The term itself is revealing: Book History, or: The History of the Book. So why “book history” when books really only comprise a small part of the product of what was called, in the first part of ABC TVs new series Inside the great magazines, “the greatest invention in human history”, i.e. Gutenberg and the invention of printing? When I first became interested in the subject it was called “the history of books and printing” with the sub-section “printing history” my special interest. In more recent times it has become “print culture” though “book history” today seems to dominate the discussion. There is the History of the Book in Australia project, the Canadians have their History of the Book in Canada Project , Great Britain the Cambridge Project for the Book and the American Antiquarian Society has established the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture. But New Zealand called its much smaller project the History of Print Culture [sic] in New Zealand with the laurel wreath going to Anton Durstmüller and the Hauptverband der Graphischen Unternehmungen Österreichs, i.e. the Austrian printing industry employers’ association, for their pioneering three tome history of printing [sic] in Austria published 1985-1988. “Book history” makes it sound scholarly, respectable and academic versus the study of the products of the printing and allied trades… much more down-market and blue-collar.
The idea that a book might just well be of interest for something other than its content, i.e. than its text, is slowly advancing – and there’s recently even been a book on it: David Pearson’s Books as history (London : British Library, 2008) – though even this is more a gentleman’s appreciation of the physicality of … books [again], not so much print and definitely not anything on the trades.
Apart from such “soft” subjects (writing, publishing, bookselling, reading, book collecting, libraries) there are many other areas which have received little if any attention in recent years. These are “hard” subjects such as:-
Hardly the stuff of romance… or is it?! The production of printed matter – of which books are but a small part - provides us with a whole sub-culture, a whole way of life, a whole civilization as interesting, if not more so, than just plain old reading and writing, i.e. the study of texts. And even more so in the twentieth not to mention the twenty-first century.
Occasionally people tell me – I’m a librarian – just how much they “love books”. Do they love the quality of the paper that the text has been printed on, the unusual but well-designed and readable type face used, the skill in the compositor’s setting, the quality of the impression, the design, blocking with coloured and metallic foils of the trade binding …? What they really mean to say is that they love … reading. Somewhere along the way the words “books” and “reading” have come to be synonymous.
The same confusion also applies to libraries. In recent years there has been much to do about the new media such as eBooks and electronic journals, Kindle (I’m told that last Christmas day Amazon sold more Kindling than it did “real” books) and now Apple’s new iPad. The olde-style librarians [a.k.a. dinosaurs] are usually associated with the cult of the book – today one almost needs to add “the printed book” here – and one now also likes to disassociate oneself with these old-style libraries which were full of dusty old books and, some also might say, of dusty old people (staff and patrons) who loved books. But libraries (and librarians) have never been that interested in books per se. It has always been about text; not the book itself but its content. Which is why libraries in recent years have been so enthusiastic in adopting the electronic substitute. That someone may want to look at or require or even prefer a book for its … thingness ... is sheer madness! But how is it possible to appreciate – let alone study – via digital surrogates the quality of an art nouveau trade binding, a book printed in a good Fraktur or illustrations printed by photogravure? Books have always been multifaceted objects with text only one part of the whole – but it is this one part – text – which has come to dominate libraries, research, and the gentle reader. Will the new media generate their own aesthetic and so digital text lovers in time to come will argue about the relative merits of the plastic housing? Will there be teak readers – or even leather covered ones for the digital copies of those old books? Are there already collectors of “first editions” of Kindling?
So where are our great collections of machinery catalogues, company newsletters, type specimen books, price lists, printer’s blank books, clip art books and CD-ROMs, envelope manufacturers sample books and prices lists, company in-house videos, image library catalogues and CD-ROMs, printing ink sample books, typesetting instruction, handbooks and parts books and – my personal favourite – paper sample books… the industry grey literature in general which forms the primary source material for the books of the future on our history of books and printing? And collections of books notable for their thingness (those not accidentally collected for their texts or because they just happen to be rare books)?
The problem lies with the idea of the book, with the idea of libraries, still today as in the past, as temples of reading matter, be it printed or now digital. Your aim is to collect objects for people to read so why would you set about collecting objects which have no reading value but are important as something else (for their thingness or as a documentation of some process or technology)? I remember a bizarre story some years ago where one brave librarian was given a “please explain” as to why they had bought “blank books” for the library, i.e. some paper sample books. Due to technological innovation in the twentieth century, the limitations of the “legal deposit” provisions based on an inadequate concept of publication and the structure and role of libraries in society, collecting this kind of material has been and remains extraordinarily difficult. Few libraries have been able or have wanted to rise to the challenge.
Printing history – my term of preference for lack of a better one as it covers all aspects of printed matter from book to bookplate – didn’t stop in 1901 or in 1945 or even in 2010. History is an ongoing process and you can watch it passing you by if you stop and look. So material about phototypesetting, offset printing, POD (= publishing on demand), as well as the digital printing revolution are in no way less important than printing history from the days of letterpress. Perhaps moreso than that of earlier periods because those documents are now usually kept and collected – being old, rare and often valuable. More recent material is still widely thought of as rubbish. Q: How much of it, if not discarded, ends up hidden and little used in so-called ephemera collections because it is not thought worth the effort of processing nor the investment of cataloguing? A case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose??
A great deal of this material has already been lost forever but much also still survives and awaits capture. Collecting and preservation is paramount though an increased interest by researchers – be they academic or amateur – would generate more in the way of collecting and preservation. Digital texts will bring with them the slow disassociation of book from text. But then why do we speak of eBooks and why have the manufacturers of readers for digital surrogates up till now tried so very hard to make them look and work like “real” books, which they clearly are not?! Though books will “always” be with us, this dissociative shift will bring about a clearer appreciation of the up-till-now largely invisible vehicles of text and, hopefully, of their even more invisible producers as well. Collect while ye may… and before the genre takes off, as it surely must. But then hasn’t it always been the case that people only start to take an interest in something once it has been substantially lost?