Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge

Manuals and handbooks are widely disseminated tools in the production and circulation of knowledge, used not only in education, science, and technology, but also in broader social and cultural contexts, such as the arts, religion, business, and politics. Undertaking to present a concise body of knowledge on a specific subject, they serve as reference and instructional works about particular subjects and related practices and procedures. Originally in the form of compact books or brochures, they were easy to carry around, ready to use when needed. The claim to present the most comprehensive knowledge on a particular topic also produced less handy versions of handbooks, however, even multivolume reference works. In recent years, many handbooks have morphed into electronic tools accessible on our mobile devices, available almost everywhere.

An upcoming conference, funded by Princeton University and the German Historical Institute, will discuss the long history of manuals and handbooks and will specifically explore their role as “key tools in the making, preserving and sharing of knowledge.” The conveners, Angela Creager (Princeton University), Mathias Grote (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin), and Elaine Leong (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), aim to bring together scholars from different disciplines—the history of science and technology, the history of arts and crafts, the history of books and media—who share an interest in the history of knowledge production and circulation. The conference will take place June 7–10, 2018, at Princeton. The conveners and the GHI welcome proposals for contributions until July 15, 2017 call for papers.

This conference addresses questions central to the new research focus of the GHI and the main topic of this blog project – the History of Knowledge. I am looking forward to participating in this promising endeavor not only as the GHI’s liaison but in connection with my own research. Manuals and handbooks—together with the rather curios genre of Jewish catechisms are the core sources of my research on nineteenth-century Jewish religious education in Germany and the Unites States.