InfoReview: July 2015 – Conference Books and / as New Media in Edinburgh

Against the Sun: Roundtable at the CHB in Edinburgh

InfoReview: Conference Books and / as New Media in Edinburgh

Anja-Silvia Goeing

A major international event about the future of the book Books and / as New Media came to its end on Friday at the University of Edinburgh. Together with the History of the Book group at Harvard University, the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh organized 14-15 May at Harvard and 9-10 July 2015 at Edinburg two interdependent conferences. Delegates from the US, France and the UK came together at both places, with the speakers at one event becoming the discussants at the other. Historians of the book, media, literature and digital humanities presented six (Harvard) and seven (Edinburgh) papers, each paper had a respondent, and a roundtable discussion ended each conference. Papers included historical and systematical questions concerning communities of practice that have imbedded the book from the beginning of the printing press in the West 1450 to the present digital era.

In consequence of practices that not only show different levels of tacit knowledge around the book, but also show that the book is for the practitioners each time a completely different entity, Leah Price synthesized the result of the two conferences under one question: “What are a book”? The album, the materiality and use of which Deirdre Lynch worked out for 18th and 19th century English cases, was one of the analytic descriptions triggering this question: D. talked about blank pages, their entries by different hands, and implied shared social meanings and standards. Tony Grafton showed how important another scholarly practice – reliable cataloguing – has always been for finding and identifying books correctly on the shelves: The famous collector Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1575 and left priceless manuscripts, which he had catalogued himself in an imaginative and not always correct way. Are we singing the swan song of the materiality of books, as Kathryne Sutherland wants us to believe? A critical reflection not of books as such, but of the means of reading was Matthew Rubery’s talk about the audio book, a reading device that started to have large economic success from the 1970s, after beginnings in service for blind people in 1940, especially blind WWII war veterans after 1945.

All the questions discussed are of importance for the development of knowledge in the public sphere, because digitization with all its advantages poses a major threat to the transmission of information. The papers showed that there is value in becoming more conscientious about what exactly it is that we lose. This loss is not only a loss of content, but also, maybe even more important, a loss of skills and tacit knowledge around the handling of the book as we know it. As Grafton showed in the second part of his paper, the want of correct description has even today not been eliminated, although technology today habitually maps many more details than in the past: Google transcription for example distorted rather than mirrored their model books especially in the first years of Google Books’ OCE and scanning: The claim that all of google books are searchable is misleading. With his talk, Grafton makes us aware that we not only gain with the accessibility of the internet, but also lose traditional, highly developed techniques of organization and storing, which can’t be recovered because they are part of our tacit heritage.

Notwithstanding the criticisms, it will be webspace and new technology that will help to publish the outcome of this two-part conference: podcasts of the conference papers will be available for all interested on the site of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh.

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