Posted by Cait Coker
The material study of books encompasses several practices, but the ones I want to talk about today are critical making and empirical bibliography. Critical making combines critical thinking and engagement with physically making objects, the goal of which is to created shared experiences with technology and to break down the walls between disciplines that can often otherwise inhibit understanding. Empirical bibliography is, more specifically, “an effort to understand the manner in which a book was constructed through immediate physical experience (including the systematic and repeatable process of testing and verification based on historical methodology)” (Samuelson and Morrow 2015, 86). Though bibliographers and book historians know that books as physical objects prior to the industrial era are often distinct items (and indeed, collating the physical and textual differences between such objects remains a mainstay of bibliographic work), the processes of actually making books either through historical or ahistorical methods can reinforce this knowledge for both students and scholars.
The Making of an English Broadside Ballad, sponsored by The EMC Imprint at University of California, Santa Barbara is one such exercise in both critical making and empirical bibliography. The project encompasses the physical—and historical—activities of papermaking, woodcutting, printing, and performance in tandem with the digital publication of the group’s work. Andrew Griffin, the Lead Editor on the project, explains in an accompanying essay on “Why Making” that
[W]e have turned instead to our senses, and have put our bodies through the labors that other long-dead bodies have previously performed. We now know, for instance, how the art we engage is limited by the material affordances of the stuff and technology used in its production… (par. 13)
The material affordances of print production are largely well established at this point (while those of manuscript production much less so, another topic that will be explored on this blog at a later date), and yet can seem overwhelming when put into action. Acquiring a press, type, ink, brayers and/or ink balls, cleaning materials, etc. is not an easy enterprise to embark on; to quote Virginia Woolf, who herself spoke from experience as co-proprietor of the Hogarth Press, once said, “Real printing will devour one’s entire life.”
I myself have learned that truism the hard way. In 2008, I took the Book History Workshop at Texas A&M, a weeklong historical bootcamp that includes introductory lectures alongside extended lab time spent setting and casting type, printing, making paper, carving woodcut blocks, and sewing pamphlets. The experience proved not only formative to my interests in book history, but planted the seeds for what became my dissertation work: How does the materiality of making books change when the bodies that make them are female? Or do they? These are questions that I have and am trying to explore, both in my diss and here on this blog.
The goal of these posts is to help readers utilize critical making and empirical bibliography practices in the classroom in easy and affordable ways; if printing ends up devouring your entire life, we’re sorry we’re not sorry.
Griffin, Andrew. “Why Making?” The Making of an English Broadside Ballad. URL: http://press.emcimprint.english.ucsb.edu/the-making-of-a-broadside-ballad/why-making
Samuelson, Todd and Christopher L. Morrow. “Empirical Bibliography: A Decade of Book History at Texas A&M.” PBSA 109 (1): 83-109 (March 2015).
About the Author
Cait Coker is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Texas A&M University. She is currently working on her dissertation, "Liminal Ladies: Reconstructing the Place of Women in Seventeenth-Century English Book Production." Contact her at: cait.coker (at) gmail (dot) com.