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.
Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.