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.
What does citizenship entail? For many it is not just a passive right but rather comprises a more fragile set of practices, duties, and beliefs that need to be reworked and reaffirmed along the way. It might be useful to think of “citizenship” as a container for a wide variety of ascribed meanings in time. A century ago, when World War I came to an end, many Western nations re-evaluated what it meant to be a citizen, who was entitled to become one, which rights it entailed, and what one needed to know in order to act properly. For the protagonists of suffrage movements, full citizenship could only be realized through the attainment of civil rights and participation in the formal political process, most notably voting. The ability and desire to do that required knowledge.
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”