Why Manuals and Handbooks? Why Now?

In one month, an international group of almost 40 scholars will convene at Princeton for four days to discuss manuals and handbooks. We—Angela Creager, Elaine Leong, Kerstin von der Krone, and Mathias Grote, aka the organizers—are absolutely thrilled about what will be a great event to explore a novel field of study, straddling continents and ages, bringing together our field, the history of science/knowledge, with the history of the book and media. In posts added to this blog in the coming weeks, we aim to get the ball rolling among our participants and visitors, but we’d also like to start a conversation with everybody interested in this subject—not least since we received more than 150 applications to our conference and were not able to accommodate many promising proposals. So consider this a little virtual conference before the conference.


Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18 or on this blog with a post of your own. Tweet or email us links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.


How did this all start? Origin stories are notoriously difficult, as we all know, but if we remember correctly, Angela and Mathias were discussing their research sometime in 2015, when both realized that a central source they were looking at in their projects on the histories of molecular biology and bacteriology, respectively, was a manual. But what was a manual? We found some literature on pedagogy, and obviously a lot on practice, such as protocols, standardizations, etc., but it seemed like there was a real gap. How to make sense of the seemingly obvious, of the instructional literature, the texts that every scientist knows, but nobody really talks about? Was this all about instructions, that is, connecting action to knowledge?

We soon realized that it was not, and that the problem of maintaining and ordering knowledge also loomed large (somewhat similar to what we know from encyclopedias), and that the history of what became known as “manuals” and “handbooks” was quite complex and entangled. (Who would have guessed?) We also realized that as two twentieth-century persons, we lacked expertise on crucial earlier periods of time, and so we were fortunate enough that Elaine, researching recipes and cookbooks in early modern England, formed a little group with us. The rest is told quickly: Our proposal for a conference tackling this topic from antiquity to the present, and somewhat literally from Rome to Rio, was met with interest by the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, and so Kerstin, who works at the GHI on nineteenth-century Jewish catechisms and manuals, joined us. Moreover, we received generous support from the GHI and Princeton University.

There we are. And while the four of us will discuss our respective books and cases in our own contributions shortly, we will use this initial post to raise some questions that we think are pertinent to what we will be doing, and that may help us to understand each other’s stories better. We won’t be running exactly from clay tablets to online databases and wikis, but our spectrum is almost as extended and broad.

Seemingly obvious questions such as what is the specificity of the media you look at, will be important to ask and to discuss, as much as whether the terms used for the respective texts by actors and/or later observers translate smoothly into the modern English terms “manual” or “handbook” (this easily gets tricky even between English and German). Moreover, what do we find in our hands once we get to the archive or library, a heavy, dusty book in a leather binding, a mere pamphlet, or even completely different pieces of paper? For whom was this text written und who read it in the end? Some of us may be fortunate enough to find copies filled with marginalia, or material showing a “manual in the making,” but in many cases, these are tricky and exciting historical questions. Books can be written and distributed for many purposes, obviously, or even stolen. Their contents can be repurposed, read in different ways (backwards?), or not at all. This all merits attention.

Furthermore, do we see traces of the process that led from action to text, (intermediate steps such as handwritten protocols that were printed later, for example? More generally, how did action relate to text? What can we learn about those individuals—men and women of science, professional researchers, technicians, tradespersons, amateurs of various sorts, etc.—that penned, typed, set, edited, or sold these books? What kind of actors were these? How do we fit them into the respective pictures of knowledge production, communication, and commercialization in their respective periods and places, from center to periphery, from house to field, or couched between different languages and traditions?

These are just a few of the many possible questions and open issues that may help us to identify common motives or differences among the plethora of manuals and handbooks that we will look at in some weeks’ time. We hope that we’ll learn quite a bit about them here beforehand, and that many others reading these lines will engage in our conversation about how mundane reference works and written guides have helped people from antiquity to the present know and navigate their worlds.

Mathias Grote is an assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter ) in the History of Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Suggested citation: Mathias Grote, “Why Manuals and Handbooks? Why Now?,” History of Knowledge, May 2, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/02/why-manuals-and-handbooks-why-now/.