The phrase “history of the book” is commonly used as a catch-all for the history and study of the physical components and technology behind traditional printer’s-ink-on-folded-paper-in-a-binding books, whether or not the thing being studied is itself a traditional book or component of such a book.1 Studying papermaking and the physical properties of paper (for instance, “Learning to ‘read’ old paper“) is part of book history… unless the paper’s theoretical destiny is to be drawn on. Then the same study is part of art history. As a professional art historian employed by a library, I really wish there were an easily-understood format-neutral phrase for what might be called the “study of technologies for the creation and circulation of objects bearing intentional marks for the purposes of interpersonal communication.” While the corresponding acronym SoTftCaCoOBIMftPoIC has not yet been taken, it really isn’t pronounceable unless you have just the right reggae beat behind it.
Basically, I’m looking for a single generic term that would cover interest in the physical history and technology behind, for example, all three of these 17th-century representations of a horse:
Why is this on my mind at the moment? I’ve been tasked with drafting a new list of statistical categories for subjects dealt with at the Folger. We we need to have a sense of how the collection is being used in order to know which secondary sources to purchase, what areas of expertise to promote, how to characterize our work to grant providers, and so on. If nothing else, Folger docents need an honest answer to the perennial question “Is everyone in there studying Shakespeare?” A statistically significant random sample of reference questions from the past ten years shows that [insert pithy phrase for the study of technologies for the creation and circulation of objects bearing intentional marks for the purposes of interpersonal communication] is a major topic of interest. However, if we label that category “history of the book” it’s going to be hard to remember to use it for a reference question about the choice of secretary versus italic hand in a Renaissance letter, or the adoption of aquatint as a medium for caricatures in the 18th century.
In desperation, I posted the question to Exlibris-L2 in the hope that the perfect term might be out there, though perhaps not in English. The question certainly struck a chord: almost 100 messages over the course of two days, and a total of fifty suggestions. Discussion moved so swiftly that it quickly took on a life of its own, and I was afraid to confess that I was only asking because I needed a label for an in-house statistical category.
Suggestions included things that were obviously tongue-in-cheek (“Kindleology and its Discontents“), things that seemed reasonable though unfamiliar (“Archaeology of Inscription“), and things that managed to be both at the same time (“Physical Communicology“). What many of the responses had in common, though, despite the original message stating explicitly “I don’t want to say ‘history of the book,’” was the general sentiment that there’s nothing wrong with “History of the Book.” Most people favored phrases based on biblio-, book, Buch-, text, and word, which is exactly what I was trying to get away from.
Proponents of biblio-, book, Buch-, text, and word pointed out that these terms have come to have a broader meaning in the scholarly world. True, but what’s accepted in one academic discipline is not necessarily accepted in another, and the broader meanings haven’t made it into general dictionary use—nor should they, in my opinion. At the risk of making the issue more serious than it really is, being told that “History of the Material Text” also covers “Images” takes me back 30-plus years, when it was still routine (and irksome) for the collective noun “men” to also cover “women.” Now we simply say “people” or “adults” without a second thought.
Consider this printed ink-on-paper artifact:
An art history professor could easily consider the whole thing an image; a comp lit professor could easily consider the whole thing a text. When it was first acquired by the Folger, it was described as a poem with an illustration; it’s now cataloged as an etching with a poem. Any of those approaches is reasonable, but half privilege the visual content and half privilege the verbal content.
Scientists coin words all the time. Couldn’t we do the same? It needn’t be a completely new word, just one that doesn’t carry inconvenient baggage with it. If physicists can study “the boojum,” surely we can can study “the… ???”
- book, noun. A written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to compose a material whole. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/21412>; accessed 19 August 2012.) [↩]
- “An electronic news and discussion group for those interested in rare books, manuscripts, special collections, and librarianship in special collections.” [↩]