How to talk about old books

In our digitally saturated age it is easy to forget that for 94.2% of the past half a millennium the western world has been reliant on the printed book as our predominant “information technology” (I am here dating the advent of the digital as a significant presence to circa 1994 – your mileage may vary).  What does this mean for us as scholars?  For one thing it means that any of us working in a historical perspective – as many, if not most, arts and humanities scholars do – will probably want to have some understanding of how the book developed as a technology and of how we can make use of that in our research.

This is why I’m running a series of three workshops for SGSAH students this year on the topic of “descriptive bibliography”.  Far from being about how to present your source citations in the right format, “descriptive” or “analytical” bibliography is the art of studying the book as a physical object, how it was created, how it works, and how we can understand its trajectory through time.  This is particularly relevant for books produced during the so-called “hand press period” (roughly 1450 to 1820), before the advent of mechanisation in the printing industry, when an understanding of the processes of production and the traces that leaves in books is essential for working with any of the period’s printed materials.

We began this series of workshops on 8 March at the beautiful Innerpeffray Library, founded in 1680 and the oldest lending library in Scotland.  There students began to learn the ins and outs of such arcane practices as “collation” and “Library of Congress fingerprints” by working with Innerpeffray’s outstanding collection of early printed books.

We were fortunate to have present both Lara Haggerty, Innerpeffray’s librarian, and a selection from her team of volunteers who provided expert insight into the library’s history and assisted students in exploring the collection.

The general verdict was that a fine day was had by all and I include myself in that number.  One of the great pleasures of teaching the history of the book through hands-on practice is that you are always making new discoveries.  Not least of these was the fortuitous find during the course of the workshop of a small French history (Les chroniques de Jean Carion, philosophe, printed at Paris in 1551) whose binding contains leaves from two twelfth- or thirteenth-century manuscripts by Bernard of Clairvaux and Gebouin de Troyes (all credit due to Mark Thakkar, Ed van der Vlist, and Elaine Treharne for these identifications – I am not a medievalist!).

If this piques your interest and you’d like to (a) learn how to talk about and use early printed books, (b) explore major Scottish research collections, and (c) perhaps take part in moments of discovery like that described above, then why not join us at the next two workshops?  On 19 April we will visit the Signet Library in Edinburgh to continue our studies with particular emphasis on the use of national and period-specific bibliographies and on 19 June, coinciding with the SGSAH summer school, we will go to the Brechin Collection in the University of Dundee, focusing especially on provenance research.  You can sign up for these events, like all SGSAH events and training found here.  I look forward to seeing you there!

Kelsey Jackson Williams is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature at the University of Stirling and studies the intellectual and book history of Europe from the rise of print to the early nineteenth century (with a particular emphasis on Scotland).  He is currently writing a book on the looting of incunables – books printed before 1500 – during the Napoleonic Wars.

Kelsey Jackson Williams

University of Stirling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s