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

How do practitioners—of any form of specialized knowledge—learn technical skills, and how do they find knowledge deemed solid and secure? Clearly, much training occurs within formal situations such as schools and laboratories. Classrooms and their textbooks have attracted due attention from historians, with a focus in the last decade or so on how teachers convey working knowledge bodily and not only abstractly to their students or apprentices. But learning does not stop with formal education, and often enough it starts elsewhere. Manuals and handbooks have long enabled informal, often self-directed education and training. They also provide a new vantage point for bringing together history of science with history of books and media, from antiquity to the present. These instructional texts and compendia codify the knowledge of a working community with an eye to communicating what a new practitioner needs to know. Such texts have also played a key role in bringing local knowledge and know-how to far-flung readers and practitioners around the globe. By following these apparently mundane texts and their uses, rather than focusing only on elite practitioners, we bring into view an exciting new set of historical connections and participants.

Considering a Taken-for-Granted Genre

This project began in Berlin, when Angela Creager was a visiting scholar in Department II (“Ideals and Practices of Rationality,” led by Lorraine Daston) at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) and talking with Mathias Grote from the history of science chair at Humboldt University about their overlapping interests. They were struck to realize that each of them was writing on the history of a manual, in one case for bacteriology in the early twentieth century, and in the other case for molecular biology in the 1980s. It prompted them to ask: What is a manual? How might we make sense of something so seemingly obvious, instructional literature, that every twentieth-century scientist relies on but nobody really discusses? We quickly realized that the history of what became known as “manuals” and “handbooks” was complex and entangled. Eager to excavate and reconstruct a long-range history, we invited Elaine Leong, an early modernist at the MPIWG working on recipe literature and histories of reading and writing, on board. Along with Kerstin von der Krone, now Head of the Judaica Division, University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg of Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main, we co-organized a conference on this theme, held at Princeton in June 2018 and supported by the German Historical Institute Washington. From papers on a wide array of handbooks and manuals in the history of knowledge, most of them introduced beforehand in a series on this blog, we selected twelve focused on science, technology, and medicine to publish as a special issue of the open-access BJHS Themes: "Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Science" (vol. 5, 2020).

Jennifer Rampling explaining an alchemical manuscript, the Leonard Smethley roll, during the “Learning by the Book” conference in June 2018. The exhibit “Through a Glass Darkly: Alchemy and the Ripley Scrolls, 1400-1700“ will open at Princeton University Library in spring 2022.

Manuals and Handbooks: A History

Manuals and handbooks have a long and cross-cultural history, stretching back to the ancient period. Practical knowledge did not need to be written down, as it was usually passed from master to apprentice. Thus, recorded instructions reflected certain cultural conditions of literacy, mobility, and circulation of textual media. Etymologically, manuals and handbooks should mean the same thing They are books “on hand,” or held in the hand, for instruction, reference, even as a place to store additional handwritten notes. The differentiation between manual and handbook has never been clear-cut, and, to make things worse, French only knows the manuel, while German relies on the Handbuch. Yet, there is evidence that the spectrum of literature designated especially by the Germanic term changed significantly in the modern period.

Unhandy handbooks: chemistry reference section of the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Library, University of California at Berkeley, spring 2020. Photograph by Mathias Grote.

Over the nineteenth century, scientific and technological handbooks developed a tendency to become "unhandy" in size, and entire book series began to appear under this title. This transformation was certainly enabled by changes in the history of publication, such as the introduction of the steam-powered printing press and the mechanized production of cheap paper. Alongside these technological changes, the formation of scientific disciplines entailed other forms of writing, storing, and circulating knowledge in pedagogy and in technical practice, further encouraging the expansion of instructional or reference literature. Many such handbooks were not restricted (if they ever had been) to merely conveying instructional information. Rather, they offered the précis of a discipline or field, or ordered inventories of their objects, such as of chemical substances or biological species. These comprehensive handbooks emerged in response to other changes in the production, circulation, and differentiation of scientific literatures, not least the emergence of the modern scientific journal as a periodical form of print.

Our contributors have brought vivid detail and specificity to this genre’s history, while also illuminating other themes concerning how knowledge is preserved, transmitted, and taught. The articles are arranged chronologically in Themes, but here we will introduce them in terms of three motifs: (1) the making of manuals and handbooks, (2) their uses, and (3) their afterlives.

The Making of Manuals and Handbooks

Matteo Martelli offers a conceptual genealogy of small instructional texts in late Greek antiquity, focusing on encheiridia in music, astrology, and devotional guides, and adding recipe books from alchemy to the spectrum. Martelli illustrates a fundamental tension faced by his alchemical authors between claims to systematically order knowledge and what he calls a "polyphonic textual tradition," that is, discrete textual units that were flexibly compiled, updated, expanded, or reduced. Marta Hanson’s longue durée history of medical instructional manuals calls attention to the diverse and multilvalent metaphors used by Chinese authors to signal usability and orientational knowledge. Whereas authors signaled the portability and value of their knowledge in the early medieval period by using a number of "container metaphors," such as "kerchief-box," writers in the Ming period employed new metaphors such as mirrors, heart-mind, palm, and fingers. Often drawing inspiration from the body itself, Chinese authors used metaphors to make a complex and ever-expanding textual medical archive more accessible to a broader readership. Federico Marcon takes us to eighteenth-century Tokugawa Japan to investigate how knowledge of nature was transmitted in "canonical encyclopedias," highly elaborated collectors’ items. Natural knowledge in this context usually began with books, not observation of "Nature." These books tended to be updated rather than replaced, so authors had to accommodate new knowledge into old frameworks, representing a dynamic canon of knowledge within a hierarchic network of different textual genres.

“Diagram of govern-Heaven and in-the-source hand mnemonic,” in Zhang Jiebin 張介賓 (1563–1640), Classified Canon, with Illustrations and Commentary (Leijing tu yi 類經圖翼), 1624 first edition, Rare Books Collection, National Central Library, Taiwan. The twelve positions divide annual seasonal change into six steps; the surrounding text explains where to find each step on the fingers, concluding, “With one revolution in the palm, understanding the six qi is within one’s grasp.” From Marta Hanson’s article.

Mathias Grote compares the making of two encyclopedic repositories of information in their fields, the American Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology (on microbes) and the German Gmelins Handbuch der anorganischen Chemie (on chemical substances). His paper analyzes how specialized knowledge deemed established and relevant became usable "at hand" in what became, paradoxically, heavy tomes. This history of the encyclopedic handbook reveals unexpected authorial figures (editors, invisible assistants) and textual practices (excerpting, indexing) that are at odds with received narratives of the modern experimental sciences, and that more resemble those found in earlier natural history. Anna-Maria Meister’s article unearths the fascinating political and personal history of an unpublished German manual in the realm of architecture: Ernst Neufert’s Lebensgestaltungslehre. By contrasting Neufert’s published handbook projects with the still fragmented Lebensgestaltungslehre distributed across his unpublished index-card diary, Meister reveals how what one may call the spirit of the modern handbook, that is, a normalizing, technocratic way of thinking and working, materialized outside the covers of a book. These wide-ranging examples of making manuals and handbooks exhibit shared textual (and often paper) practices such as compilation, excerpting, and indexing.

Ernst Neufert’s diary in its original state as a card index. Archiv der Moderne, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. Photograph by Anna-Maria Meister.

Using Manuals and Handbooks

Turning to the uses of manuals, we find that the activities of users extended well beyond reading books. Boris Jardine presents the striking case of actual mathematical instruments that could be made from the printed pages of a manual. A key example is John Blagrave’s Mathematical Jewel, with its plates to be cut out, fastened on to pasteboard or wood, and assembled into a functioning instrument for astronomical calculation. These were instructional texts, to be sure, but readers learned mathematics by making.

Engraved frontispiece of John Palmer’s The Catholique Planispaer, which Mr Blagrave calleth the Mathematical Jewel (London: Joseph Moxon, 1658). It shows a woman working with Belgrave’s Mathematical Jewel, with Belgrave himself pictured top left and Palmer top right. Source: British Museum, asset no. 216603001, under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Stephanie Dick also deals with mathematical instructional literature, but three centuries later when a new kind of tool had become available, the computer. Digital algebraic systems, such as Project MAC’s Symbolic Manipulator (MACSYMA), offered mathematicians, physicists, and engineers a powerful new tool for solving computational problems, but learning how to use such a system was difficult, and so was communicating how to do it. The MACSYMA Reference Manual sought to train users to think about their problems in ways tractable to the computer system, showing how instructional texts aim to control as much as empower their users. Angela Creager examines how a popular scientific summer course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory prompted the publication of a manual for cloning genes, which sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first decade. However, methods were changing quickly in the field of recombinant DNA and gene sequencing, and each new edition became substantially longer. The tension between comprehensiveness and concision is especially relevant to the genre of manuals and handbooks.

Instructions and diagram for a molecular biology routine from T. Maniatis, E. Fritsch and J. Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982. From Angela Creager’s article.

Afterlives of Manuals

Looking at the afterlife of Mathematical Procedures, a key text from early China, Karine Chemla seeks to historicize what we mean by an instructional text. In her case, commentaries were a way of learning and amplifying existing knowledge, creating a canon of layered authorship. Jennifer Rampling also complicates our understanding of instructional literature by examining alchemical texts for which a step-by-step procedure was not the goal. In keeping with the encryption of valuable alchemical knowledge, would-be adepts consulted these texts in order to learn how to read alchemically, and so be able to practice the art. Elaine Leong follows the guide to another early modern field, surgery, for which "writing" a successful manual involved selecting, excerpting, compiling, and assembling. In so doing, Thomas Brugis compressed the traditional surgical manual to recipe-like instructions, yet subsequent editors of his text reinserted theoretical discussions of the human body and surgical ailments that Brugis had deliberately excluded. We see here again the accordion-like process over time of excision and expansion as editors of manuals try to include all that is essential while eliminating the extraneous. Lastly, Staffan Müller-Wille and Giuditta Parolini show how biologists turned to reprints of Gregor Mendel’s classic paper as instructions to the new field of genetics. The handwritten annotations they have found in libraries document readers who were literally learning genetics by the book, reminding us that the boundary between research articles and instructional material is sometimes surprisingly permeable.

Guiding Thoughts in the Age of YouTube

Digital book launch of the Learning by the Book collective, January 2021.

This collection invites readers to ask new questions about settled knowledge. How are traditional practices and protocols preserved or discarded, and how are the naming and ordering of objects or processes renegotiated in an age when nomenclatures, taxonomies, or bibliographies become ever more rapidly outdated? In the twenty-first century, the once-ubiquitous owner’s manual has been supplanted by instructional videos on YouTube. Is this a return to past practice, or a reinvention of the manual in a new guise? We have more information at hand than ever before and yet often struggle to find certified knowledge. As we continue to see how the internet has and has not altered learning, we hope this collective history may prove a handy guide.

Angela N. H. Creager is the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science at Princeton University, Mathias Grote is a Heisenberg-Fellow (DFG) in the History of Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and Elaine Leong (@historyelaine) is a lecturer in medical and scientific knowledge transfer and production at University College London.

Some of the scholars at the 2018 “Learning by the Learning by the Book” conference did not just work with texts and images, the bread and butter of historical research. Jennifer Rampling, for example, linked her reading of medieval texts to a modern laboratory, as she described in “How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe.”
Suggested Citation: Angela N. H. Creager, Mathias Grote, and Elaine Leong, “Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Science,” History of Knowledge, March 1, 2021, https://historyofknowledge.net/2021/03/01/manuals-and-handbooks-in-the-history-of-science/.

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