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This item is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

'The young monks,' wrote Alcuin of York in the eighth century,

file into the scriptorium and one of them is given the precious parchment volume containing a work of Bede or Isidore or Augustine, or else some portion of the Latin Scriptures, or even a heathen author. He reads slowly and clearly at a measured rate while all the others, seated at their desks, take down his words; thus perhaps a score of copies are made at once.

The early industrialisation of text production took this form. Dictated books, with the problems of quality control and errors in transcription, had cultural foes: the newfangled process of dictation rather than single copying must have gone against the grain of the purist.

Worse was to come. When printing arrived in France a few centuries later there were 10,000 copyists in Paris and Orléans alone. After initial resistance, they changed career (like Russian teachers throughout Eastern Europe), becoming scriveners in legal and commercial enterprises, or writing-masters as education spread with cheaper books. Purists were deeply chagrined. Marjorie Plant writes in The English Book Trade, 'the mechanically-made book had to survive years of contempt before it came to be recognised as fully respectable.' So great was the prejudice that scribes sometimes copied from the printed text in order to make a product acceptable in feel to scholar or collector. Early type-casters designed their letter forms to imitate scribal practice, concealing the very different nature of their craft.

Because of fashion. the employment of scribes in book copying survived longest in England. 'In the Elizabethan period it was considered beneath the dignity of a gentleman to have any dealings with a publisher.' Courtiers circulated work in manuscript. Except for Caxton, and Thomas Hunte of Oxford, no Englishman printed a single book until around 1516. 'The official King's Printers to Henry VII, William Faques and his successor, Richard Pynson, were themselves both Normans.' Resistance to innovation among English intellectuals is a rooted part of the national identity.

Even those who did print had few illusions about the impact of their work. Robert Copland, a master-printer and writer, in The Castell of Pleasure (1518) includes this dialogue:

Author: … Emprynt this boke, Copland, at my request,
  And put it forth to every maner state.
Copland: At your instaunce I shall it gladly impresse,
   But the utterance, I thynke, will be but small.
   Bokes be not set by: there tymes is past, I gesse;
   The dyse and cardes, in drynkynge wyne and ale,
   Tables, cayles, and balles, they be now sette a sale.
   Men lete theyr chyldren use all such harlotry,
   That byenge of bokes they utterly deny.

It took the Civil War to unsettle the situation. With the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641, and the lapse of its decrees, the printing industry found itself freed of restriction. 'The underprivileged classes of stationers seized this opportunity to infringe patents; licensing rules were ignored, and publications succeeded one another rapidly without any corresponding increase in the number of entries in the Stationers' Register.' When controls began to be re-imposed, Milton's Areopagitica, or Speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing (1644) was published. He was later to act as a censor for Cromwell.

Over the last decade a revolution in the dissemination of texts has been in progress: electronic publishing. 'The underprivileged classes' (students, enthusiasts, pirates) are having a field day; the highbrow, high-principled resistance mirrors sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reactions. There exist major British publishing houses - some of the most celebrated - who today see no point in installing e-mail (they resisted the fax machine for years). They may have web sites for trade and marketing, but editorial departments in many firms remain untainted. How many editors accept text from authors on disc, or downloaded via modem? While every undergraduate and many secondary school children are as a matter of course issued with an e-mail address and given access to and training in information technology, there are teachers and lecturers who refuse even now to dirty their hands in this area.

Is there a survey of poets to show how many possess a computer, how many are 'computer literate' and to what degree? Many contributors to PN Review still provide typewritten copy off those recent antiques, non-electric typewriters. A few send work in manuscript. Most word process, but word processing does not imply literacy in the wider functions their hardware offers. PN Review itself resisted e-mail and the Internet until this year. We don't regret having been persuaded - by one of our chief contrib' utors, Eavan Boland, herself an advocate of the new media who is disappointed that writers should have absented themselves from the development of a technology which can serve them so well.

Attitudes to the Internet remain diverse. Some writers with the means to do so have never accessed it. Others maintain a prejudice so resolute that they make the sign of the cross at the mention of word. Yet it is here, here to stay, as once upon a time dictated scribal production, printing, the typewriter in manual and electric versions were undeniable cultural realities - and resources.

The value of electronic publishing to poets is obvious: their works can be disseminated to a world-wide readership and that readership can respond directly to the writer; at a time when libraries are under pressure (a further 13% drop in the last year in book budgets), access to one of the excellent on-line libraries or to CD-ROMs can provide even a tiny provincial library with the riches of a Bodleian.

Technology has not stood still even if some publishers have. We are in discussion with Chadwyck-Healey about extending their programme of electronic publication of poetry into the twentieth century (their vast pre-twentieth-century libraries are already a crucial resource in many universities). PN Review may become available on line and many Carcanet authors will be similarly accessible.

But how to protect copyright and maintain authors' interests in their work? Many poets are surprised to find their poems already available, often in corrupt form, usually without authorisation, on web-sites throughout the world. Les Murray on a recent visit to Manchester allowed me to access his name on the Internet: several hundred sites included his work without authority and no recompense has been received. Protection and policing are required. In licensing exclusive electronic publication to an electronic publisher an author or imprint begins the process of protection of rights and of the integrity of texts.

Issues of copyright are complex, but the cultural benefits of participation exceed the disadvantages. Several years ago I wrote about the ways in which copyright is used to inhibit the dissemination of knowledge, especially to the third world. Development and exploitation of the electronic media will have several desirable results. It will increase revenue by promoting contemporary poetry to a wider group of readers, a tool for study and research into twentieth-century poetry. It will actively encourage the use of printed poetry collections by providing access to on-line book-ordering facilities. It will discourage the appearance on the Web of corrupt, unauthorised and illegal editions by imposing some commercial control and will reward poets for the electronic dissemination of their work. The author's copyright will be maintained.

The zeal of the convert can be as obnoxious to the unbeliever as to the believer. PN Review does not regard itself as a convert but, in witnessing to what is, it keeps faith with a cause it has advocated since 1972: the widest possible availability of authoritative texts of the best poetry of the present and the past. If the Web is a mess of corrupt and corrupting signals ('Men lete theyr chyldren use all such harlotry'), it doesn't mean that the medium is in itself uncontrollable. 'Byenge of bokes' may not be denied if proper steps are taken by writers and publishers: to encourage access, and the freedoms access brings, and not at the expense of the writer. Well-ordered, the electronic media will widen and deepen the audience for poetry and enhance the future of the book.

This item is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

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