The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Interview and excerpt: Paul Dover, The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe

At the Folger, we are proud to sponsor research inquiry within a vibrant and intellectually generous community. Periodically, as that research is published, we circle back to talk with recent authors to showcase the role of collections-based inquiry on their methods and arguments. Today, we pose a series of questions to 2015-2016 NEH Long-term Fellow Dr. Paul M. Dover that get at the heart of his research at the Folger, followed by an excerpt from Dr. Dover’s new book, The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe, published by Cambridge University Press.


Dr. Dover: I was a NEH Long-Term Fellow at the Folger Institute, 2015-6, working on a project entitled “The Information Revolution of Early Modern Europe”. The work I began at the Folger that year has now resulted in the book The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe, from Cambridge University Press (2021), an installment in the New Approaches to European History series.

When you started this research project, how much clarity did you have about what you were looking for, both in terms of number of examples and specific materials?

Dr. Dover: Arriving as an NEH fellow at the Folger, I had declared my intention to write a history of information and information management in early modern Europe. I already had a contract to write the book from Cambridge University Press and had established an outline of chapters and themes. My subject was a vast one and I intended this to be a big idea book; in many ways my primary challenge was to establish where I would put up fences around my topic. As a historian, I needed to generalize from the particulars, and the collection at the Folger promised to be rich in its provision of those particulars. From my perch there, I expected be able to dip in to its holding both for recent historical scholarship (in which I would have to read both broadly and deeply) and for early modern manuscripts and printed materials that betrayed the themes that I was exploring in early modern information history. Unlike many who set up shop to do work at the Folger, my focus was chiefly not on England, but instead on the continental Europe. I was delighted to learn quickly that early modern Italian, French, and German-language books are abundant on the Folger’s shelves.

In many ways, I intended my project to be an examination of what happens in a society when it resolves to generate, record, and disseminate its information on paper. The Folger’s collection, rooted firmly in the early modern period, provides something of a snapshot of Europeans’ deepening association with paper in its manifold forms. I was fortunate while I was at the Folger to able to draw upon the expertise of Caroline Duroselle-Melish, the Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints, who knew the ins and outs of the collection so well; and of Heather Wolfe, the Curator of Manuscripts, who herself happened to be working on projects related to early modern English information management and the material culture of paper. I also learned from visitors attached to the Folger for extended periods. Of particular note was Alexandra Walsham, whose work also engages question of early modern information, was running a seminar at the library for several weeks, and Alex was a font of wisdom. This all serves as a reminder that a good library is made of both the written and flesh and blood resources one finds within it.

An image of a page in a book with latin text
Much early printed material was designed to be written on, like this papal election ballot. Caeremoniale continens ritus electionis Romani Pontificis (Rome, 1667). Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, 176214.2

Once you started working with the Folger collections, did your research questions change? Did your assumptions about what arguments were going to be supported by the evidence change?

Dr. Dover: My book, The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe was guided by a relatively small number of operative questions: How did the widespread availability of paper instruments change European information practices? What did European politics, commerce, scholarship and science look like when viewed from the perspective of information? In what ways were early modern people forced to become information managers in the face of waxing quantities of information, most of it on paper? Perhaps unusually for most Folger fellows, I did not seek out a posting at the library with the intent of consulting specific collections of early printed books or manuscripts, but instead because it represented a rich, concentrated assemblage of resources for the early modern period. In many ways, the Folger was an ideal locale for someone seeking to write a general history of the epoch from a novel perspective. My project was a synthetic one, and the Folger offered me both an extensive catalog of secondary works upon which I relied, but also numerous exemplars in print and manuscript of the attitudes, practices, and mentalités. If my project was a hunt into the early modern worlds of paper, then the Folger offered an abundance of quarry.

I cannot say that, while at the Folger, my starting questions changed in any significant way. I resolved to go into my year at the Folger with an open mind and with an omnivorous curiosity; to allow, within the general parameters of my project, my process of exploration of both modern scholarship and primary sources to be guided by the accidents of survival and accumulation at the Folger.

In what ways did the Folger scholarly community advance your work?

Dr. Dover: The scholarly community at the Folger was without question the best part of my time there. My research topic was broad enough that I could benefit from speaking to nearly anyone doing work in early modern studies. When you are at the Folger for nine consecutive months, you acquire an interesting view of the social topography of the community there. Many scholars visit the Folger for a month or three months at a time. And I acquainted myself with sequential waves of scholars coming through the doors of the library. In this sense, I found myself a member not of a community of scholars, but of several communities of scholars, each of them full of interesting people working on intriguing subjects. Conversations begun (quietly) in the reading room or (somewhat less quietly) at Readers’ Tea were often continued at lunch or over cocktails in local establishments. We became aware of what each other was working on, and volunteered items we had seen or passages we had read with each other. “Are you aware of…” and “Have you come across…” were regular turns of phrase. In a time of specialization and disciplinary silos, the catholicity of the Folger community was bracing for me, and I ended up delving into texts, authors, and even categories of paper that I would never have foreseen.

I should also add that the scholarly community at the Folger extended beyond the walls of the library itself and encompasses many who work at local universities and other institutions and who often visit the Folger. The DC area is surprisingly resource-rich for research in the early modern period, with the Library of Congress, the Dibner Library at the Smithsonian, the Rare Book Collection at Johns Hopkins, as well as resources of the National Gallery and the Walters Art Gallery. The Folger itself is something of an agora for early modern specialist in the DC area and beyond, who pop in for a week or an afternoon. I was able to share my research not only on multiple occasions in presentations at the Folger, but also in forums at both Georgetown and Catholic University, receiving valuable feedback and useful critiques.

What advice do you have for early career scholars working at the Folger or peer collections?

Dr. Dover: My advice for young scholars working at the Folger:

      • Allow yourself to be led astray from your specific ends by the fascinating array of things that the Folger collection has to offer. Arrive with a plan but keep your mind and options open.
      • Make sure to take note of interesting and/or provocative things you happen to come across that do not relate directly to your research so that you can revisit them when you have time or need for a new project in the future.
      • Talk to the librarians, who almost always know nooks and crannies of the collection that you would have trouble finding yourself
      • Soak in the surroundings and allow them to inspire you
      • Read Shakespeare while you are there
      • Go to the Readers’ Teas to learn what your fellow scholars are up to—put a name with those faces that you have seen across the reading room
A picture of an opened almanac with book snakes in the corner
Almanacs were printed in vast numbers, but rarely survive. Daniel Browne, A new almanacke and prognostication, for the yeare of our Lord God 1628 (London, 1628). Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, STC 421

The joys of foraging:

Dr. Dover: Being resident at the Folger, I was reacquainted with the joy and fruitfulness of simply perusing the stacks. We are so accustomed these days to the ease and rapidity of the digital search engines at our fingertips that it is easy to forget how productive and enlightening holing up in the stacks and scanning the shelves can be. Quite a bit falls through the cracks in our digital searches. I spent most of my days either in my fellow’s cubby or at a reading room desk with a rare book, but I was consistently surprised with how much I benefited from acting as a hunter-gatherer in the Folger stacks. Perhaps my broad-based research subject particularly allowed for this, but it was in that underground sanctuary of the stacks (take a sweater—it’s cold down there!) that I often discovered theretofore unknown texts and novel avenues of inquiry. It took me back to afternoons spent in the stacks at Yale University’s Sterling Library during graduate school, when hours spent there opened up worlds of history to a young scholar. This was something I had rarely had occasion to do in the intervening years.

The joy of place (and time):

Dr. Dover: Winston Churchill once remarked that “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I felt myself shaped by the space in which I worked during my year at the Folger. My little hideaway up the stairs in my fellow’s cubby, with shelves lined with books for my use; in the airy space of the reading room, flanked by other eager book beavers; and in the wood-paneled walls of the lunchroom—in every place, somehow or another, under the gaze of Will Shakespeare. For me the physical space, combined with the touch and smell of books, was a source of intellectual nourishment. Obviously, I have not seen the library space post-renovations, but I am confident that the environs will continue to inspire.

I felt extremely fortunate to be spending my time in that space. And to have that time to spend there. For above all, my fellowship at the Folger gave me something that is always in short supply: time. Time to think; time to experiment; time to explore rabbit holes, which were often dead ends; time to talk with, and learn from, others; time to succeed, but also to fail. Although the nine months went past far too quickly, my learning felt like an extended Sunday repast with friends rather than a fast food meal.


Below, find an excerpt from Dr. Dover’s book, The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 2021), p. 183-187, 189-190:

Europe’s printing presses also churned out a great many pages with spaces left blank deliberately, left to be filled in after purchase. In such cases, the resulting item ended up being a hybrid of printed and manuscript text, where print guided the format and content of the appended handwriting. As Peter Stallybrass has put it: ‘I would argue that printing’s most revolutionary effect was on manuscript. If we define manuscript in terms of all writing by hand as opposed to the kind of manuscripts that have been the main subject of study, we might begin to see that the history of printing is crucially a history of the ‘blank’ (that is, of printed works designed to be filled in by hand).’1

By the second half of the sixteenth century, printers were publishing pamphlet editions of classical texts intended for student use that incorporated wide spaces between the lines of text so that notes could be added.2 Printed herbals not infrequently contained blank pages in order to allow the owner to records his own observations from the field. The binding process, too, might make allowances for space in which to append notes. The English poet John Donne (1572–1631) owned a copy of Nicholas Hill’s Epicurean Philosophy, one which had previously belonged to Ben Jonson (1572–1637). It had been bound with blank pages between the printed ones, allowing for commentary and refutation.3

Almanacs, printed and sold in profusion starting in the sixteenth century, are a prominent example of this phenomenon. They were often sold by street vendors (known as merciers in France), as well as by booksellers, a reflection of the broad demand among the purchasing public. They were specifically designed to be written on, functioning as diaries as much as books. Some included writing tables, with spaces to be populated with the requisite data. Because many of the pages in an almanac were date-specific, owners of these texts often cut or tore out individual pages or sections for limited-time use. It has been estimated that by the 1640s 300,000 almanacs were sold in England every year, each between 40 and 50 pages long and costing about two pence, well within the price range of a laborer.4 By the second half of the seventeenth century, it has been estimated that one in three English households purchased their own almanac.5 Almanacs accounted for 40% of the English Stationers’ Company’s paper budget between 1673 and 1682. Many pieces of paper included in the almanacs were deliberately left blank in the printing; the most popular printed text in Restoration England was an almanac that was designed to be filled out in manuscript.6 One quarter of all titles published in Sweden in the seventeenth century were almanacs.7 The Venetian printer Girolamo Albizzi, working with the friar Vincenzo Coronelli, starting in the 1660s, produced a tourist yearbook and almanac that would remain in print for 43 years.8 This publication incorporated blank spaces for travelers to recount their own experiences while visiting the locales covered in the text.

Designed to be used, and rarely retained beyond the year in question, rather than simply read, such items survive in extremely small numbers in relation to the vast numbers of them originally produced. For example, Leonard Digges’ A Progostication Everlasting, first published in 1555, went through 33 editions by the year 1619. It offered predictions of weather via astrology, as well as recommendations as to when to bleed, purge and bathe, along with a wealth of practical information regarding sunrises, sunsets, and moon phases. Of the 1576 edition, only seven are known to have survived.9 David McKitterick has discovered that of all the sheet almanacs printed at Cambridge University before 1640 (30,000 printed in the period 1631–33 alone), only a single, imperfect, copy has survived. This is despite the fact that in the years 1631–33 alone, approximately 30,000 of them were printed, and then presumably marked up in manuscript by their owners.10

All this handwriting is a reminder that manuscript clearly retained considerable advantages in a world transformed by print. Print did not attenuate inscription by hand; instead, it created new opportunities for it.11 It is undoubtedly true that manuscript copying became increasingly rare as a means of book reproduction, given the availability of print versions.12 Scribal production of many varieties remained essential, in some regards becoming more important than ever, in administrative and bureaucratic circles, in record-keeping of all sorts, in letter-writing, and in scholarly work. It allowed, in a way print did not, real-time preservation of information that cost next to nothing. And it could take advantage of a wide range of paper surfaces: notebooks, loose sheets, blank spaces in books and pamphlets, and leftover scraps…

The revolution wrought by print looks different now than it did when Eisenstein first offered her provocative thesis. It looks different partly because we no longer equate print with books. Print, in its early centuries, enabled the creation of a grand variety of media forms other than books, and many of the most important repercussions of the printing press had little or nothing to do with the production and circulation of books. It also looks different because we no longer recognize an ‘Age of Gutenberg’ or an ‘Age of Print’, which displaced a preceding ‘Age of Manuscript.’ It is also evident that the printing press did not validate for good content, provenance, and authorship. Information after Gutenberg remained shifting, unstable and uncertain. The capacity to reproduce in large quantities at great speed did not change this and, in many ways, accentuated these realities.

A different revolution, then. But a revolution nonetheless. It is thus far too reductive to insist, as McLuhan would have us do, that the ‘medium is the message.’ Nor did the colossus of McLuhan’s ‘typographic man’ sweep all before him. But the medium did matter, and its use did have substantial repercussions for the course of European history. Looked at from the perspective of information, the assimilation of the printing press into European society was a profound agent of change (to borrow, deliberately, a phrase employed by Eisenstein). As suggested above, the large-scale production of printed material, especially from about 1500 onward, effected an enormous increase in the amount of written information in circulation, as well as a great expansion in the breadth of access to that information. Books, which had heretofore resided chiefly in social and institutional niches, assumed an altogether new role in everyday life. And so too did other printed formats: pamphlets, price lists, posters, advertisements, official forms and questionnaires, and ultimately journals and newspapers. All of these medial forms injected new information flows into the lives of Europeans, and helped introduce news and data as objects of acquisition and discussion. None of this meant that oral and manuscript information became vestigial – in fact, printed material often prompted the creation of yet more oral and handwritten communication. Print was thus an information accelerant and catalyst, and in filling these roles, offers echoes of the more recent digital revolution. After all, digitization has not meant that we have stopped reading books, writing things down, or engaging in conversation – at least not yet. As in the digital revolution, a new technology combined with existing ones to reinforce some means of communication, modify others, and create altogether new ones.

  1. Peter Stallybrass, ‘Little Jobs. Broadsides and the Printing Revolution,’ in Sabrina Alcorn, Eric Lindquist and Eleanor Shevlin, eds., Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth Eisenstein (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 315–341, here 340.
  2. Anthony Grafton, ‘Teacher, text and pupil in the Renaissance classroom: a case study from a Parisian classroom.’ History of Universities 1 (1981), 37–70.
  3. Piers Brown, ‘“hac Ex Consilio Meo via Progredieris”: Courtly Reading and Secretarial Mediation in Donne’s the Courtier’s Library.’ Renaissance Quarterly 61.3 (2008), 833–66, here 837–8.
  4. Jeremiah Dittmar, ‘Information Technology and Economic Change: the Impact of the Printing Press.’ Quarterly Journal of Economics 126.3 (2011), 1133–1172.
  5. Wharman, Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks, 8.
  6. Stallybrass, ‘Printing and the manuscript revolution,’ 113–114.
  7. R.A. Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe. Culture and Education 1500–1800 (Harlow: Longman, 2002), 200.
  8. Brendan Dooley, The Social History of Skepticism. Experience and Doubt in Early Modern Culture (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 63.
  9. Folger Shakespeare Library 6864: Leonard Digges, A Progostication Everlastinge of Right Good Effecte (London: Thomas Marsh, 1576).
  10. David McKitterick, A History of Cambridge University Press. Volume One: Printing and the Book Trade in Cambridge 1534–1698 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 203.
  11. On the enduring importance of script versus print, see, among others: Love, Scribal Publishing; Gerald Tyson and Sylvia Wagonheim, eds., Print and Culture in the Renaissance: Essays on the Advent of Printing in Europe (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1986); Anthony Grafton and Ann Blair, eds., The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990); Sandra Hindman, ed., Printing the Written Word: the Social History of Books, c. 1450–1520 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Arthur Marotti and Michael Bristol, eds., Print, Manuscript, and Performance: the Changing Relations of the Media in Early Modern England (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000).
  12. Armando Petrucci, ‘Copisti e libri manoscritti dopo l’avento della stampa’, in Condello and Gregorio, eds. Scribi e colofoni, 57–69; J.B. Trapp, Manuscripts in the fifty years after the invention of printing (London: Warburg Institute, 1983).

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