Remarks upon receiving the APHA annual award
New York City, 25 January 1997
Posted ]with the author’s permission. Copyright and all other rights in this essay inhere in its author, whose property it is. Anyone who wishes to circulate it needs to apply to him.—12 February 1997
Thank you, Sue Allen, for those kind words, and thank you, APHA, for this recognition. I am honored to be associated with all the distinguished scholars that have received this award in the past, and perhaps a bit surprised to think that my work merits such acknowledgment. But most of all I am pleased that it is APHA, the American Printing History Association, that has so recognized me. Of all the many scholarly organizations with which I am associated, and they are many, APHA is a favorite. I know of no other organization that happily brings together such a diverse and wide-ranging group of enthusiastic scholars and practitioners–academics, collectors, librarians, graphic artists, printers, and others. What we all share is our interest in printing history, and I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect with you on its nature and importance.
Much of what I have to say about printing history as a scholarly pursuit was contained in my talk entitled “The Art Preservative: From the History of the Book Back to Printing History,” which I gave at the twentieth APHA conference in 1994 held, appropriately enough, at the Morgan Library. Those of you that heard that talk (or have read the version published in APHA’s journal, Printing History) will remember that I began by comparing two talks by distinguished scholars. The first was Rollo Silver’s “Writing the History of American Printing,” delivered at the APHA annual meeting in 1977 when he was honored with this award. The second was David Hall’s “On Native Ground: From the History of Printing to the History of the Book,” which was the inaugural James Russell Wiggins Lecture in the History of the Book in American Culture delivered at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester in 1983. Both, I suggested, were foundational statements, attempts to define the projects that we have come to think of as printing history and the history of the book.
My goal in examining these talks was to suggest that these two projects had much in common and much to contribute to each other. My point was to illustrate that printing history and the history of the book are not necessarily so very separate as has been suggested by David Hall and others, and in that talk I attempted to explore just how that was by drawing on my own research into a 19th-century Worcester job printer, Charles Hamilton, and to suggest the broader issues and questions that his life and work raised. I argued that the history of the book must engage in printing history if it is to avoid producing yet another set of vague generalizations about print culture in society. But printing history must also adapt itself to current intellectual concerns and discourses. I agreed with Rollo Silver that we need more work with primary materials, printed and manuscript, more case studies, and certainly we need proper footnotes. But if printing history is to thrive, I believe that it must go further than compilation and accumulation. It must address broader issues of culture and society as well, issues that are closely tied to our understanding of printing, that are reflected in the phrase “art preservative of all arts” that I had used in my title.
Today, the history of the book is certainly a flourishing enterprise. It has conferences, newsletters, scholarly journals, publishers’ series, academic programs devoted to it. I continue to believe that printing history has much to contribute to it, and much to learn from it. Certainly we, as printing historians, must make sure that our own work engages the concerns and interests of our fellow historians of the book. But I think that we must also recognize that academic fashions change, that academic discourse shifts its focus. If the kind of cultural history favored by historians of the book, with their interest in what they term “print culture,” is popular today, who can say that it will continue to seem relevant or important in future? And we must be sure to adapt our work in printing history to reflect those changes.
At the heart of our work, I trust we can all agree, is the belief that books, printed objects, are important. And, I think, will continue to be. They are objects of veneration, of trade, sources of pleasure and information. They effect what we think and how we act. They provide a record of human dreams and disappointments, human successes and failures. As printing historians our concern is first with their manufacture, but also with their distribution and their use. In our work to study and to understand them, we draw widely on a number of disciplines: not just cultural history, but also social history, labor history, demographics, bibliography, the history of technology and materials, of design. All are relevant to our interdisciplinary project.
My own work, I think, reflects this. When I found myself twenty years ago working on the completion of Bibliography of American Literature, I faced the task of analyzing and describing the physical structure of 19th-century American books. Here I found that my training, working as a forwarder at the Harcourt Bindery in Boston, was immensely useful, for I had first-hand experience in just how it was that books were put together. Later, when I began my study of Boston’s preeminent 19th-century publisher, Ticknor and Fields, I needed to learn how to interpret the firm’s business records preserved in the Houghton Library. I buried myself in handbooks of accounting and slowly learned the principles and practices of 19th-century bookkeeping. My research on Charles Hamilton and Charles Ellms, a Boston publisher and illustrator of the 1830s and 1840s, involved me with geneaology and census records. An interest in the 19th-century transatlantic book trade led me to legal history as I untangled the complicated story of tariff and copyright legislation. And on and on.
Much work remains in front of us as we pursue our study of printing history, and I often think that our greatest need is for curiosity and the ability to admit what it is that we do not yet understand or know. These lie behind my own first attempt at printing history. As I worked on Bibliography of American Literature, I discovered that most of the books that I was describing had been printed from stereotype or electrotype plates. In order to understand them better I needed to know more about these processes and especially how they had been used. How were plates made? What did they cost? How did they effect the ways that books looked and patterns of publication? What were the differences between American and British practice? Answers were not easily found to these and other questions that I had, so I decided that I would gather together what I had discovered and make a talk. My thought was that by exposing my own ignorance I would quickly be set right. But when I presented my preliminary findings at the planning meeting for the APHA’s New England chapter, my hopes were dashed. I remember clearly that afterward, Rollo Silver, at the time certainly our preeminent printing historian, could only tell me how much he had learned from the talk and that he was unable to add much. The same occurred when I later presented a revised version at the 1982 APHA conference organized by John Lancaster. That talk was published in Printing History, and though I still feel that my account and conclusions can only be thought of as tentative and imperfect, I still wait for someone to revise and expand upon them.
If the study of printing history is to continue and prosper, we must take care to preserve the primary materials for research and make room for them in the digital libraries of the future. In achieving this important goal, we must be inventive and imaginative. Books and other printed artifacts are primary to our work, and I hope that we can meet the challenge of selecting and conserving them so that they are accessible to future scholars. But manuscript and archival materials are also vitally important, and I fear that much has already been lost. We also need to save the physical artifacts used in typecasting, printing, and composition, and make sure that those that have the skill of using them pass their knowledge on. How often I have wished that I could only watch as someone cast or repaired a stereotype plate! But this once important and ubiquitous printing technology has apparently disappeared, and I am left with puzzling it out from frustratingly elliptical accounts, from surviving stereotype plates (rare enough, I am afraid), and from careful examination of 19th-century books.
If we are to preserve the materials for the study of printing history–printed books, manuscript records, physical artifacts–we must also make sure that they are used, for in the end their value depends on the use to which we put them. Our obligation here is not just as scholars and researchers, but also as teachers. It is essential that we share with others the knowledge and skills that we have, encouraging other, especially younger scholars, to continue our work. I have been involved from the beginning with Terry Belanger’s Rare Book School, as well as with a series of summer seminars sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society’s Program in the History of the Book in American Culture. Now, at the University of Texas, a great deal of my time is devoted to teaching, and while much of what I teach there is not immediately related to printing history, I believe that it is not so very distant from it either. Most of my graduate students–and many of my undergraduates–try their hand at setting type and printing on a 19th-century Hoe Washington press, an experience that teaches them the lesson that print, even in our electronic age, is manufactured. I hope that this award recognizes my accomplishments not just as a scholar, but also as a teacher.
I began by saying that I value APHA especially because it brings together a diverse, wide-ranging group of interested and interesting people. This surely reflects the interdisciplinary nature of printing history, and is APHA’s greatest strength. But it could also become our greatest weakness. The danger, as with any interdisciplinary enterprise, is that the center will not hold, that we all, expert in our own special fields, become merely amateur printing historians. This will not happen as long as we all continue to share and to teach our special knowledges, our special interests, our special research. I congratulate APHA and its members that this has always been so in the past, and trust and believe that it will continue to be so in future.