February 23, 2011
So you must read a lot, eh?

My father thinks I want to be an archivist. My landlord thought I studied book history to become an accountant. A woman in my hometown asked me what library science was, and everyone else just says, “So you must read a lot, eh?”

Sometimes I feel like Chandler Bing. Even my closest friends and family have no idea what it is that I actually do. On the rare occasion that someone asks, I’m so surprised that instead of saying the real answer—”I’m in a graduate program for Information and a collaborative program in Book History and Print Culture”—I blurt out something like “I do library stuff” or “I study Book History.” After countless confused looks and misinterpretations, it’s time that I attempt to simply define what I study and why I do it.

The other day I came across an excellent article by G. Thomas Tanselle (a bigwig in bibliography and textual criticism, for those of you who are saying “Never heard of him”). It seems that as a bibliographer Tanselle felt like a Chandler too, only on a much larger scale. Even in the second half of the 20th century he had to deal with scores of people scratching their heads and saying, “So what do you actually do?” His article “Description of Descriptive Bibliography” (Studies in Bibliography Volume 45) is a kind of attempt to answer them.

Of particular relevance to my own work is the following excerpt:

People use the word “book” to refer to a verbal work than to a physical object. A few years ago the comic strip Nancy showed Sluggo writing the phrase “Rectangular, smooth and heavy,” whereupon Nancy disdainfully comments, “When it says ‘Describe the book,’ I think they mean the story.” The suggested superciliousness of her remark implies that any sensible person ought to know how irrelevant the shape and feel of a book are. Like the average person, she sees the ambiguity of the term “book” and yet immediately dismisses one of its meanings. The fact that the cartoonist expected this exchange to amuse his readers reflects his assumption that they would side with Nancy in finding Sluggo’s response naive. Sluggo’s final comment — “I thought that one sounded too good to be true” — reinforces another aspect of the standard attitude by implying that the description of physical details is mechanical and straightforward — that is, “easy” — in contrast to the supposedly more difficult and challenging task of accounting for plot, characterization, and ideas.

Reading this, I knew I had the foundation to explain my own work and interests. To begin with, much of what I do is actually bibliography (I could get into the different types of bibliography, but that’s a post for a different day). Essentially, my main concern is examining and describing the physical parts of a book in order to learn more about the history of book production and transmission. I look at bindings, check for watermarks, and measure x-height; I examine everything about the book except the meaning of the words on the page. So no, I really don’t read a lot. It’s eye-straining, back-breaking work, but it’s extremely rewarding, especially when you consider that I get to work with one of the finest rare book collections in North America.

Still sounds boring you say? You only know the half of it! Studies in print culture are also concerned with the future of the book. In addition to courses on bibliography and rare books, I also study topics like electronic textual editing, hypertext, the “book-ness” of e-books, textuality in video games, &c, &c, &c. Last term I made an XML representation of an Old English manuscript of Genesis. I also played Portal for homework.

Maybe this attempt at an explanation only further complicates understanding of what I do. At the end of the day, when I enter the professional world, I hope to be a rare books librarian. Does that mean I’ll leave the future of the book up to the rest of you idiots? No. I think that it’s possible to focus on both ends of the spectrum. In fact, I’m currently working on publishing an essay on the concepts of scarcity and rarity in electronic books. Keep your eyes peeled. 

  1. thebookherstorian posted this
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