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History of the History of the Book

Thomas Adams and Nicolas Barker raise some interesting questions and comparisons in  their discussion called “A New Model for the Study of the Book. They compare bibliography to anthropology and archaelogy. They make a key point that one of the  sources of the lack of respect given to the discipline of bibliography is the very ubiquity of books. They are not seen as “artifacts,” unique and worthy of study.

In an attempt to broaden the subject of bibliographers’ inquiries, the authors propose a new term, “bibliographical document” and definition: “something printed or written in multiple copies that its agent, be it author, stationer, printer or publisher, or any combination thereof, produces for public consumption” (51). They deliberately include ephemera, but restrict their definition to that which is done on paper or a paper equivalent. That is, they exclude digital works but include printed matchbook covers.

This made me think about a phrased used with respect to corporate documents, “This document transient when printed.” For many large entities the “documents of record”  or “official” copies of handbooks, procedures, and rules are electronic.  They are maintained, cited, and disseminated electronically. Precisely at the point when they enter the physical realm, they lose their validity as documents of record. They become transient, working copies and unofficial. Should these be included in Adams and Barker’s definition of bibliographic documents?  I think the answer would be no: at the point when they are being printed, they are not for public consumption. But even this could be complicated. What if someone prints multiple copies for a meeting?

The other question that I’d like to raise is whether their definition is too broad. If we define ‘bibliographic documents’  this way so as to include ephemera, do we lose sight of an essential and useful difference between books, magazines, newspapers, brochures and miscellaneous ephemeral documents? Does length matter? Does the serial nature of magazines and newspapers matter?  I want to rule out advertising as a difference; some magazines have no ads, and some books do.

Roger Chartier in “Labourers and Voyagers” addresses my first point when he insists that texts must have material form, but allows the possibility that that form could be electronic. “Authors do not write books,” he says. “Rather they write texts which become objects copied, handwritten, etched, printed and today computerized” (91). He describes a triangle, “defined by the intricate relation between text, book, and reader.” (91). This allows him to discuss how the different physical implementaions of the text into book can also transform the reader’s relation to the text. This is useful, I think, both in the context of physical book and text history (like the 1608 King Lear which had scenes but not acts, but has been printed in 5 acts to correspond with the 1623 Folio and later editions) and in the context of digital works which may be presented as simulacra of physical books, as individual screens, or broken into file sizes that have to do with system limitations rather than authorial intent.

Articles found in The Book History Reader, David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, eds.


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danah boyd’s blog is one place among many that talks about why many sites went dark on January 18, 2012.

Here’s another article on the reporting about this issue and why it’s problematic.

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