What Can an Ethnohistorical Approach Add to Multimodality?

The main contribution of this study is toward current debates in multimodality concerning the need for interdisciplinary approaches (i.e., O’Halloran and Smith, 2011; Bateman, Wildfeuer and Hiippala, 2017; Wildfeuer et al., 2019). Specifically, it has demonstrated the benefits of adopting an ethnohistorical approach, which grounds analysis in archival evidence on particular ideologies, cultures, and traditions and thus enables multimodal analysis to move beyond a text-centered focus. Machin (2016) has argued that most multimodal analyses tend to treat artifacts as static objects, which neglects their movement in time and the people involved in their production. Reading and writing are inherently linked through a communication circuit that bypasses time and space and connects past, present, and future users with their contexts of use. This means that the original intentions of the creator(s) and any underlying meanings can become lost if multimodal analysis is not embedded within the cultural codes of a particular group and placed within the broader sociocultural and political context of a particular time period.

The adoption of an ethnohistorical approach not only enables multimodal analyses to be enriched and triangulated with a historical awareness of institutions and social structures and their influence on semiotic choices, it also draws attention to how meanings can change over time, as well as the norms and conventions of inscription categories and subcategories. In addition, ethnohistory goes some way toward revolutionizing how multimodal artifacts are understood, particularly in terms of their importance as symbolic indicators of social status and power. The lexical and semiotic features of book inscriptions can reveal aspects of a person’s lived experiences that cannot be obtained from official records of his/her life (Rowsell, 2011, p. 334). Consequently, combining ethnohistory and multimodality provides ways to tease out these narratives and social interactions and uncover “the semiotic instantiations of lived practices” (Flewitt, 2011, p. 307).

Although the focus of this book has been Edwardian book inscriptions, adopting a multimodal ethnohistorical approach to explore other historical artifacts offers a valuable extension to current text-centered analyses and provides a greater understanding of artifacts through resources that have not been considered before. This can lead to grounded, theorized, and detailed insights into how the intricacies of sociocultural norms, relationships, and identities play out in texts/ artifacts through semiotic and material resources. This is particularly important for exploring examples of vernacular writing, as it enables us to capture the voices of people who are often underrepresented or forgotten in history. While I have already successfully applied this methodology to school exercise books (2018a), dip pens (2018b), food advertising and packaging (2019a), and rock tour t-shirts (2019b), there remains much scope for future research in this area. This methodology could be adopted by academics in the fields of literacy studies, material culture, and visual culture who are looking for new interdisciplinary research methods for the study of material artifacts and literacy practices, as well as for the investigation of hidden ideologies and the impact of social class in consumer culture.

Practical Implications of the Study

Book historians and provenance researchers have generally considered book inscriptions in terms of the reasons that compel an owner to inscribe (e.g. Jackson, 2001; Chartier, 2008) and the ways in which these marks are interpreted by others (e.g. Sherman, 2008; Lerer, 2012). This study is the first attempt to use empirical research to describe the various people involved in the creation, dissemination, and preservation of inscriptions, as well as their relation to the book production chain and external influences. The models of book acquisition, textual transmission, and book survival presented in Chapters 3 and 6 may be of particular interest to those working in book history, bibliography, and textual studies. In addition, the investigation of different forms of ownership (e.g. voluntary, constrained, and imposed) will also serve as a useful resource for examining the ways in which consumers interacted with their books.

All of these new models and terms will provide a strong foundation for making visible the various agents and forces involved in the lifecycle of a book inscription. Grounding them in social history rather than bibliography serves to highlight that book ownership is a dynamic process that is dependent on the movements and acts of people. These models can serve as useful tools for future researchers who wish to map the journey of a particular inscription and the book in which it was written/printed from its birth to its death (or rebirth).

The topological typology for categorizing Edwardian book inscriptions proposed in Chapter 1 is an important resource for book historians that will enable inscriptions to be identified, grouped, and named within a system of categorization based on Rosch’s (1975) principle of proto- typicality. While some previous work exists on the categorization of bookplates (Hamilton, 1895; Pearson, 1998) and prize stickers (Entwistle, 1990), no previous study has attempted to categorize all forms of book inscription in any time period, let alone the Edwardian era. For the purposes of this study, the topology was developed specifically to describe the Edwardian book inscriptions that I came across during my research, but it has the potential to be expanded as new inscriptions are discovered and adapted for other time periods, including the ones immediately preceding and following on from the Edwardian era. This would provide a clear visual timeline of the ways in which certain inscriptive practices increased and decreased in popularity over time.

From a methodological perspective, the typology also has important ramifications for genre studies. By blending two approaches to genre (as a social semiotic and as a social action), I categorized inscriptions based on a dine of prototypicality according to their central and peripheral features. Furthermore, in using archival records to approach topological classifications, I have highlighted that the categorization of items as more or less prototypical does not have to be based solely on shape, appearance, and function (Rosch and Lloyd, 1978, pp. 8-10), but can also incorporate frequency of use or practice. That is to say, the more a particular practice is witnessed (e.g. prize-giving in board schools), the more we are likely to perceive a stronger link between the practice and the institution. This unique approach to prototype theory offers a way for researchers to track changes to a person’s cognitive image of a particular inscription type over time and plot them chronologically on a continuum of prototypicality. This categorization process could be replicated with other material artifacts in order to trace prototypicality from a historical perspective. Finally, this approach to genre also acknowledges the ability for categories to be redefined according to the purpose of analysis. Thus, inscriptions can be grouped according to modes of production when carrying out multimodal analysis or communicative functions when exploring performativity. Again, this flexibility in genre boundaries highlights the typology as a flexible heuristic tool that can be adapted freely to suit the analyst’s specific research questions and data.

Outside of academia, the typology also represents a useful tool for libraries and archives to inform them of best practices for cataloging book inscriptions that come into their possession. Although most research libraries and archives in Britain follow DCRM(B) guidelines when cataloging rare books, the guidelines provide minimal information on how to treat provenance. Furthermore, there are substantial differences in practices for recording provenance information across institutions due to time and financial constraints. Books from the Edwardian era pose a particular challenge because they are more likely to be treated as general library books rather than rare books, meaning that provenance information is often not recorded (O’Hagan, 2020a). While many libraries see David Pearson’s (1998) Provenance Research in Book History as a seminal text for recording inscription data, it was not produced with the Edwardian era in mind. Therefore, there are some types of inscription—particularly pictorial bookplates—that are not dealt with in sufficient detail. The typology created in this study provides standardized terminology that can be used consistently cross-instinationally, thus improving the effectiveness of information exchange and enabling users to locate items easily based on their specific research goal or interest (Coyle, 2005, p. 373).

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