Introduction by Michael Thompson
Chair, Award Committee, New York, January 24, 2015
The work of our individual award winner is directly related to our mission here at the American Printing History Association. Paul Gehl is the custodian, as the original deed of gift requires him to be called, of the Newberry Library’s comprehensive history of printing collection. He has overcome that somewhat anomalous historical appellation, however, and is better known in the halls of the Newberry as the George Amos Poole, III, Curator of Rare Books, and Custodian, John W. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. According to Newberry president David Spadafora, he has the longest title in North America.
And he deserves it. Paul has been Custodian of the Wing Foundation since 1987 and has enriched that collection by through the acquisition of materials, exhibitions both of print & calligraphy, and the sponsorship of public lectures on various aspects of the book.
His formal training was as an historian, an A.B., M.A., and PhD. (the latter two from the University of Chicago), with a focus on late medieval/renaissance Italy, which gives him a critical understanding of the typeface innovations developed there which spread throughout early modern Europe. His experience as a fellow at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti) and the American Academy in Rome have contributed to his scholarly publications on the books and printing, especially on the subject of school books in Renaissance Italy. He has also had fellowships at the American Council of Learned Societies and the Newberry Library / British Academy Exchange. His scholarly articles, well over twenty-five at last count, exhibit an uncommon breadth of learning in our important field of the printed word.
Paul has been active in our own organization as well as organizations sharing similar goals. He has served on boards or committees of, to name a few, the American Printing History Association, Bibliotheca Wittockiana in Belgium, the Caxton Club in Chicago, Hamilton Wood Type Museum in his home state of Wisconsin, and La Bibliofilía, an Italian periodical on the history of printing.
The 2015 winner of the individual award from the American Printing History Association is Paul Gehl.
Remarks by Paul Gehl
Thank you, Michael; thanks to your committee; and thanks to the council and to the entire APHA .
I am moved by your kind words and grateful for the gift of this award. Having served on the awards committee for some years and studied its history, I know that you have put me in far more illustrious company than I usually keep. When I got the news my first thought was that I was really too young for an award of the sort, but then I realized I’m not as young as I tend to act. The bathroom mirror confirms this opinion, as does the occasional young person who nowadays offers up a seat on the bus.
In any case, I would like to take a few minutes of your time this afternoon to reflect on a few earlier winners of the APHA prize and what they and their work have meant to me, this by way of suggesting that the single most important thing in our printing history world is the spirit of collaboration. Certainly we vote our confidence in collaboration by joining APHA and remaining members. Such groups offer valuable places for exchange and fellowship, and in the particular case of APHA they advance a specialized field through publishing, conferences, and grants.
APHA and other groups are at the center of modern humanities, a field where collaboration increasingly relies on digital tools and digital communication. Some such collaborations are writ very large indeed. I think, for example, of the Toronto-based Iter, a consortium of medieval and Renaissance studies institutions that develops and distributes online resources. They offer thousands of tools, documents, and data bases, and they have recently adopted my own pokey little website about the Renaissance book trade, Humanism For Sale.
For me, however, much the most important collaborations are the small, gradual ones we achieve simply by asking and answering questions about our work, by looking at sources together, by reading and critiquing and editing each other’s work, and by publishing results that forward our common understanding of history. I tend to think of this kind of work as incremental or microscopic collaboration. Micro collaborations of the sort do often nowadays intersect with the big-data projects. I think for example of the Incunabula Short Title Catalog. The basic work and the maintenance have been in the hands of one of the big guys, the British Library. The concept is credited to Lotte Hellinga, though much of the actual work has fallen to one or two others, especially Martin Davies early on and more recently John Goldfinch. These people have made the ISTC work through hard, determined, detail oriented management, but they have also relied on collaborators world-wide for new entries, corrections to old ones, new locations and copies, and original published research which the compilers review and incorporate.
In the context of such a project, the work of individual, occasional collaborators is important, but it leaves few traces. The same is even more true for the kind of informal collaborations that I enjoy most about library work – meetings at reference desks, looking over shoulders in the reading rooms, e-mail exchanges about the minutiae of new research. Even within the community of professional historians, these things often go unrecorded.
Then too, a large part of the public for printing history is not other historians; it is printers, designers, collectors, and students. When I am faced with yet another group of first-year typography students, I often feel like a missionary in an old B-movie, likely to be an object of amusement, and maybe to end up in a kettle of hot broth. Or else, more typically, to be ignored altogether, since History (with a capital H) and historical thinking are not among the trending topics of our age. Witness the fact that when you Google “APHA award,” the first result is a prize given by the American Paint Horse Association, followed by the American Pharmacists Association.
Do let’s look at our own history, however, and think about the achievements of some of the APHA award winners past. I want to celebrate these people not for their outstanding, obvious achievements, which are for the most part detailed in the citations delivered at the time of their awards, but rather for their microscopic collaborations. I can do that best by recording their incremental effects on me but I am certain that many in the audience will have interacted in the same way with these same authors, scholars, and librarians. Surely you have done so with each other, and that is why you are here today.
Looking down the list, I see many people who have produced great and profoundly influential scholarship. For me at least, Robert Bringhurst, Robert Darnton, Joanna Drucker, James Mosely, Michael Twyman, Thomas Tanselle, Hendrik Vervliet, and Michael Winship stand out. Obviously, anyone who works on printing in the Renaissance has used Vervliet’s many publications, and anyone who works on U.S. printing history knows Winship’s book on Ticknor and Fields and his contributions to the History of the Book in America. In many cases, we are indebted to these scholars for major bibliographical projects too. Certainly I have devoured every one of their publications and learned a great deal from their methodology, from their conclusions, and often simply from discovering the myriad small facts they have uncovered and explicated.
But I have also been privileged to exchange many letters, e-mails, and conversations with these authors, and that is where I think I have personally gained the most. At the risk of embarrassing him, I would offer Michael Winship as an example. Many of you know, I think, that I trained as a medievalist, migrated to the Italian Renaissance, and have spent most of my life puttering about in the sixteenth century. In part because the Newberry holds important materials on modern calligraphy and design I have also found myself studying and writing about twentieth-century letter arts in Chicago. With working habits like these, my personal “Dark Ages” is the 19th century, so I am always happy when someone comes to the Newberry to study Bodoni, Didot, or DeVinne, stereotyping or proofing presses or wood type, or, like Michael, with a broadly comparative project about trade publishing in the 19th and early 20th century, something he did on fellowship with us in 2005. When a specialist settles in and starts asking questions, you have to think hard about what you have seen – often just in passing – that might be helpful. You start exploring sources you haven’t worked with before. More often than not, you start asking questions of the newcomer and that, in the case of an expert visitor like Michael, opens up worlds to explore. Soon, just for the sake of argument, you start expressing opinions about things you really don’t know much about. In the very best cases, the visitor leaves you understanding far more than you did when he arrived and feeling better about what you still don’t know.
Quite a different case obtains when you collaborate only at a distance, something that has typified printing history from the beginning (since no one can get to see every pertinent book) but which is much more possible and faster today. If any of you have collaborated with Hendrik Vervliet, winner of the APHA prize in 2011, you know how intense an e-mail correspondence can be. Hendrik deals in micrometric measurements of Renaissance types and he somehow knows that the best example of the fleuron or the ampersand he needs to measure is in a library near you. Still, when ten or twenty years later he finally publishes his results, it gives no small pleasure to know that you supplied maybe six of the –what? ten thousand?– examples he has used to build a complicated mosaic of evidence. This is microscopic collaboration for sure! Along the way, there are wonderful and ordinary and awful books to see, many of which would never have come into your hands without the questions collaborators like Hendrik ask.
There are still further-removed collaborations too, ones where you may not even recognize the dynamic. For this phenomenon I can single out Robert Bringhurst. Certainly I have read and used his important published work, but I don’t think we have met more than once or twice and then only in passing. We have exchanged a letter or two as well. But when I came to review Kay Amert’s book about Simon de Collines, which Bringhurst carefully pieced together from her fragmentary work, I discovered that Kay had been testing his ideas on me. Bringhurst was Kay’s principal sounding board for decades; he’s the guy she would go to in order to try out her original and sometimes tendentious theories. Then, when she had refined them and convinced herself, she would throw them at me. Sometimes she would toss out Bringhurst’s conflicting opinions instead. I cannot claim to have added anything to her arguments or his, but I certainly learned a lot from the process, not least of which confirmation of a lesson that had been growing on me for years, namely, never to trust the accepted opinions of early twentieth-century type historians. They simply did not have anything like the tools or the masses of evidence we can now adduce, and so they were almost always more opinionated than right. Did Bringhurst teach me this lesson? Certainly not directly, but at least in part by osmosis through our mutual friendship with Kay.
Since I have spent 80% of my professional life at the Newberry Library, I reserve a special place in my printing history pantheon for library workers, whether credentialed librarians or others who find themselves in the position of creating or making library collections available. Of course, we all have tales of indifferent and even obstructionist librarians, but I don’t think they are representative, and certainly some of my most exciting discoveries were really their discoveries presented to me with surprising modesty.
Two of the library workers on the APHA award list worked at the Newberry. Donald Krummel received the APHA award in 2004, 35 years after he left the Newberry for a distinguished career at the library school of the University of Illinois. We claim him, but his real claims to fame are associated with his work at Urbana and at Rare Book School. The highest calling in my book is that of teacher and those who teach bibliography are the noblest Romans of all. Don has inspired several generations of library school students and he has also preached bibliography and printing history to generations of musicians, since music bibliography is his specialty. At the Newberry, I have benefited from catalogs and reports he prepared or supervised back in the sixties, and his notes and memos in the archives, but even more from many fruitful conversations over the years about past or pending acquisitions. He has been unfailingly generous in telling me things I needed to know, especially things I didn’t know I needed to know, as well as many things I genuinely didn’t need to know but know now.
Last but not least, I would like to pay a brief tribute to my predecessor as curator of printing history collections at the Newberry, James M. Wells, who received the APHA award in 1986 and who died this past Labor Day. I cannot claim to have contributed much to Jim’s professional work, though he did once commission me, shortly after he retired and I took over, to do a bit of research that he could present to an old friend and Newberry trustee as his own work. The occasion is memorable not for the harmless deception involved, but because the deal we made was that he would spend whatever this businessman gave him as an honorarium on a meal for the two of us at a well-known top-tier restaurant. Believe me, for $500 in 1987, we wined and dined very well indeed.
Jim’s other collaborations with me – his contributions to my work – were less tangible, though sometimes in their own way just as tasty. The first task of any new curator, of course, is to familiarize himself with the collection he is charged with developing and to gain some clear ideas about its research potential. I had a head start in this, since I had been at the Newberry for six years in other capacities and heard Jim talk formally and informally about the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. I also had his many articles to go on. Jim had done the same a generation earlier, and he had drawn the collected wisdom of those who had written about the Wing collection into a file he called “the founding documents.” He even had the file cataloged separately as a manuscript. When I assumed the Wing Custodian’s title in 1986, he carefully avoided interfering with my self-education, but he pointed me in the direction of those “founding documents” and gave me a firm push.
For much of the next ten years, Jim would get inquiries and requests for help from professionals he knew around the world. He understood his retirement in a very thorough sense, however, and always sent the questions directly on to me. Invariably I would learn something, and even more importantly, it put me in direct contact with members of Jim’s large network of collaborators, for the most part people of his generation not mine. Good friendships developed this way, some professional ones of course, but also others that have become deeply personal.
Moreover, although Jim Wells resisted doing any real work after retirement, he was always willing to let me pick his brain. As I came to think of it, Jim was always there when I needed him and never there when I didn’t. His memory was prodigious, so I could take questions about provenance and past donors to him for answers. These were never quick answers, mind you. Jim was an accomplished raconteur, so a question about a particular book purchase would elicit information on others acquired from the same bookseller, then an extended biography of that bookman or his partners, including marriages, children, lovers, rivals in the book trade, other sources of income, and vivid details of the bookshop’s premises and the dealer’s favorite foods, wines, and restaurants.
And then there were the wonderful things Jim Wells collected that I have been exploring with delight ever since they gave me a stack pass in 1986. Jim was interested in the research potential of everyday printing, ephemeral printing, and technical and advertising literature that was not much studied when he took over the Wing collection in 1951. One example will serve for many. I remember visiting him some years after his retirement and recounting how a young musicologist on fellowship was consulting a stereotype specimen book of theatrical cuts that Jim had bought a good thirty years earlier. He remembered the book immediately and said, “How great! A Philadelphia foundry selling cuts to riverboat entertainers, right? I couldn’t imagine who, but I knew someone would want that book one day!” At the time, I was just pleased that he was pleased. But on further reflection, I would maintain that book buying is a kind of collaboration too, and may just be the most important collaborative thing we do – collecting and preserving research materials for the future, that is for a future full of fruitful collaborations.
So much for today’s sermon to the choir. If you are in this room, you are already committed to collaborations of one sort or another. I hope my few notes on the subject in the context of APHA have given you a chance to reflect on how important this phenomenon is.
Thank you for your attention and thank you again for this award.