The material history of… ?

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:

Etching depicting a horse

(Detail) La caualcatura con le sue cerimonie dun pontefice nuouo quando piglia il possesso a Santo Giouanni Laterano, ca. 1625

The word "horse" printed in letterpress

(Detail) Title page of Mercurius Somniosus, 1644

The word "horse" written with pen and ink

(Detail) Letter from John Wollocombe, Robert Rolle and John Fortesque, to Anthony Rous, Christopher Worthevale and the rest of the commissioners for the militia for the county of Cornwall, 10 November 1651

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:

Single sheet with etched image and letterpress text

L’Europe allarmée pour le fils d’un meunier, 1689

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… ???”

  1. 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.) []
  2. “An electronic news and discussion group for those interested in rare books, manuscripts, special collections, and librarianship in special collections.” []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Head of Collection Information Services at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Previously (from March 2000 through March 2014) she was the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections. Erin teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

10 Comments

  1. … 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.

    ouch. this was me (among others) and i’m loath to think that this was the implication of my explication of “The Material Text”. the term has worked well at penn, although perhaps only because shepherded by an english/comp-lit heavy group of people. far be it from me — a scholar of xylographic books — to subsume image into text. i get that they are both. i get that we need to study both. the need to study the image as as-much-a-part-of-the-book-as-the-text is part of the reason i am writing the diss. i am.

    so, to clarify/reiterate: my idea with “hmt” was simply to suggest a solution that seems to have taken good root at a number of institutions and might serve well as short-hand. clearly it will not. but then, 50 suggestions later, i wonder what (short of a neologism, as you suggest, which will have its own gestation/probation period) if anything *will* do well…

  2. Thanks for this post. You’ve really put your finger on one of the trickier parts of this field (whatever its name). As Sarah Werner notes on Twitter:

    But everytime I use phrase “book history” I’m conscious of how many assumptions are being packed in there & options being closed off.— Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself) August 21, 2012

    For me, the term is limiting because almost none of the research material I use is in book form. I work largely with newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, almanacs, ephemera, and only occasionally with a codex book in the sense that a layman would understand it. At the same time, theoretical grounding for my work is based in “history of the book.” The scholars whose work I rely on are book history scholars (or perhaps “print culture,” to use another laden term).

    In any case, I applaud the effort to come up with a term that encompasses the study of all of these materials under a single term. Perhaps the “Material History of Visualization?”

  3. An interesting question- from my perspective in Russian history, there is a term used by Simon Franklin (‘written sources’ scholar of Russian history)- Graphosphere- defined as: “the totality of graphic devices used to record, store, display, and disseminate messages and information, and the social and cultural spaces in which they figure.” (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/kritika/summary/v012/12.3.franklin.html)

    This is a bit too broad for what you are looking for, but it does provide a nice catch-all term for the implications of your ‘book study’. The media bound in books comes from a variety of sources and will inspire a variety of other sources outside of the book form. Perhaps not totally helpful, but another angle to consider in your quest.

    • “Graphosphere” is a new one to me, and would have met my needs nicely if the definition had stopped after the first clause, and if Franklin’s first footnote hadn’t been, “for the term ‘graphosphere’ in a more limited and, in my view, inappropriate sense, denoting the age of print in a chronological sequence from the ‘logosphere’ (denoting the age of writing) to the ‘videosphere,’ See Régis Debray, “Socialism: A Life-Cycle.” New Left Review 46 (July-August 2007): 5-28. It’s discouraging to learn a promising new word and find out it already has competing definitions. Sigh….

  4. Grammatology is an option, though the focus is still very much on the dissemination of language.

  5. Or Material History of Visual Communication?

    • Interesting. In my mind, “visual” and “verbal” are opposed, but of course, they’re not: written words are perceived visually, and putting “material history” in the phrase restricts it to artifacts (e.g. sign language is out of scope). Would braille be included? Seems like it should be, since it’s still visually perceptible, even though that’s not why it’s used.

  6. Perhaps I’m naive, but doesn’t the word “document” cover all these bases?

    • Good point. I had set “document” aside because of its association with records of events, title-deeds, etc., but an oil painting of Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost is still documentary evidence. It’s not documentary evidence of someone actually seeing an actual ghost, but it’s still something that physically exists and conveys information.

  7. Bibliography used to be what we called all this stuff. Historical Bibliography or Bibliographical History might do. I suppose those are simply not sufficiently “with it,” but they have stood us in good stead for just about a century and they seem to cover all the bases.

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