1904 Thom's Directory of Dublin: Some Wet Blanketism
"The Dublin setting is built partly on data supplied by an exile's memory, but mainly on data from Thom's Dublin Directory, whither professors of literature, before discussing Ulysses, secretly wing their way in order to astound their students with the knowledge Joyce himself stored up with the aid of that very directory."—Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
Ulysses is the archetypal modernist novel: it is a massive experiment in literary form, a wild, allusive romp through most of Western literary history, and an attempt to plumb the depths of the waking lives of its chief characters.
It is also an unusually organized archive of materials and ephemera relating to life in Dublin in 1904. It is a cliché repeated in seminar rooms around the country every year when introducing Joyce's massive novel that its author bragged that he "give[s] a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book." In attempting to reconstruct Dublin, Joyce relied on a number of sources, among them Thom's Dublin Directory.
Thom's returned to my attention recently as I've been thinking about "Wandering Rocks" (a project I am still playing around with when I have an idle moment); I was interested in locating the map of Dublin streets contained in the 1904 Thom's. It is not the only map which Joyce used, but it would likely be the most reliable for the state of Dublin's streets in 1904; the "Preface" to the 1904 Thom's brags that it has a "Map of Dublin City and Environs, specially designed and prepared for Thom's Directory, and most carefully updated with regard to accuracy and detail, has had all the recent changes in Streets, &c., embodied."
I think that Thom's 1904 directory should be out of copyright by now (though, since British copyright terms are based on the life of the author + 70 years I'm not entirely sure—how are corporate authors dealt with? Is the factual material in Thom's even subject to copyright or is it, like a phone book, non-copyrightable?). I wondered aloud on twitter earlier this week whether anyone had a digital copy. I was wondering in particular if maybe Joyceans (quite a few of whom I follow on twitter) had a PDF of this helpful document which they circulated or could point to.
It doesn't appear that this is the case. But a number of folks (whom I invite to comment below) seemed intrigued by the idea. And before you knew it folks were wondering whether a digitization of Thom's would be an interesting project to pursue. This is the sort of enthusiasm one finds on twitter and in the digital humanities more broadly. It is one of the things, I think, which attracts people to the digital humanities—a collective, "can do" spirit. But is a digital edition of the Thom's Official Directory of the United Kingdom of Great Britiain and Ireland for the year 1904 a good idea?
Let's hold that thought for a moment.
UVA has a microfilm reproduction of the 1904 Thom's taken from a copy held at Cornell. Frustratingly, however, this copy did not include the map announced in the "Preface." I'm not sure where the map went. Perhaps the map was a separate insert, like the maps I used to remove from the copies of National Geographic as they arrived, before both map and magazine were promptly forgotten in a pile in the basement. Or maybe it was the instructions on Cornell's photo-duplication request (also photographed as party of the microfilm copy): "Film entire volume except map on back" (come on!).
Nevertheless, the microfilm is not without it delights to a reader of Joyce. Here is a reference to the Ascot Race (which, you will recall, in a stunning upset, is won Throwaway, not Sceptre):
Here is the property evaluation of 7 Eccles St, unoccupied at the time:
And here is that other Mr. Bloom, with whom a careful reader will not confuse Leopold, listed in the business directory:
This advertisement for boxes isn't referenced in Ulysses. But it illustrates the sort of advertisements one finds in Thom's, which may reward greater attention (no Plumtree's Potted Meat though; which makes the entire exercise feel rather... incomplete):
So, fun right? Very neat, right?
Absolutely. But after spending an evening with the 1904 Thom's I am less convinced that a "digital edition" is really necessary. The insights it can offer a reader of Joyce are many (and I have not, by any means, even begun to plumb them). Indeed, as Nabokov suggests (well, exaggerates), it has long been a staple of Joyceans. The data about street addresses to be culled from Thom's in conjunction with Ulysses could be valuable indeed. But Thom's is big, ugly, and unwieldy. And to digitize the whole thing in any but the most basic form would require an enormous amount of labor; if the odd genre of Thom's has a contemporary(ish) analogue, it is a phone-book. There's lots of data there; but do we really need it all?
I know that this is a controversial claim (which is why I'm making it). We have neither world enough nor time, however, to digitize everything as well as it may merit in the eyes of a scholar. So, for purely pragmatic reasons, we need to make distinctions about how much effort a project is worth.
Why markup or build an interface around this item? I'd love to see a complete, high quality, color scan of the entire text, even as a PDF. A PDF of the 1904 Thom's would, I think, be more than enough for most people (even OCR may be overkill). The data to be culled from it might be put to other, better, uses in an analysis of Ulysses (particularly a mapping project). But devoting the effort it would take to create a true "digital edition" does not seem worthwhile to me.
I hate to be a wet blanket. The enthusiasm of DH is one of its greatest strengths. But if discretion is the better part of valor, wet blanket-ism may be the better part of collaboration.
I'd love to hear if you disagree with me. I'd be happy to be convinced otherwise—to be convinced that a digital edition of the 1904 Thom's would be a worthwhile project. Such an edition could be usefully linked it to relevant parts of Ulysses and referenced to Dublin maps and other material. But right now I think the 1904 Thom's is too big, too cumbersome, and too irrelevant to (itself) be made the object of a digital edition.
I can, however, see it as just one source of data for a very interesting project mapping Dublin...