of computer access points to its staff and students. Like other institutions it began to place reliance on this medium as well as its printed newsletters to provide up-to-date information. The last issue of the Calendar to appear in conventional printed format was the issue for 1995/6; since then much of the information it contained has only appeared on the internet. Internal networks provide a large amount of current information on the institution as well as permitting access to the outside world through the internet and e-mail.
Many institutions in Devon now have websites, including the major newspapers in the county. Local publishers use the medium to market their publications, whether issued in printed form or, increasingly as audio or videocassette or on CD-ROM. During the 1990s, as computers and communication costs have decreased and more and more individuals have seized on the opportunities offered by new technology. Demon Internet was the first provider to allow easy general access to the internet from about 1991, Internet Explorer software became generally available from 1993 and this facilitated access even more when it was packaged with the Windows '95 operating system. One of the first Devon parish histories to appear on the Internet was that of Walkhampton, by Peter Hamilton-Leggett in 1997. A local group of photographers in Chudleigh marketed a CD-ROM containing illustrations and other information on the community in 1998. Such examples could be multiplied.
The vast growth of information on the internet has led local internet providers such as Zynet and Eclipse to seek to give more effective access to regional sites and avoid the mass of irrelevant references that searches can produce.
During 1997 Devon County Council undertook a big drive to enlarge its website, Information Devon, and by 1998 there were more than 70,000 pages on the site. The information includes much that would otherwise have appeared in print, including lists of schools, local organisations and councillors, the text of council minutes, statistics and tourist information, although in many instances printed versions of the information are still available.
Ironically Devon Library Services lagged behind in making digital information directly available to readers but in 1998 it was successful in obtaining a £120,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation which enabled it to provide multiple access points for the Internet in the central reference library and for the use of CD-ROMs holding databases and reference materials. Multiple access points are available in several sites in Exeter including the open learning centre at Exeter College.
In 1999 Eurobell, which had cabled much of Exeter over the previous years, and British Telecom, both offered free Web access, as did a number of other commercial concerns in Exeter, such as Tesco and Dixons. Jon Parker estmated browser awareness in Exeter at the start of 1999 as being around five per cent but felt that an exponential growth was in prospect.
The history of this time of rapid change will have to be written by someone who is more technically qualified than the present author but it is important to see information and communications technology (ICT) not as a new departure but as merely another stage in the inevitable development in communication networks. There have been many such networks in the past: Boniface and his correspondents throughout Europe in the eighth century, the antiquaries sharing their information and lending their manuscripts in the seventeenth century, the newspapers with their networks of distribution extending each week into every hamlet in the county in the eighteenth century, the public library and its community of readers from the nineteenth. Nor is instant communication new; Exeter newspapers could receive news by telegraph from the mid nineteenth century. In fact the very success of the new technologies have brought their own problems. There is no means of validating the information that appears on the internet, and the sheer quantity of information means that the item sought can be hidden in a haystack of irrelevance. For example a search for information on the Exeter antiquary John Hooker in 2001 resulted in a mass of information on how to acquire the services of a prostitute anywhere in the world - including Exeter.
A suitable conclusion for this discursive study of the written word in Devon is provided by a neat closing of the circle. In 1997 the Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon poetry was scanned to produce a series of high resolution digital images each 100 megabytes in size. Examination of these could often provide more information than could be gleaned from handling the actual manuscript and many new readings were discovered in the process. In 1999 the full colour digital facsimile was issued with accompanying documentation edited by Bernard J.Muir of the University of Melbourne and a honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, under the title The electronic Exeter anthology of Old English poetry by the University of Exeter Press. Selected images are available in the University's website. This is a most appropriate demonstration of the ways in which new technology and traditional media will continue to support each other in providing access to Devon's written heritage in the third millennium.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.