Basically, I’m looking for a single generic term that would cover interest in the physical history and technology behind, for example, all three of these 17th-century representations of a horse:
(Detail) La caualcatura con le sue cerimonie dun pontefice nuouo quando piglia il possesso a Santo Giouanni Laterano, ca. 1625
(Detail) Title page of Mercurius Somniosus, 1644
(Detail) Letter from John Wollocombe, Robert Rolle and John Fortesque, to Anthony Rous, Christopher Worthevale and the rest of the commissioners for the militia for the county of Cornwall, 10 November 1651
Why is this on my mind at the moment? I’ve been tasked with drafting a new list of statistical categories for subjects dealt with at the Folger. We we need to have a sense of how the collection is being used in order to know which secondary sources to purchase, what areas of expertise to promote, how to characterize our work to grant providers, and so on. If nothing else, Folger docents need an honest answer to the perennial question “Is everyone in there studying Shakespeare?” A statistically significant random sample of reference questions from the past ten years shows that [insert pithy phrase for the study of technologies for the creation and circulation of objects bearing intentional marks for the purposes of interpersonal communication] is a major topic of interest. However, if we label that category “history of the book” it’s going to be hard to remember to use it for a reference question about the choice of secretary versus italic hand in a Renaissance letter, or the adoption of aquatint as a medium for caricatures in the 18th century.
In desperation, I posted the question to Exlibris-L in the hope that the perfect term might be out there, though perhaps not in English. The question certainly struck a chord: almost 100 messages over the course of two days, and a total of fifty suggestions. Discussion moved so swiftly that it quickly took on a life of its own, and I was afraid to confess that I was only asking because I needed a label for an in-house statistical category.
Suggestions included things that were obviously tongue-in-cheek (“Kindleology and its Discontents“), things that seemed reasonable though unfamiliar (“Archaeology of Inscription“), and things that managed to be both at the same time (“Physical Communicology“). What many of the responses had in common, though, despite the original message stating explicitly “I don’t want to say ‘history of the book,'” was the general sentiment that there’s nothing wrong with “History of the Book.” Most people favored phrases based on biblio-, book, Buch-, text, and word, which is exactly what I was trying to get away from.
Proponents of biblio-, book, Buch-, text, and word pointed out that these terms have come to have a broader meaning in the scholarly world. True, but what’s accepted in one academic discipline is not necessarily accepted in another, and the broader meanings haven’t made it into general dictionary use—nor should they, in my opinion. At the risk of making the issue more serious than it really is, being told that “History of the Material Text” also covers “Images” takes me back 30-plus years, when it was still routine (and irksome) for the collective noun “men” to also cover “women.” Now we simply say “people” or “adults” without a second thought.
Consider this printed ink-on-paper artifact:
L’Europe allarmée pour le fils d’un meunier, 1689
An art history professor could easily consider the whole thing an image; a comp lit professor could easily consider the whole thing a text. When it was first acquired by the Folger, it was described as a poem with an illustration; it’s now cataloged as an etching with a poem. Any of those approaches is reasonable, but half privilege the visual content and half privilege the verbal content.
Scientists coin words all the time. Couldn’t we do the same? It needn’t be a completely new word, just one that doesn’t carry inconvenient baggage with it. If physicists can study “the boojum,” surely we can can study “the… ???”