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The Collation

Early modern book history: it's not just for English majors

Every seminar I teach on early modern book history, I like to start with a class asking what is book history? We read Robert Darnton’s essay, of course, along with pieces from D. F. McKenzie and Roger Chartier, along with some supplemental readings (this year, those included a piece on medieval books and some work from a pair of economic historians). One of the reasons I like to start the term this way is it warms up students and gets them thinking about methodological issues while they’re learning about book history and material texts so that they can be informed explorers of the field. The question is not simply “what is book history?” but “what are the disciplinary biases in studying books and where do I fit in?” 1 In my classroom, these are especially important questions to address as a group, since students in the seminar come from a range of majors.

  1. My approach to this topic has been greatly influenced by Leslie Howsam’s Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture (Toronto: U Toronto P, 2006).


Interesting! I wonder how these charts compare with statistics for Folger reference questions and reader research topics as a whole? I love learning who uses the collection and how (and which disciplines aren’t using the collection, but should be, so that they can be enticed).

Erin Blake — September 20, 2012

Great and interesting post! It sounds like the diversity of fields represented would provide excellent discussions.

Elise — September 24, 2012

Disappointed not to see library science included in this disciplinary breakdown. Aren’t librarians, particularly special collections librarians, looking for instruction at the Folger Library? If not, it seems they should be.

Florence Margaret Paisey — September 26, 2012

You’re absolutely right that library science is a key field for study at the Folger. But this course is offered by the Undergraduate Program; hence the focus on what majors and minors students are in. As far as I know, none of the local schools offer undergraduate programs in library science. But there are other opportunities for study at the Folger, and librarians have certainly participated in seminars, workshops, and conferences offered by the Folger Institute. Indeed, the Undergraduate Program and the Institute are jointly offering a workshop on Teaching Book History this December, and a number of librarians have been accepted into that program. I’ll be writing more about that event as we get closer to it!

Sarah Werner — September 27, 2012

Thanks very much for your reply. I’m glad to hear that librarians are participating in seminars and workshops at the Folger. This makes sense. After thinking about it, I realized that this particular course is offered in an undergraduate program. Library Science is a graduate course of study — and probably should remain that way. Thanks again for clarifying the issue.

Florence Margaret Paisey — October 18, 2012