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Society for History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing Conference Recap

By Roy M. Carlisle

Roy M. Carlisle attended his first S.H.A.R.P. international scholars conference in 2013. S.H.A.R.P. is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing. Scholars from all over the world gathered in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania for this 21st annual conference to discuss the state of the book in a global context and share their historical, sociological, literary, geographic, and informational systems research on the History of the Book. It was a rare opportunity to see how a new academic field is establishing itself and expanding beyond and through multiple disciplines.

There was, the entire four-volume set, sitting on the top shelf in the display of Oak Knoll Books and Press: A History of Publishing in the United States by J.W. Tebbel. This is my favorite set of books, bar none, and seeing it there was a sign to me that I was in the right place at the right time. I felt an intellectual shiver, as if I were standing in a sacred space, and for me it signaled the joy I was going to experience for the next three days. I was browsing in the small exhibit hall on the ground floor of Cohen Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania for the 21st Annual Conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (S.H.A.R.P.), which was held in Philadelphia from July 18 to 21, 2013. After reading dozens of books about the history of publishing throughout my career, here I was, for the first time, surrounded by 299 registered attendees at, arguably, the most interesting scholarly conference on publishing, printing, and book history in the world. It is hard to express how exciting this was to me and I had to keep reminding myself that I was really here, after months, even years, of anticipation.

Studying the SHARP program diligently with its three days of 55 panel sessions and 173 presentations, various forums, plenary keynotes, receptions, tours of Philadelphia institutes and rare book and manuscript collections, was an exercise in “choice shock.” I was not attending this event as an editor/publisher, my usual role, so I could follow my own interests but even trying to do that was daunting.

Since I wanted to get the ’big picture’ I went to David McKnight, the convener of the conference and Director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania and asked if I could interview him. In that conversation David proceeded to dazzle me, unbeknownst to him probably, with the history of SHARP, his own role in it, and the History of the Book projects in many countries. He noted how SHARP was a catalyst for this emerging scholarship back when it was founded in 1991. He referenced a book by D.F. McKenzie whose Bibliography and Sociology of Texts, published in 1999, began to transform his and many others’ understanding of what it meant to study the history of the book. Those ideas helped shape a scholarly discussion which also began to transform the field from a descriptive bibliographic orientation to a much broader understanding of the material texts.

The field began to grow rapidly over the next two decades and it was David’s overview and explanation of specialized language and streams of thought which guided me through my choices of sessions to attend. It can take years to understand the intellectual landscape of any academic discipline but I wanted to learn all of that in three days. That is not possible, of course, but with David’s help and others that I talked to I did make some progress toward that goal, which might have eluded me completely if I had just wandered around listening to interesting sounding presentations.


Serendipitously I was walking between sessions and met Cassie Brand. She was a first timer but also a doctoral student at Drew University and a rare book and manuscript librarian. Clearly, she knew a lot more than I did about this field. Cassie had worked in publishing but had been drawn to the scholarly/library world for various reasons. One singular reason was her discovery that librarians and book history scholars are very collaborative and inclusive, and that helped draw her into the field. She commented on the congenial and nonhierarchal atmosphere at this specific conference. Not that other academic conferences aren’t congenial, but we both sensed a heightened degree of that reality during this gathering. When a group of scholars are “discovering” and establishing a new academic discipline, then maybe the only way forward is through collaboration across academic and geographic lines.

My long-time publishing colleague, Allen Fisher, who was attending as an independent scholar, noted, “This year’s conference felt like a changing of the guard. While older scholars remain active, recent PhDs and grad students were present in increasing numbers. The rise in energy was palpable.” Those younger scholars were bringing new areas of research and new ideas to this field, and like Cassie, they were welcome in a variety of academic departments.

Although I am not a trained researcher, I did notice different methodological approaches and research conventions. It should not have surprised me since the discussion of how the History of the Book research fits into the standard academic curriculum was one of the major reasons I think this field is so creative and interesting. Should it be studied in departments of History? Literature? Sociology? Geography (with GIS, Geographic Information Systems analysis)? Comparative Literature? Library and Information Science? Where? Or all? My sense was that all are appropriate and all will continue to be loci for research. Scholars from all of those departments were in attendance. It did explain why there was such a wide variety and type of presentation.

For example, in one session I heard a fascinating paper presented by Katherine Grandjean from Wellesley College about her textual research into Cotton Mather’s description of Hannah Dustin’s story. In March 1697, while living in Haverhill, MA with her husband and eight children, Hannah was kidnapped by Abenaki American Indians. Her newborn daughter and neighbors were murdered. Eventually she escaped after convincing two other victims to help her kill her captors. Her story was retold by Nathanial Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry David Thoreau and was a sensation at the time. She is the first woman in the U.S. honored with a statue, and six of them now dot the Massachusetts and New Hampshire landscape. The use of those stories to create “geographies of fright” was an interesting journey into the use of texts to illuminate life in early colonial times.

In another conversation, I chatted with an established scholar, Dr. Tara Penry, who is an Associate Professor of English at Boise State University and director of the Hemingway Western Studies Center at BSU, and past president of the Western Literature Association. She and her colleagues are involved in two core projects, the Western Print Culture Online and the Western Writers Online. The WWO project is about to launch in October 2013 and will “publish peer-reviewed articles and reprints, which illuminate the lives and works of authors of the North American West. Both projects aim to enhance public awareness of print, literacy, and literary activity in a region best known for iconic landscapes and global brands.”

BSU also has a digital humanities initiative which includes Melville’s Marginalia, a website publishing marginal notes of Herman Melville in the books he owned and marked. Scholars like Tara bring intelligence, wit, and passion to this exploding field and give us all a glimpse into why this conference is so interesting and relevant. Without History of the Book scholars like Tara and her colleagues, we wouldn’t know that Herman Melville had a copy of Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale in his library. The half-title page is inscribed with Melville’s signature and the note: “New York, July 10, 1850.” And the contents of the book enumerate chapters with information about the habits and nature of sperm whales. Will the real Moby Dick please stand up! Moby Dick is another one of my favorite books, in fact, I own a copy of every book Melville wrote, but it was instructive to know the origins of that astonishing tale.

Conversing with John Pollock, Public Services Specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, who works with David McKnight, mentioned that this is a time of great change for History of the Book scholars, libraries, and universities like Penn. “Online reading takes on more meaning when you can actually see the physical materials that are the basis of those online texts. More teaching can happen when these rare books and manuscripts can be viewed, and, in fact, how these texts were written, published, and disseminated during their own time affects how we perceive them today.” I had not ever thought about that.

What did I learn? More than I can possibly impart, but first, that the book is alive and well throughout the globe, and that now we have dozens of older and newer scholars studying how we read, what we read, and why. We are discovering how reading books and texts changes brains, if not lives. And we have a clearer picture of how writing, reading, and publishing affect civilization, all civilizations. Will books in material form disappear in the digital age; Absolutely not, according to these scholars. Maybe the History of the Book research will inspire all of us to publish texts that will be handled with white gloves, one hundred years from now! I hope so.

*Also published in Book Business Tue. August 6, 2013

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