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.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Catholic libraries in Germany adopted modernized methods of organization to simplify their use: the arrangement of books by subject, alpha-numeric classifying systems, and card catalogs. The adoption may not seem like much, but in the structure and practice of Catholic knowledge the change was fundamental. How did this revolution come about and what did it betoken?
Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the intensified Western aggressions expedited the Qing Empire’s decline, Chinese sociocultural elites started to question the value and relevance of their traditional knowledge system. Believing knowledge to be the secret behind the rise of the Western powers, these elites avidly consumed so-called New Learning (xinxue), that is, general, mostly Western knowledge that was new and foreign for China.1 Importing, translating, and reading books containing Western knowledge were deemed urgent tasks, crucial to the survival of China. As the renowned reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) put it, “if a nation wants to strengthen itself, it should translate more Western books; if a student wants to stand on his own feet, he should read more Western books.”2
The first major text printed with movable type, the Gutenberg Bible (1454) symbolizes early print. Although this and other early printed books have long interested scholars, librarians, and collectors, many questions remain unanswered. For starters, how exactly did printing know-how spread from one town to the next? Who sold and transported the books from the workshops to the readers? Where did printers buy the vast amount of paper they needed to print their books? Who decided which content to print?
An impressive handwritten codex at the National Library of Israel embodies the intricacies and peculiarities of crafting, reading, and transmitting practical knowledge in early modern Jewish contexts. The volume, known today as manuscript NLI 8º 1070, was likely produced in the 1730s somewhere in the Polish territories. A variety of local Polish-Ashkenazi traditions are well attested throughout the codex: vernacular and elite, theoretical and practical, of Jewish and Christian provenance, and transmitted mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish, but with elements of Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Ruthenian.
In Elizabethan London, one of the more surprising things a wealthy owner of a beautifully illustrated folio volume could do was to take a sharp knife and cut it to pieces. John Blagrave’s 1585 Mathematical Jewel, in fact, demands nothing less.1 This work, which introduced an elaborate instrument of Blagrave’s design for performing astronomical calculations, included woodcuts that were specifically provided in order to be cut out and used as surrogates for the brass original:
get very fine pastboord made of purpose, and then spred your paste very fine thereon, & quickly laying on this picture & clappe it streight into a presse before it bee thorowe wette with the paste (fol. ¶6v)
Readers of this blog may have asked themselves what the image identifying the Learning by the Book contributions shows. At first glance, the photo simply contains a row of worn, bound, heavy handbooks on a library shelf. The books are arguably very European and modern; however, they convey an aspect of “bookish” materiality that many of the contributions to this blog, regardless of time period or region, deal with in quite diverse ways. Continue reading “The Politics of the Handbook”
In 1737, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus bitterly complained about the haphazard naming practices of his contemporaries. “The names bestowed on plants by the ancient Greeks and Romans I commend,” he wrote, “but I shudder at the sight of most of those given by modern authorities: for those are for the most part a mere chaos of confusion, whose mother is barbarity, whose father dogmatism, and whose nurse prejudice.”1 But even after the many editions of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae ostensibly brought order to the chaos of naming things in the natural world and structuring Western scientific understanding of it, the problem of accurately describing new natural phenomena persisted.
Circa 1835, following a survey of recent Dutch publications in shogunal collections, the Japanese physician Koseki San’ei (1787–1839) concluded that among the strengths of new European approaches to education, a proactive attitude toward the power of cheap pedagogical print was paramount. European countries, Koseki declared, “produce affordable and easy-to-understand books on all arts and sciences, give them to impoverished scholars, and by doing so verse them in the arts and sciences.” “It is through this,” he maintained, “that they foster talent.”1