Building the Book From the Ancient World to the Present Day
Barbara Heritage and Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, (Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2022)
What does it mean to read a book? Not its contents–text and/or images–but the actual thing?
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This question drives the study of books as physical objects, an approach that emphasizes their histories of production in fields like descriptive and analytical bibliography. To some extent, this approach also addresses their reception in the networks of social relations and cultural systems of which they are a part.
Reading books as objects is central to the many courses (around eighty at last count) put on by Rare Book School, an institution at the University of Virginia. In that context, the study of esoteric topics like publishers’ bindings, paper watermarks, duplicating technologies, illustration methods, and special collections cataloguing do not seem esoteric at all, but essential aspects of professional expertise. For librarians, historians, collectors, and students, knowledge of the physical materials and structures that compose tangible cultural heritage from antiquity to the present in a global perspective is essential.
Rare Book School is a venerable institution. The brainchild of Terry Belanger, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his visionary efforts, Rare Book School sprang from Belanger’s teaching in bibliographical studies at Columbia University in New York in 1971 where Belanger soon became faculty at the School of Library Service. SLS was the first library school in the United States and had been established in 1884 by none other than the pioneering librarian and educator Melvil Dewey. It was closed in the 1990s when Columbia decided that the task of educating librarians belonged to public universities. In 1992 Belanger relocated to the University of Virginia where then-president, John Casteen III, appreciated the value of the RBS. It has thrived there for the last three decades. Belanger retired in 2009, but under the leadership of Michael Suarez, the organization has expanded its offerings, consolidated its staff positions, and become ever more robust. As it has done so, its teaching collections, which play a central role in its pedagogical activity, have expanded through a combination of expert curation and gifts. Many RBS classes are offered at off-site and satellite institutions such as the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. that supplement these holdings, but the creation of unique teaching collections has produced a significant resource for research and study. These collections embody the RBS philosophy—putting physical objects in students’ hands is essential to obtaining knowledge through observation.
Now these collections were the subject of an exhibition at the (also venerable) Grolier Club in New York City. To accompany the exhibition, Barbara Heritage (RBS Curator of Collections) and Ruth-Ellen St. Onge (Associate Curator), produced this extensive catalogue, Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day. The catalogue contains a full inventory of the exhibition with detailed descriptions, photographs, and other documentation of the individual objects. Both the organization of the catalogue and its methodological approach deserve a bit of attention for what they argue about the challenge of addressing “the history of the book” in this moment in time.
One feature of the catalogue, organized in the same manner as the exhibition, is that the objects are grouped thematically. The seven themes reflect the formal, materialist approach central to RBS: the form of the book, substrates, formats, letterforms, printing surfaces, bindings, and marks in books. One advantage of this approach is that it allows materials from multiple cultural traditions to be included and described without having to fit them into a single over-arching historical narrative, chronology, or cultural paradigm. That decision liberates the objects from a teleological framework, and allows each item individual attention. The trade-off is that we do not get a “story”—so the result is more like a portrait gallery than a sweeping historical tale.
Barbara Heritage, appointed the first full-time Curator for RBS in 2004, has an intimate acquaintance with these collections. For nearly twenty years she has scoured eBay and other sites for objects, helped receive, catalogue, house, and care for the materials, and been present when they are placed in the hands of students and participants. As the collection has expanded to over 100,000 objects, she and her associate, Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, have become important elements of institutional memory.
Among the many items featured in the catalogue are gems whose attraction is in their novelty and others whose value is in their capacity to represent whole areas of historical production. Every object is a treasure that demonstrates folding, binding, calligraphy, or other techniques—while also being an intriguing object for the quality of its language and what its images or subject matter depict. In addition, the profiles of makers, often just a few lines, give a sense of the ways printing businesses and expertise were passed through families, schools, or long traditions.
Throughout the catalogue, the sheer craft and skill of earlier generations is in evidence everywhere from the hand-tooling on decorative bindings, illustration techniques, to the preparation of skins for parchment and vellum—practices still in use today. One striking example (though almost every example in this work is striking) describes some remarkable miniature books. Produced by students in Kingsport, Tennessee, they are only a half an inch wide and an inch tall. Some pages of 2-point type (72 points make an inch) may have been set by hand at one time, though Heritage and St. Onge suggest in the examples shown they were made from photo-mechanically produced plates, reductions of larger fonts.
A handful of production outmoded modes have fallen away—very few clay tablets or hinged wax surfaces are being produced in the moment as cultural records. But remarkably, almost every technology represented has its current practitioners. In some instances, particularly techniques of image production that are no longer commercially viable, these may be preserved only as studio fine arts engagement with the aesthetic effects of tintypes, albumen prints, steel engraving or copperplate. Others, like stone lithography, wood block relief printing, aquatint and etching have broad communities of practitioners.
Attention to physical evidence provides the means to identify objects and locate them within their cultural networks. Clay, papyrus, bamboo, and wax for instance, are all organic, close to their sources, and yet each were a part of economies and trade exchanges in the ancient world. Papyrus, for example, was increasingly limited in supply and thus kept for domestic consumption, perhaps prompting the invention elsewhere of parchment as a substitute. Other aspects of the identity of tablets, scrolls, and codices are directly linked to cultural shifts, as is the persistence of formats for ritual purposes of which the Torah is a striking example.
Heritage and St. Onge make vividly clear that paper molds, bark materials, used linen, rags, hemp, papers made from raw fibers at commercial scale offer their various fingerprints for study to such a fine degree that a micrometer at 1/1000th of an inch can be used to reveal significant differences in paper stock. Even the patterns left by insects, wormholes, stains, and offset ink transferred while stacks of damp paper pressed against each other tell their own stories of edition sizes, work practices, marketing and circulation. The elaborate and intricate history of letterforms as they emerge from stylus, brush, and chisel to ink, quill, cast type and digital imaging is revealed in fantastically elegant manuals, specimen books, works of such skill and precision that it seems impossible to believe they are drawn in copper or cast in lead. One unusual work a famous edition of poems by Horace rendered in hand-drawn engraved plates by John Pine that took from 1733-37 to complete. Another long undertaking, culturally resonant in its role in defining a people’s identity was the development of an 86-character Cherokee syllabary script by Chief Sequoyah, a project begun in 1809 and finished in 1821.
Every object contributes new details. The transformation of printing in the West into a power-driven industry capable of mass-production depended on expanding the knowledge of electricity and chemistry for processes like electrotyping and stereotyping. Even seemingly modest technologies, like office duplicators and table-top methods, are part of complex advances in industrial production. One set of related publications was mimeograph produced on a US Navy vessel carrying over 1300 immigrants in 1950. Latvian, Polish, and Yiddish were among the sixteen languages in these shipboard communications. The material aspects of these artifacts situate them within the history of their moment. Mimeo was cheap and immediate, required no photographic darkroom or type production, and could be produced with a typewriter, stencil, duplicating fluid, and a stack of paper.
As the two authors note, bindings are “the most public-facing components of books.” Divided, like printing, in the pre-and-post hand press period, they also embody a history of consumption patterns. The individual collector, bindings suited to their taste, might have elaborately decorated leather covers. Trade bindings at first aspired to imitate these, presenting stamped covers for mass-market offerings to a growing middle class in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. But elsewhere, the preservation of traditional techniques provided cultural continuity. Many hand-bindings were produced within domestic settings, in individual households. Now, skilled fine binders continue to produce works of original art in leather, silk, cast forms, and imaginative structures even as the industries of pulp, comics, graphic novels, paperback and trade publishing have established their own genres and recognizable formats.
Heritage and St. Onge also scrutinize the many marks that accrue in books—annotations, inscriptions, bookplates, tickets, labels, stamps. Not mentioned here but fun to explore, are several websites focused on “things found in books” where the remarkable inventories are as shocking in range as those of an emergency room doctor’s list of things swallowed by infants and children.
In recent years, the RBS perspective has expanded to include digital artifacts—an Apple II computer from 1977, for instance, now shares space with floppy disks and peripherals that track their own history of technological changes. The material history of production continues, though now with new challenges for access and examination.
For all of its seductive intrigue, the focus on formal, physical properties has some liabilities. One is the tendency to fall into an essentialist materialism, as if what something is defines its identity. Silk is not just silk, paper not just paper. The performative dimension of identity disappears in this method. The curators signal their awareness of this in their introduction, noting the reciprocal relation between cultures and objects. The limits of empirical methods show the need for other approaches that address the symbolic dimensions of materials and their role in the ritual use and performative effect that shifts over time and among communities. But also, sometimes the material features of an artifact are only minimally significant with the social context of belief as a major force for its effect. The social relations within which the labor of production occurs not only contains many specialized practices and skills, but also rituals and beliefs. Sometimes these are conspicuous, and again, the curators call attention to the mikvah bath that accompanies Torah reading and ways Tibetan Buddhist texts are wrapped and stored. But less obvious aspects of ritual inhere in the way the work of production, decoration, binding and other skilled labor gains–and adds–value in the making of books. The transactional qualities of things can’t be quantified, pinned into certainties, or guaranteed by forensic evidence. They rely on circumstances, situations, moments of activity and exchange. How something means depends on more than its materials. Values become embodied in the objects and cannot always be addressed fully through formal methods alone as the work of D.F. McKenzie, in Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1986) and Hugh Amory, in The Trout and the Milk (1997), made abundantly clear decades ago. These authors are much cited and respected in the RBS community.
Still, the material fallacy needs to be acknowledged, if only because of the way it also maps onto hierarchies of authority in institutional and social practices. The claims of objectivity can appear to be grounded in empirical methods that pretend to absolute authority. But, by contrast, the tendency to ignore the material dimensions of objects that form a crucial core of the cultural record is at least as fraught. Cultural studies, critical approaches, that stress the reading of artifacts as political instruments need the tools of formal description that return a material grounding to these interpretations. A book edged in gold carries symbolic and economic weight that a sheaf of folded pages produced on a duplicator does not—and vice versa, the political impact of a publication cannot be gauged by its form alone. The impact of Émile Zola’s defense of Alfred Dreyfus in L’Aurore, January 13, 1898, has everything to do with its appearance on the front page of a newspaper, but little to do with newsprint as a substrate.
The point of such expertise and extensive study is that it provides one foundation for reading the cultural record, a way to make sense of human expressions and experience within their long and varied histories. Humanity and literacy are not synonymous. The cultural record takes many forms in ritual, foodways, kinship practices, intangible heritage and other activities. But since the written record remains, knowing how to read its material form matters.
The question of how a topic as broad in scope and diverse in its particulars can be thought about and taught remains. The attention to individual objects in this exhibit and catalogue, as already noted, keeps them from serving as mere illustrations to a “history of the book.” As the shifting terms of colonial and decolonizing frameworks continue to grapple with legacy forms of knowledge, engaging with that “history” also has its benefits—and challenges—in the way this tracks patterns of cultural exchange and abuse. In the last half-century, the places where this history is taught have diminished, in part because of the unfortunate fate of library schools. A marked shift of focus to management, data, information to the current “critical practice” resulted the marginalization of library-related studies. Special collections and history of the book have suffered dramatically. Before I launched the History of the Book track in our UCLA Department of Information Studies in about 2010, I did a landscape scan of current programs in North America. This turned up a meager handful of courses and attempts at keeping the field alive through a few classes, summer institutes, cross-institutional collaborations and so on.
In this perilous landscape, Virginia’s Rare Book School has been a major force for preservation and transfer of knowledge in this field. This catalogue and exhibit are a tribute to RBS, to the dedication of Barbara Heritage, the work of Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, the vision of Terry Belanger, ongoing work of Michael Suarez, along with the staff and broad community that support the ongoing activity.
The online site that accompanies this publication is an additional invaluable resource: https://grolierclub.omeka.net/exhibits/show/rare-book-school
My thanks to Barbara Heritage for her generous and helpful comments on the initial draft of this essay.
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