In the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, librarians, archivists, and researchers work to discover the clues inherent in materials such as Ethiopic manuscripts, forged poetry, Confederate publications, false imprints. Despite this bibliographic work, is there a more passé word in the humanities than bibliography? When every day brings more commentary on the popularity of e-books and the obsolescence of printed media, the study of physical books, and the compiling of lists of books, can seem hopelessly retrograde.
And yet nothing is ever as simple as it seems. “The Career Risks of Scrutinizing the Physical Side of Books,” an article by Jennifer Howard in the July 11, 2010 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, examines the state of the field of analytic bibliography (the study and description of the physical composition and layout of books), finding a variety of approaches to teaching and practicing bibliography at different institutions. While it does seem that faculty positions for those specializing in the analysis of physical books can be hard to come by, there are also factors that I think indicate the field may be due for a renaissance:
- Bibliography is inherently interdisciplinary. To study books as physical objects, scholars need to know something about chemistry, botany, and mechanical engineering, in addition to more traditional areas of inquiry in the humanities and social sciences such as the history of technology, labor and business history, public policy, economics, and art history. Bibliography can bring together scholars from a range of fields for discussions on how best to understand not only the production and distribution of texts, but their disciplines themselves.
- Bibliography contributes to understanding cultures, not just texts themselves. Cultural studies benefit greatly from bibliographical studies. Studies of hidden information embedded in a physical text, such as sources of paper and bindings, place and date of production, distribution methods, and quality of printing can lead to insights on the meaning of a text for a culture: who it was intended for, when it would have been known, how much the information it contained was valued (or not).
- Bibliography can show us how and why books were and are useful. Production and distribution of texts are changing very rapidly. A grounding in the physicality of bibliography could become more and more essential for understanding history and literary history if contemporary physical books come to be seen less as utilitarian carriers of information and more as aesthetic or luxury objects.
- Bibliography is being rebranded. If we factor into the discussion growing programs in the History of the Book, the Book as Object, or the History of Text Technologies, the state of analytic bibliography seems quite a bit more vibrant. Maybe it would seem even more vibrant if it were given the CSI treatment as “Literary Forensics.”
Here in the Duke University Libraries, librarians specializing in specific subject areas used to be called “bibliographers,” or (to be literal) experts on the books in their field. They are now called “subject librarians,” responsible for a range of resources including databases, websites, e-journals, and, yes, books. And yet the work of bibliography continues here as elsewhere.
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