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.
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”
When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country?
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.