History of Books

“Book history is still a relatively new form of interdisciplinary inquiry that has yet to develop historiographical understandings adequate to the complexities of the questions it typically seeks to answer.”
– Michael F. Suarez (2003)[1, p.141]

In 1982, Darnton noted that the history of books was “an important new discipline”[2, p.65]. Simply put, book history is the field of study devoted to the history of books. This involves determining a number of things about books, such as what a book is made of, when it was made, how it was made, where it was made, how many were made, what is it about, how was it received by the public and private sectors of society, and so on and so forth. However, book history is not limited strictly to books, but rather to literature in general. It has provided new insights for professors, church historians, classicists, musicologists, librarians, and computer scientists. As time continues and this field expands, its development will continue to provide new insights for even more professions than those just listed [4].

“To be sure, the history of the history of books did not begin yesterday. It stretches back to the scholarship of the Renaissance, if not beyond; and it began in earnest during the nineteenth century, when the study of books as material objects led to the rise of analytical bibliography in England.”
– Robert Darnton (1982)[2, p.65]

Despite Darnton tracing the history of the history of books to the Renaissance (“if not beyond”), this interest can be considered lax at best. Printing swept the world in a considerably short period of time and millions of books were spread across the nations, but no serious attention was given to them for several centuries. For example, the 20th century World Census of Incunabula (incunabula being books that were published before 1500) was the first of its kind [3]. It appears to me that the people interested in the field of book history have mainly focused on the 18th century and later.

“Historians have always relied on documents to construct the past, and perhaps for that reason they overlooked, until recently, the history of documents themselves.”
– The Editors (1998)[4, p.ix]

Some societies dedicated to book history[4]:
1 – Britain’s Book Trade History Group (founded 1985)
2 – International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (1987)
3 – Early Book Society (1987)
4 – Association quebecoise pour l’etude de l’imprime (1987)
5 – Association internationale de bibliologie (1988)
6 – Leipziger Arbeitskreis zur Geschichte des Buchwesens (1990)
7 – Research Society for American Periodicals (1990)
8 – Reseau international sur l’histoire du livre et de l’edition (1991)
9 – Nederlandse Boekhistorische Vereniging (1993)
10 – Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (1991).

“Just as the industrial societies of the late nineteenth century invented the discipline of economic history to explain the origins and consequences of the Industrial Revolution, so the Information Revolution of the late twentieth century has driven us to explore the social transformation brought on by writing and print technologies.”
– The Editors (1998)[4, p.x]

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[1] – Suarez, Michael F. “Historiographical Problems and Possibilities in Book History and National Histories of the Book.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 56, 2003, pp. 141–170. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40372194. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.

[2] – Darnton, Robert. “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus, vol. 111, no. 3, 1982, pp. 65-83. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20024803. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.

[3] – Keidel, George C. “A World Census of Incunabula.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 25, no. 6, 1910, pp. 161-165. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2916912. Accessed 19 Aug. 2020.

[4] – “An Introduction to “Book History.”” Book History, vol. 1, 1998, pp. ix-xi. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30227279. Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.

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