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Post RBS insights on Scientific Illustrations to the 1800s, with more to come

August 5, 2013

UPDATE: i was very remissed in forgetting to mention that our teaching assistant (though by no means just any teaching assistant!) was Caroline Duroselle-Melish, an astute and knowledgeable book historian by training and a librarian at the Houghton Library, at Harvard. She delivered a lecture, on the last day of class, on the circulation of a specific scientific volume produced in Italy, and deftly combined history of the book and bibliographic studies in her examination. I will say more on this when I start putting my notes here. 

I know I said I would post notes of my week at the RBS but it turns out that we had to take most of our notes by longhand because all the big old books we got to play with took up most of the table’s space, so no room for laptops other than the laptop of the instructor! So, the notes will have go to up later when I have sort through my never-ending deadlines, but I promise that there will be some interesting pictures to accompany them.

Also, we took a day trip to DC on Wed to visit with the Smithsonian Institution’s Cullman and Dibner’s libraries. I remembered wanting to apply for a fellowship with the Dibner’s when I thought I would be working on an earlier period than I am doing now, but this is still a possibility for future postdoctoral work. It was great looking at the sort of collections that were made not only for the study of the history of science and intellectual history, but how important some of the collections were for the current day scientists to trace to provenance of some of the taxonomic materials they were dealing with. However, I doubt that the books we looked at would be of interest to the scientists in anyway other than as historical artifact, though, even as a person working in 19th and 20th century Transatlantic history of physics (though I do mostly 20th to 21st century stuff for the diss), I found the early stuff useful in questioning the assumptions I have had about the later materials I work on and even the way diagrammatic thinking is put to use.

With Roger Gaskell (the son of late bibliographer Phillip Gaskell), erudite scholar-collector-antiquarian bookseller (in fact, it was reading about the work of antiquarian book sellers from accidentally found volumes, while I was a physics major in college, that turned me on, unknowingly, into book history), It was great learning about books and the art of scientific visuals from the late Middle Ages up to the post-Enlightenment period, and it got me to ask many questions about how visuals can itself be a way for looking at the ontology of ruptures and continuity in thinking about knowledge.

Science, as we know it before the 19th century, was not the science we think of today. What is so delightful in thinking about the knowledge production of that period, beyond the ambiguity in which most display, was the pliability of categories, which only became increasingly reified in the later periods. This, in a way, influences how knowledge and the marvels of it are laid in the text. Of course, there are issues of costs, technology, and even reader reception. But there are other corresponding issues as well relating to censorship, politics, dominant modes of thinking about a certain knowledge, and obviously, the desire of the author.  Since all the books we looked at were from the hand-press period, the illustrated prints were produced likewise, through woodcuts, wood-engravings, lithography, linotyping, various metal presses (mezzotinting, aquatinting, engraving, etching, etc).  While the class also visited the production of these materials, including the imperfections and mistakes produced, there were also discoveries of the tricks that the artists employed to bring a point across, or as part of artistic license (such as the author of the book himself/herself).

I am intrigue to see what experimental digital work that one can do with the materiality of the texts, which I know some other able scholars have begun working on. But in my case, I would be interested in juxtaposing, such as, 20th century images in physics with 15th century woodcuts and volvelles, and see what would be that result of the outcome.

More interestingly, while science used to be conveyed through books in past times, practices have changed tremendously since, with scientists barely reading books for professional reasons unless they happened to be textbooks, some references, and maybe some monographs. Largely, current day practicing scientists can make do without carting volumes around the way some humanists still do (as not all of our books exist in the electronic form). This is a far cry from what used to be the case in the periods we were examining. While there were the production of cheaper pocket-sized duodecimo (or even smaller), most of these texts were either in folios, broadsheets or quartos (all of that having to do with the foldings of the printing paper).

More to come later in the month, or maybe next month (at least on the topic of the RBS). Now I have to finish up Tansell’s short piece “The Pleasures of Being Scholar Collector” before heading out. Kinda fitting that my first work week day back home started with sorting through piles of rare books that gave me the same allergic reaction as all the old books at Charlottesville did. 🙂

P.S On a semi-related, here are some lovely photographs of the hand-production of papers and paperbooks in India.

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