History of the Book


Folks here at concurringopinions have been talking a lot about books recently–Nate Oman’s had posts on the appeal of law books (particularly old ones) and law reviews and Dan Solove’s posted about the open library. I find student-edited law reviews problematic in some ways, and the smell of old books doesn’t do much for me. But there is magic, imho, in libraries. Libraries are great enlightenment vehicles of improvement. They’re the places that knowledge is collected and disseminated. (And that’s why I find the stories about segragated libraries particularly important in understanding our history.)

I remember the excitment I used to feel on walking in Van Pelt Library as an undergraduate. The entire world of knowledge, it seemed to me at the time, was open to anyone who had the inclination and time to visit it. In keeping with the Supreme Court’s administrative law opinions of the early 1970s, like Overton Park (about the importance of getting information in front of regulators), I thought that the knowledge in those books held most, if not all, of the keys to a better society.

Sometimes, if I get to the University of Alabama’s library early enough on a Saturday (so there aren’t many other people around), and I’m working on an original project, and the light strikes the windows in the great reading room just right, that enthusiastic eighteen-year old I remember appears again, even if only for a short while.

When I’m thinking about old books, I’m partial to library catalogs. Because they give you a sense of the ideas that people had access to and the kinds of ideas they found appealing. The 1853 library catalog of the University of Georgia is available on the Georgia library’s webstite. Through the magic of the internet, you can see exactly what the catalog looked like. And you can also see what books were in the Georgia library. Historians in recent years have been talking a lot about the “history of the book.” They ask who was reading books, who was writing them, and how books were useful in transmitting ideas.

This is becoming a really popular area of teaching and research. And a lot of internet sites allow you to read important old books. One of my favorites is the University of North Carolina’s Southern Texts site. Another favorite is the University of Virginia’s e-books site. And, of course, if you’re doing nineteenth-century US history, the Making of America site is now indispensable.

My colleague Paul Pruitt and I are editing the University of Alabama’s catalog for 1848. I learned about the catalog from an extraordinary historian, Guy Hubbs, who wrote a brilliant book on Greensboro, Alabama during the Civil War. Paul has a great idea, to call the project “Burned Books,” becase the library (and hence the books listed in the catalog) were burned in the closing days of the Civil War, when Union soldiers destroyed most of the University’s campus.

What’s especially cool for historians is that the history of the book focuses on ideas: how are ideas preserved and transmitted, which are two topcis where the mind is central. And while I love great social history as much as anyone and I think that subjects like dress and architecture are great topics for study, I also enjoy thinking about the relationship between ideas and action. So I’m enamoured with some recent books on Southern intellectual history, like Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order. O’Brien has a whole chapter on libraries, and there’s more one can do with them, such as linking the books in libraries with individuals’ writings (like judicial opinions, newspaper articles, and student papers).

(The picture is of the reading room at Harvard’s Widener Library.)

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1 Response

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    Al Brophy has an interesting post at Concurring Opinions about books, libraries, and related phenomena.

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