On a particularly cold and rainy November the 13th, the Center for the History of the Book welcomed Professor Iain Donaldson from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh to speak about the important features of the modern book that derived from the early printed books created before the end of the sixteenth century. By providing examples through books found in the Royal College of Physicians’ Library, Professor Donaldson argued that many of the elements we see today in modern publishing are direct, or close indirect, descendants from those first printed books. Although they may look very different now, the functionality and look of these elements remain relatively unchanged. Specifically, those that favor the accessibility of readers seem to survive today, while those intended for the printer’s use have dwindled away with the inventions of new technologies and processes.
Officially founded on the 29th of November, 1681, Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians certainly warrants the epithet of ‘venerable’ and this is reflected in both the grandness of the buildings which house it and its worldwide reputation as a centre of medical education and research. One of the physicians who campaigned voraciously for the institution to be founded, Sir Robert Sibbald, was also involved with the inauguration of the city’s Royal Botanic Garden and this link between the worlds of botany and medicine is continued through the small Physic Garden which can be seen in the College’s central courtyard. Designed by Thomas Hamilton and ready for occupation in 1846, the College’s main building is one of great distinction, acting unmistakably as an architectural signifier of the wealth of knowledge and tradition contained behind its doors.
It has been a month since I attended the second of the two twined symposia co-organized by The University of Edinburgh and Harvard University, and nearly daily an insightful comment or compelling example from the symposium crosses my mind.
The symposium thrived within the conceptual space afforded by the difference between the History of the Book and the history of a book. This seemingly small grammatical difference, as well as the interplay between thinking of the book and new media and then the book as new media, opened the theoretical space of the conference.
At the conference’s concluding roundtable, the presenter’s joked about the rigorous work undertaken in the sliver of conceptual slippage offered by the different prepositions, noting that the symposium could be summarized in one sentence – “What are a book?”
On 14-15 May 2015, the first of twinned symposia, “Books and/as New Media,” was convened at Harvard University. Co-organized by Deidre Lynch (Professor of English, Harvard University) and Tom Mole (Director, Edinburgh Centre for the History of the Book), this symposium featured six leading scholars who traced articulations, re-imaginings, and redeployments of the book in the face of changing media ecologies.
I have never been ashamed to embrace the often turbulent digital culture of the 21st-century twenty-something. Nearly every day new technologies are introduced, aiming to ease the burden of living in a technology-saturated world; and more social media tools are created to help the lonely pseudo-adult connect to the outside world from the comfort of her desk, couch, and occasionally — as I’m brave enough to admit — bed. Out of the mess of fan blogs, gossip headlines, and pictures of cats, there sometimes emerge genuine communities, such as networks of enthusiasts passionate about their particular field, using popular web platforms to collect, document, and archive the objects of their own passion. As Zadie Smith wrote in her second novel The Autograph Man, ‘the collector is the savior of objects that might otherwise be lost’.