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.
- Call for papers: “8th Gewina Woudschoten Conference—Towards a History of Knowledge,” in Zeist near Utrecht, June 21–22, 2019 (application deadline: January 15, 2019), via Marieke Hendriksen (@Ms_History)
- Call for submissions: “Women in the History of Science: A Liberating the Curriculum Sourcebook” (deadline: January 10, 2019)
- Conference report: Migrant Knowledges: Concepts, Voices, Spaces by Andrea Westermann
- Conference report: “Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge” by Alrun Schmidtke (@schreiber_in)
- Blog post: “Copyrighting Cartography with Fictional Places” by Bess Lovejoy at Atlas Obscura
- Blog post: “Reconsidering Mechanization in the Industrial Revolution: The Dye Book of William Butt” by Lidia Plaza (@_p_liddy) at JHIBLOG
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. 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”