Libraries and Dietrich Receive NEH Grant for Secret Printing Project

Sam Lemley in the Fine and Rare Books Room.

Samuel Lemley, curator of special collections at Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, and Matthew Lincoln, former collections information architect at the Libraries, join Chris Warren, associate professor of English and associate department head, and Max G’Sell, assistant professor in the Department of Statistics & Data Science, on a project titled “Freedom and the Press before Freedom of the Press.” They received a $324,931 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to scale-up tools and methods to allow scholars to identify and decipher illicit printing in documents predating and associated with the First Amendment.

The three-year grant will fund the development and implementation of machine learning tools designed to uncover new evidence in high resolution scans of early printed books. The aim of the project is to compile a catalog of distinctive typography in books printed in the seventeenth century in England and use this data to attribute anonymous or clandestinely printed books to their printers.

“The goal is to solve an entrenched problem in bibliographical and book historical research,” said Lemley. “Many early printed books, and particularly books on controversial subjects, were printed anonymously — the printers and publishers withholding their names from title pages for fear of reprisal or punishment. Our work promises to unmask these unnamed printers by matching them to individual pieces of type they used in the course of their presswork.”