The Academic Book of the Future: Evolution or Revolution?


mapsYesterday the CMT convened a one-day colloquium entitled ‘The Academic Book of the Future: Evolution or Revolution?’ This was part of Cambridge’s contribution to a host of events being held across the UK in celebration of the first ever Academic Book Week, which is itself an offshoot of the AHRC-funded ‘Academic Book of the Future’ project. The aim of that project is both to raise awareness of academic publishing and to explore how it might change in response to new digital technologies and changing academic cultures. We were delighted to have Samantha Rayner, the PI on the project, to introduce the event.

The first session kicked off with a talk from Rupert Gatti, Fellow in Economics at Trinity and one of the founders of Open Book Publishers (, explaining ‘Why the Future is Open Access’. Gatti contrasted OA publishing with ‘legacy’ publishing and emphasized the different orders of magnitude of the audience for these models. Academic books published through the usual channels were, he contended, failing to reach 99% of their potential audience. They were also failing to take account of the possibilities opened up by digital media for embedding research materials and for turning the book an ongoing project rather than a finished article. The second speaker in this session, Alison Wood, a Mellon/Newton postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities in Cambridge, reflected on the relationship between academic publishing and the changing institutional structures of the university. She urged us to look for historical precedents to help us cope with current upheavals, and called in the historian Anthony Grafton to testify to the importance of intellectual communities and institutions to the seemingly solitary labour of the academic monograph. In Wood’s analysis, we need to draw upon our knowledge of the changing shape of the university as a collective (far more postdocs, far more adjunct teachers, far more globalization) when thinking about how academic publishing might develop. We can expect scholarly books of the future to take some unusual forms in response to shifting material circumstances.

heffersThe day was punctuated by a series of ‘views’ from different Cambridge institutions. The first was offered by David Robinson, the Managing Director of Heffers, which has been selling books in Cambridge since 1876. Robinson focused on the extraordinary difference between his earlier job, in a university campus bookshop, and his current role. In the former post, in the heyday of the course textbook, before the demise of the net book agreement and the rise of the internet, selling books had felt a little like ‘playing shops’. Now that the textbook era is over, bookshops are less tightly bound into the warp and weft of universities, and academic books are becoming less and less visible on the shelves even of a bookshop like Heffers. Robinson pointed to the ‘crossover’ book, the academic book that achieves a large readership, as a crucial category in the current bookselling landscape. He cited Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a recent example of the genre.

Our second panel was devoted to thinking about the ‘Academic Book of the Near-Future’, and our speakers offered a series of reflections on the current state of play. The first speaker, Samantha Rayner (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Studies at UCL and ‘Academic Book of the Future’ PI), described the progress of the project to date. The first phase had involved starting conversations with numerous stakeholders at every point in the production process, to understand the nature of the systems in which the academic book is enmeshed. Rayner called attention to the volatility of the situation in which the project is unfolding—every new development in government higher education policy forces a rethink of possible futures. She also stressed the need for early-career scholars to receive training in the variety of publishing avenues that are open to them. Richard Fisher, former Managing Director of Academic Publishing at CUP, took up the baton with a talk about the ‘invisibles’ of traditional academic publishing—all the work that goes into making the reputation of an academic publisher that never gets seen by authors and readers. Those invisibles had in the past created certain kinds of stability—‘lines’ that libraries would need to subscribe to, periodicals whose names would be a byword for quality, reliable metadata for hard-pressed cataloguers. And the nature of these existing arrangements is having a powerful effect on the ways in which digital technology is (or is not) being adopted by particular publishing sectors. evolutionofbookPeter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History at Cambridge and President of the Royal Historical Society, began by singing the praises of the academic monograph; he saw considerable opportunities for evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in this format thanks to the move to digital. The threat to the monograph came, in his view, mostly from government-induced productivism. The scramble to publish for the REF as it is currently configured leads to a lower-quality product, and threatens to marginalize the book altogether. Danny Kingsley, Head of Scholarly Communication at Cambridge, discussed the failure of the academic community to embrace Open Access, and its unpreparedness for the imposition of OA by governments. She outlined Australian Open Access models that had given academic work a far greater impact, putting an end to the world in which intellectual prestige stood in inverse proportion to numbers of readers.

In the questions following this panel, some anxieties were aired about the extent to which the digital transition might encourage academic publishers to further devolve labour and costs to their authors, and to weaken processes of peer review. How can we ensure that any innovations bring us the best of academic life, rather than taking us on a race to the bottom? There was also discussion about the difficulties of tailoring Open Access to humanities disciplines that relied on images, given the current costs of digital licences; it was suggested that the use of lower-density (72 dpi) images might offer a way round the problem, but there was some vociferous dissent from this view.

ULstackAfter lunch, the University Librarian Anne Jarvis offered us ‘The View from the UL’. The remit of the UL, to safeguard the book’s past for future generations and to make it available to researchers, remains unchanged. But a great deal is changing. Readers no longer perceive the boundaries between different kinds of content (books, articles, websites), and the library is less concerned with drawing in readers and more concerned with pushing out content. The curation and preservation of digital materials, including materials that fall under the rules for legal deposit, has created a set of new challenges. Meanwhile the UL has been increasingly concerned to work with academics in order to understand how they are using old and new technologies in their day-to-day lives, and to ensure that it provides a service tailored to real rather than imagined needs.

The third panel session of the day brought together four academics from different humanities disciplines to discuss the publishing landscape as they perceive it. Abigail Brundin, from the Department of Italian, insisted that the future is collaborative; collaboration offers an immediate way out of the often closed-off worlds of our specialisms, fosters interdisciplinary exchanges and allows access to serious funding opportunities. She took issue with any idea that the initiative in pioneering new forms of academic writing should come from early-career academics; it is those who are safely tenured who have a responsibility to blaze a trail. Matthew Champion, a Research Fellow in History, drew attention to the care that has traditionally gone into the production of academic books—care over the quality of the finished product and over its physical appearance, down to details such as the font it is printed in. He wondered whether the move to digital and to a higher speed of publication would entail a kind of flattening of perspectives and an increased sense of alienation on all sides. Should we care if many people our work? Champion thought not: what we want is not 50,000 careless clicks but the sustained attention of deeply-engaged readers. Our third speaker, Liana Chua reported on the situation in Anthropology, where conservative publishing imperatives are being challenged by digital communications. Anthropologists usually write about living subjects, and increasingly those subjects are able to answer back. wikipediabookThis means that the ‘finished-product’ model of the book is starting to die off, with more fluid forms taking its place.Such forms (including film-making) are also better-suited to capturing the experience of fieldwork, which the book does a great deal to efface. Finally Orietta da Rold, from the Faculty of English, questioned the dominance of the book in academia. Digital projects that she had been involved in had been obliged, absurdly, to dress themselves up as books, with introductions and prefaces and conclusions. And collections of articles that might better be published as individual interventions were obliged to repackage themselves as books. The oppressive desire for the ‘big thing’ obscures the important work that is being done in a plethora of forms.

In discussion it was suggested that the book form was a valuable identifier, allowing unusual objects like CD-ROMs or databases to be recognized and catalogued and found (the book, in this view, provides the metadata or the paratextual information that gives an artefact a place in the world). There was perhaps a division between those who saw the book as giving ideas a compelling physical presence and those who were worried about the versions of authority at stake in the monograph. The monograph model perhaps discourages people from talking back; this will inevitably come under pressure in a more ‘oral’ digital economy.

Our final ‘view’ of the day was ‘The View from Plurabelle Books’, offered by Michael Cahn but read in his absence by Gemma Savage. Plurabelle is a second-hand academic bookseller based in Cambridge; it was founded in 1996. Cahn’s talk focused on a different kind of ‘future’ of the academic book—the future in which the book ages and its owner dies. The books that may have marked out a mental universe need to be treated with appropriate respect and offered the chance of a new lease of life. Sometimes they carry with them a rich sense of their past histories.

A concluding discussion drew out several themes from the day:

(1) A particular concern had been where the impetus for change would and should come from—from individual academics, from funding bodies, or from government. The conservatism and two-sizes-fit-almost-all nature of the REF act as a brake on innovation and experiment, although the rising significance of ‘impact’ might allow these to re-enter by the back door. The fact that North America has remained impervious to many of the pressures that are affecting British academics was noted with interest.

(2) The pros and cons of peer review were a subject of discussion—was it the key to scholarly integrity or a highly unreliable form of gatekeeping that would naturally wither in an online environment?

(3) Questions of value were raised—what would determine academic value in an Open Access world? The day’s discussions had veered between notions of value/prestige that were based on numbers of readers and those that were not. Where is the appropriate balance?

(4) A broad historical and technological question: are we entering a phase of perpetual change or do we expect that the digital domain will eventually slow down, developing protocols that seem as secure as those that we used to have for print? (And would that be a good or a bad thing?) Just as paper had to be engineered over centuries in order to become a reliable communications medium (or the basis for numerous media), so too the digital domain may take a long time to find any kind of settled form. It was also pointed out that the academic monograph as we know it today was a comparatively short-lived, post-World War II phenomenon.

(5) As befits a conference held under the aegis of the Centre for Material Texts, the physical form of the book was a matter of concern. Can lengthy digital books be made a pleasure to read? Can the book online ever substitute for the ‘theatres of memory’ that we have built in print? Is the very restrictiveness of print a source of strength?

(6) In the meantime, the one thing that all of the participants could agree on was that we will need to learn to live with (sometimes extreme) diversity.

With many thanks to our sponsors, Cambridge University Press, the Academic Book of the Future Project, and the Centre for Material Texts. The lead organizer of the day was Jason Scott-Warren (; he was very grateful for the copious assistance of Sam Rayner, Rebecca Lyons, and Richard Fisher; for the help of the staff at the Pitt Building, where the colloquium took place; and for the contributions of all of our speakers.


The academic book of the future: evolution or revolution?


11 November 2015, 9.30-5
Darwin Room, Pitt Building, Trumpington St, Cambridge

This event will bring together people from all stages in the production cycle of the academic book, from authors and publishers to booksellers, librarians and readers, to consider the past, present and future of scholarly communication. How did the academic book come to take the form in which we know it today? What should we cherish and what should we loathe in the academic book? And, as we start living our intellectual lives online, what does the future hold for scholarship in this form?

mapsSpeakers will include: Richard Fisher (former Managing Director of Academic Publishing at Cambridge University Press), Rupert Gatti (Faculty of Economics/Open Book Publishers), Anne Jarvis (University Librarian, Cambridge University Library), Danny Kingsley (University of Cambridge, Office of Scholarly Communication), Peter Mandler (Faculty of History, President of the Royal Historical Society), Samantha Rayner (Senior Lecturer in Publishing, UCL), Alison Wood (Mellon/Newton Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, CRASSH).

Sponsored by the AHRC-funded ‘Academic Book of the Future‘ project, Cambridge University Press and the Cambridge Centre for Material Texts, this one-day colloquium will form part of a week of events and exhibitions taking place across the country.

There is no charge for registration, but places are limited. To sign up, please use Eventbrite at

Resurrecting the Book

Calls for Papers, News;

Resurrecting the Book: 15-17 November 2013, Library of Birmingham, England

PLENARY SPEAKERS: Professor Sir David Cannadine, Princeton University; Professor Johanna Drucker, UCLA; Dr David Pearson, City of London Corporation; Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, University of the Arts, London.

CONFIRMED SPEAKERS: Professor David Roberts, Birmingham City University; Dr Jason Scott-Warren, Cambridge University; Linda Carreiro, University of Calgary; Sarah Bodman, University of the West of England

To celebrate the re-opening of the largest public library in Europe and its outstanding special collections,The Library of Birmingham, Newman University College, the Typographic Hub at Birmingham City University and The Library of Lost Books have united to host a three-day conference on the theme of Resurrecting the Book.

With e-book downloads outstripping the purchase of hard copies, with libraries closing and discarding books and with the value of the book as physical object being increasingly questioned, this interdisciplinary conference will bring together academics, librarians, publishers, artists, creators, designers, and users of books to explore a wide variety of issues pertaining to the creation, design, construction, publication, use, reuse, preservation, loss, and recovery of the material book, electronic and digitized books, and of collections and libraries. Abstracts on the conference themes and their intersection and covering any historical period are invited. The conference themes include, but are not limited to:

BOOKS AS MATERIAL OBJECTS: the materiality of book creation, construction, production, use, reuse, and destruction; manuscripts and printed books; book-design, illustration, paratextuality and its manifestations; book-covers, bindings, clasps, vellum, parchment, paper, manuscript and printing and production processes;

COLLECTIONS AND LIBRARIES: book collectors, collections and their locations; missing, lost and found books; the creation, recreation, dispersal, sale and destruction of books and libraries; the movement of books and libraries; lost libraries; the impact of libraries on books; lost and revised editions;

THE ARTIST’S BOOK: altered books; book preservation and conserved books; books and material culture; books as art; books in art; illustration and illumination; woodcuts; engravings; marbled pages; book decoration; printmaking;

E-BOOKS: the creation, use and abuse of ebooks; neglected and lost ebooks; ebook readers; electronic libraries; books and collections and the impact of digital technologies;

PUBLISHING: publishers and publishing; the future of publishing; back-catalogues; print-runs; editions; archives; digitization and multi-media books;

Abstracts of no more than 400 words accompanied by a 50 word biographical profile should be sent to both: Dr Matthew Day – and Dr Caroline Archer –

DEADLINE for submission of abstracts: FRIDAY 1st FEBRUARY 2013.

The conference will run in conjunction with The Library of Lost Books Project. This is an exhibition of 50 de-accessioned books which have been given a new lease of life as objects redesigned into works of art. The conference is also part of the Library of Birmingham’s reopening festival.

A weblink to the CFP is at

Open Access: The New Future of Academic Publishing?


Thursday, 12 January 2012 6.30pm – 8.00pm, followed by a drinks reception

British Academy, 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1

Chair: Paul Webley, Director and Principal of SOAS, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


Deborah Shorley, Director of Library Services, Imperial College London

William St Clair FBA, Co-founder and Chairman Board of Directors, Open Book Publishers, and Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge

Alice Prochaska, Principal, Somerville College, University of Oxford

All the above mentioned speakers have an interest, and experience of this mode of publishing. The first speaker has made statements concerning open access. William St Clair is a powerful voice in Open Book Publishers, committed to free open access of all their texts on the internet. Paul Webley has a particular interest in open access founded in his commitment to accessibility for students and scholars throughout Africa and Asia.

Key questions to be addressed: Can the scholarly world continue to support a system where monographs are published in 3-figure numbers at best, to be read only by the well-endowed in favoured centres of the world? Is it true that having text accessible on the web encourages rather than depresses sales? Is such a project financially feasible, and what are the costs and benefits? Is this the way forward for the democratisation of global knowledge?

Attendance is free, but registration is required for this event. Please visit our website:

espresso books


Linda Bree came to talk to the History of Material Texts seminar last week, on the subject of ‘Scholarly Publishing and Technological Change’. As someone who knows the world of academic publishing from every possible direction–Linda is Editorial Director for Arts and Literature at Cambridge University Press, and a scholar working on the ‘long eighteenth century’–she is uniquely placed to tell us what is going on out there, and her talk was indeed eye-opening.

As someone who subscribes to the scholarly orthodoxy that new technologies don’t replace old technologies, but force creative adaptation, I had completely missed what to her was the most important feature of the current landscape: digital printing, and Print-On-Demand technology. Although POD can be unreliable (do you really trust Amazon to deliver you a decent facsimile of that novel from 1833?), for scholarly publishers it is transformative. It gives old books a new lease of life (CUP calls its project to digitize its back-catalogue the ‘Lazarus programme’!) and allows supply to be more closely tailored to demand for new books. It also promises to make publishing leaner and greener, since digital files can be printed out in locations across the world, cutting transportation costs. And you may be able to have a book freshly printed by your local bookshop, if something like the Blackwell’s ‘Espresso Book Machine’ takes off more widely.

Other areas of the picture Bree painted were more murky. The question of how libraries will survive when they are spending their budgets not on buying books but on renting digital content; or of how publishers will survive as the web fosters the illusion (or the ideal) that content should come for free–these were left hanging. In the short term, though, it seems that the physical book will remain the medium of choice for academic monographs. If you’ve got to read a big chunky book full of footnotes, cross-references, and appendices, a book that you may want to scribble on and store away for future reference, ink on paper remains indispensable. For now.

relational gestures / a post by Helen Magowan

Blog, Gallery;
Sasareishi, volume 1 f.12v-13r. 1713, Hasegawa Myōtei. Ebibunko. 

The first image in this blog post shows a page from a book published in 1713. In three volumes, it’s a collection of letters in the handwriting of a celebrity calligrapher called Hasegawa Myōtei. This page is part of a letter which, in heightened, literary language, advises someone to mend their bitter heart and be more like the willow tree which sways in the wind. The words vary between large and small, between thick rich lines and fine delicate ones; the forms are rounded and connected between letters and even between the vertical lines of text. The writing seems to drift downwards to the left, as if autumn leaves were falling in a gentle breeze.

This genre of publishing is called nyohitsu, the ‘woman’s brush’, and the books usually focus on letter-writing. The ‘woman’s brush’ extends to the style of writing which could also be used in commercial prose, and despite the name, it could be written by men as well as women. Nyohitsu was fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with hundreds of books being published and republished, but it fell out of favour in the nineteenth century and is no longer practiced. Premodern Japanese script is almost completely illegible to most modern readers, so texts such as these that haven’t been considered important enough to transcribe are inaccessible to researchers, even when they are in the digital collections of libraries. In my research, my first challenge has been simply to learn to read them.

2 The large dark text is read first, following the arrows. The reader returns to the beginning and reads the second layer, in the mid colour. The reader returns to the beginning for the third layer, in yellow.

The next problem is the tension between what is on the page, and how I work with it. If I simply transcribe what I see page by page, it gives me fragments of phrases that don’t connect to each other, because the letter extends across the pages before and after in ways that we don’t expect and I can’t easily represent. Image 2 shows how I experimented with colour coding and arrows to follow how the reader moves backwards and forwards through the pages of the book. But while this helps illustrate how to interact with the text, it is unhelpful for a close reading of what the text actually says. For that, I still need to turn it into a readable, searchable, copy-and-pasteable typographic transcription.  

This process of typographic transcription is an ongoing project for scholars of premodern Japan, but we shouldn’t make the same mistake that early western visitors to Japan did. Early modern Japan had a vibrant and mature publishing industry catering to many different markets, including the women who were buying nyohitsu manuals or borrowing them from libraries. The third image shows a bustling shop full of customers browsing the illustrated books. However western visitors didn’t recognise this highly developed print culture, because Japanese books were floppy, stored on their sides, and they were woodblock-printed. We need to remember that woodblock printing was not a technological limitation, and moveable type was not a technological advance. Ceramic and wooden moveable type had been invented in China in 1040, and metal moveable type in Korea in 1250 a full two hundred years before Gutenberg in 1450. Moveable type was broadly unsuited for most applications of the character script shared by China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and woodblocks had advantages such as flexibility in combining text and image, and as the first image of the nyohitsu book shows, the ability to showcase the aesthetics of handwriting itself. 

3 A book shop. Circa 1802,  Katsushika Hokusai.Joan Elizabeth Tanney Bequest, LACMA 

The shift from xylography to typography didn’t occur until the late nineteenth century, a period of huge change. The western powers had turned their attention to East Asia seeking new markets, and had shown they were willing to use force to get it. China’s ‘century of humiliation’ had already started with the loss of Hong Kong to Britain, and image 4 shows a treaty after their defeat by Russia. To avoid a similar fate, Japan urgently needed to be “modern” and “western”, and in the course of a few decades, Japan reorganised and revolutionised. This is the context for the shift to typography: all of the previous advantages of woodblock printing were now outweighed by the other imperatives. 

4 Treaty of Aigun. c. 1858 Vasily Romanov. N.I. Grodekov Khabarovsk Territorial Museum

Nyohitsu’s nineteenth-century disappearance is likely to be a complex picture, but its incompatibility with typography is clearly implicated. Japanese script had to fit the demands of moveable type: the numbers of letterforms were cut down, variation was eliminated and letters were disconnected from each other. Typography aims for repeatability, as well as transparency: we shouldn’t be distracted from the content of writing by how it looks. We understand of course that if we change fonts we get different effects, but the message remains the same. What we see with nyohitsu is different. It might look like a font, but acts like a linguistic register. What it looks like contains important information, telling us something about the writer, the reader, and the relationship between them, as well as what kind of situation the interaction is happening in. Nyohitsu expressed affective qualities like warmth, friendliness, and intimacy. The manuals contained letters that said things along the lines of “As the autumn blows a cool breeze, the sky is bright and clear. I send my greetings on the festival of Tanabata.” This is not interesting for its content, but for the material expression of a relational gesture. In nyohitsu script, this could express friendly affection. The same message in a different script might be impersonal, frosty, or deferential. Using nyohitsu script to the wrong person could be over-familiar or disrespectful. The extravagant letterforms and elaborate page layouts are not decorative, but integral to the meaning. The final image is of something that looks like a nyohitsu page, but it has been stripped of meaning. As Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism goes, “the medium is the message”.

5 Something that looks like f.12v-13r of Hasegawa Myōtei’s 1713 Sasareishi, but is not.

Nyohitsu resists typographic transcription because it has more to say than the limitations of typography will allow. Nevertheless, I continue to transcribe. Not only because modern literacy is typographic, but because, as McLuhan was pointing out half a century ago, we have built a world conditioned by typography – email, databases, WhatsApp, OCR, kindles, pdfs and the rest. As late nineteenth-century Japan realised, more than a medium, typography is a knowledge regime: only that which can be contained in typography counts as academic knowledge. That which that cannot be transcribed is not data. So I continue to transcribe, stripping nyohitsu of its meaning by repeating the process that led to its extinction in the first place. We are in an exciting moment when digital technologies like machine-reading and AI are allowing access to distant archives and research methods like distant reading, data-mining and corpus analysis. But at the same time, if we allow our digital future to be limited by typography, we are re-enacting what happened to nyohitsu: a new digital colonialism.

Helen Magowan

PhD Student

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Paper-Stuff: Materiality, Technology and Invention


On 10-11 September 2018, around 65 scholars from around the world converged on the Faculty of English for a CMT conference entitled Paper-Stuff: Materiality, Technology and Invention. Premised on the suspicion that paper as a substance is so ubiquitous that we can no longer bring it fully into view, the conference ranged widely across time and space, seeking to unmask the often hidden work of paper-stuff in sustaining human cultures.

The conference opened with a plenary panel on the diplomatic and bureaucratic uses of paper in the early modern period, emphasising the global reach of the medium. Megan Williams initiated proceedings by exploring the burgeoning place of paper in Renaissance diplomacy, paying particular attention to the way that ambassadors expanded their reports in order to solidify their reputations for diligence and their claims for payment, and also noting how paper allowed for multiple additions and annotations to be made to a document as it crossed various desks on its journey to the archive. Frank Birkenholz followed this up by exploring the role of paper in the global trade networks of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Company’s chief anxiety seems to have been the preservation of information, which it achieved partly by creating multiple copies (turning transcription into a full-time job) and partly by seeking solutions to the spoliation of archives, whether at sea or in its warehouses, where infestations of white ants were commonplace.Alison Wiggins rounded off the session by looking at the occurrences of paper in the seventeenth-century accounts of the Cavendish family. Paying attention to the variety of different grades of paper that were deployed for writing, wrapping and coverage, Wiggins concluded with a visit to the ‘evidence room’ that formed the heart of the information management system at Hardwick Hall. This working archive took on an increasingly global reach as the Cavendishes began to invest in the VOC and other colonial ventures.

Our first plenary paper was given by Pádraig Ó Macháin, and focused on the transition from vellum to paper in Gaelic manuscripts. This was also a transition in the mode of production, shifting away from a world in which manuscripts were produced in monastic scriptoria and towards a more commercialised world with a starker division of labour between authors, scribes, booksellers and readers. The transition occurred around 1600, but Ó Macháin posited a 100-year crossover period in which manuscripts combined vellum and paper in unpredictable ways. Comparing the points of transition in surviving civic records and in private manuscripts, he pointed to the significance of professional bureaucrats in promoting the spread of paper; and he emphasised the value of Gaelic sources, with their highly informative colophons, in allowing us to track the process of transition to paper.

After lunch there were two sets of parallel sessions. A session on ‘the coming of paper’ was opened by Jesse Lynch, who investigated the early evidence for paper in Britain through the early paper documents in the Exeter diocesan archives, cross-comparing documents in the National Archives coming from the Angevin territories and elsewhere. He argued for a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ according to which writing practices changed at different rates in different places, due to largely adventitious circumstances. Paul Schweitzer-Martin followed this up by considering changes in the consumption and usage of paper in the transition to print. Addressing questions of standardization and differentiation, and working through the sources and statistical approaches that might tell us about degrees of increase in the need for paper, he admitted that the transition to print may have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Hannah Ryley’s paper focused on late-medieval manuscripts that mix paper with parchment, often in discernible patterns that would have required considerable labour to engineer. What does paper do to parchment and parchment to paper in these unexpected material combinations? Such mixings of different substrates were partly aimed at protecting and strengthening the book, but further work will be needed to fully unravel the motives at work.

A session on ‘paper bodies’ began with a lecture performance by Sophie Seita. Dressing up in paper clothes, Seita channelled the spirits of Margaret Cavendish, Denis Diderot, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and the it-narrative in order to challenge what Sara Ahmed has called ‘the fantasy of a paperless philosophy’. Along the way, Seita brought paper forcefully back into view in its role as a legitimating device—not least in the academic world, where the production of ‘papers’ serves an alarmingly similar purpose to the production of papers at a customs office. Karen Sandhu, a book artist, offered a meditation on the irritating or irritated book, drawing on Gertrude Stein’s dictum that ‘one of the definitions of modern art is that it be irritating’. Accordingly, she described her own project to incorporate a number of allergens into the paper of a book that might genuinely get under its reader’s skin. Anna Reynolds considered interactions between books and bodies in the early modern period, when the deterioration of paper over time was read as a mirror to the wasting of skin. In her account, early modern paper would have been characterised above all by its greasiness, whether that grease came from the flax that made the clothes that made the rags that made the paper, or whether it came from the fingers of users. Taken together the three papers offered a compelling insight into just how visceral the experience of paper might be.

After a coffee break, the programme continued with a session on ‘transmediations’. Tom White initiated proceedings by considering the question of surface in manuscripts, taking as an example a single folio of the Glastonbury Miscellany, Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.9.38. Thinking about the fate of the folio across the whole of the manuscript’s history, from its initial creation to its modern restoration and digitisation, White revealed it as a resolutely polychronic artefact, in which medieval and early modern paper ecologies are entangled with modern archival technologies. At the same time he argued for the heuristic value of attending to the seemingly blank page. Thinking about an entirely different set of paper transformation, Geoffrey Day transported us to the underworld of eighteenth-century London. Drawing on a variety of legal and business records, he reconstructed the period’s sizeable black-market in stolen paper. The growth of retail industries created a massive demand for wrapping paper which was satisfied through complex and highly risky criminal operations, some of them involving the theft of printed sheets intended for works such as Johnson’s Dictionary andLives of the Poets.

The parallel session, on ‘the end of paper’, opened with Joseph Elkanah Rosenberg’s ‘Paper Bombs’, focused on the Second World War. Prefacing his talk with Mallarmé’s dictum that ‘there is no explosion but a book’, Rosenberg began by unpicking the celebrated photograph of Holland House library after a bombing—in his account, a highly staged image that aimed to send out the clear message that barbaric fascists bomb books while democratic Britons read them. But Rosenberg then pointed out that the various genteel readers in the image could equally well be read as scavengers, gathering paper for recycling in to cartridge and shell cases or mortar carriers as part of the war effort. Saving and salvaging, memorialising and forgetting, turn out to be closely intertwined. Chris Wrycraft carried forward the military theme, looking at the way that writers were forced to move away from printed publications and towards radio broadcasts thanks to the paper shortages of World War II. At the heart of his account were the radio scripts of George Orwell, their every word monitored in advance by overseers at the BBC. As in the East India Company, so in the BBC, paper allowed changes to be plentifully tracked in the margins and facilitated multiple copying (everything that went out over the airwaves had to be cross-copied between six and fifteen times). Finally in this session Louisa Shen pulled our gaze towards the future and the ever-receding prospect of paperlessness. Locating paper’s superiority to the screen partly in its tolerance of unprescribed, idiosyncratic inputs and partly in its openness to palimpsestic imprinting, Shen examined some of our current sci-fi fantasies about future improvements on the screen. Might we become screenless before we become paperless?

Day 2 kicked off with parallel sessions pitting ‘Engineering with Paper’ against ‘Paper Technology’. In the former, Agnieszka Helman-Wašny reviewed the earliest history of paper, emphasising the impossibility of disentangling truth from myth. Origin stories tend to give precise dates for paper’s creation and its transmisison to the West, but such stories probably paper over a much complex and multiple reality. Despite a longstanding ban on the archaeological investigation of much early paper (the Chinese state has decreed that the question of its origins is settled), fibre analysis of available samples is complicating the standard picture, suggesting that rag and bark may have cohabited from the very beginning, as did laid (strained through a frame) and woven (strained through fabric). Bruce Huett kept our gaze on the Himalayas but moved to the modern world, looking at the efforts to revive traditional papermaking in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Swamped by the advent of industrial paper by the 1950s, craft skills were revived from the 1970s as part of the effort to preserve local cultural heritage and to alleviate poverty. Such programmes have enjoyed very mixed success, but they have helped to propagate papers that are distinctively durable, good for calligraphy and naturally resistant to insects. Yasmin Faghihi took us ‘From China to Italy’, exploring how the dissemination of paper went alongside the development of Islamic scripts, and how Islamic paper, finely burnished to facilitate the gliding of the reed pen, served as a vital stage in the transition to modern European papers. She concluded with images of Italian papers made for the Islamic market, as found in fourteenth-century Arabic manuscripts.

In ‘Paper Technology’, Orietta Da Rold and Ed Potten discussed the early steps in watermark studies in Britain, remarking on W.Y. Ottley’s precocious finding in the field. Anticipating many other nineteenth century filigranologists, Ottley collected four albums of watermarks with indexes in the 1830s, now Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 2878, which are now very little known by scholars.  Richard Beadle followed up by presenting another CUL gem, Add. MS 4124, an unusual blank book that was bound in Winchester at the end of the fifteenth century. This manuscript has eluded the attention of scholars because of later, sixteenth-century jottings on some of the pages, but it was actually put together in or around the 1480s. Pointing out that very few such books survive from the period, Beadle pondered the question of its function: was it intended for monastic, legal, or administrative use? The jury is still out! Neil Harris concluded this session by presenting a fascinating new project that will follow the footsteps of the Charles-Moïse Briquet, the author of the magisterial index of watermarks entitled Les filigranes (1907), across the archives of Europe. Reconstructing the daily research routines that Briquet adopted during a visit to the medieval archive of the city of Udine, Harris impressed on the audience just how quickly Briquet could work, looking at hundreds of sheets in a day. The project aims to digitise all of the documents that he consulted during his heroic travels—a process which will also enable the patterns of twinning in the watermarks he recorded to be documented for the first time. This is a resource that anyone who has worked with Briquet’s magisterial volumes will look forward to using.

Our second plenary paper was less a talk than a practical workshop, in which paper-artist Linda Toigo offered to teach us ‘how to rip a book and not feel guilty’. Toigo began by talking us through some of her own dazzling bibliographical creations, in which she uses a surgical scalpel and sharp wit to give a new lease of life to previously unloved volumes. Having shown us one of her magnificent pop-up books, Toigo then invited delegates to make their own pop-up pages, using leaves torn unceremoniously from some mouldering hardbacks. The air of quiet concentration that filled the room as brain-work made way for physical cutting-and-pasting was palpable. The session provided a reminder of the physical resilience of paper, which has innumerable ways of surviving in destruction, and of seeming to draw energy from efforts to destroy it.

The conference concluded with two last parallel sessions. In the first, on ‘paper analysis’, Goran Proot initiated his audience into the little-known history of the thickness of paper as it evolved over time. On the basis of his quantitative research, he was able to show that octavos were usually made with a thinner paper stock than larger books such as folios. This discovery constitutes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of the significance of book formats, since it suggests that the format of a book was already foreseen when paper was acquired. Next Maria Stieglecker introduced the Wasserzeichen Project ( to catalogue German medieval watermarks, showing how mapping the paper manuscripts of Johannes von Speyr could give important clues as to where and when he did his copying. This was a talk that showed how much could be achieved by the painstaking collection of information about paper stocks; it was fascinating to see how the ‘distant reading’ of watermarks could be used to map the movements of people and texts. Anne Mailloux reported back on fifteeen years of comparably fine-grained work on paper used in thirteenth century Provence. Her research, taking the 1331-4 registers of Leopardo da Foligno as its central focus, enabled her to document the dissemination of different paper types across the Mediterranean. Emanuela di Stefano argued that claims for the primacy of Fabriano as a centre of medieval paper production might be overstated, and suggesting that another town in the Marche, Pioraco, was worthy of equal consideration. Drawing on the mercantile records of the Datini family of Prato, she stressed the technological innovation of ‘bombazine paper’, which was much more flexible and resistant than its Arabic rivals, and explored the extraordinary diffusion of Italian paper across late medieval and early modern Europe.

Parallel with this was a session on ‘paper inventions’, initiated with Elizabeth Deane Romariz’s analysis of the neglected phenomenon of the architect’s notebook. Focusing on two examples, one kept by John Webb in the middle of the seventeenth-century, the other by Nicholas Hawksmoor from the 1680s to the 1710s, Romariz called attention to the intimacy and functionality of these pocket-sized volumes, which allowed their owners to exercise control over the complex process of planning and creating a building. Boris Jardine took us into another sphere of early modern technical know-how, describing his pursuit of a peculiar subset of prints that were created by putting a mathematical/astronomical instrument through a rolling press. In 1997 only two examples of the genre were known, but many new examples have recently come to light. As well as setting up an intriguing kind of relationship between image and archetype, they testify to the fascination of virtuosi with the seemingly impossible precision of the new astrolabes, quadrants and sundials. Gill Partington explored a very different kind of knowledge transaction, discussing the artist John Latham’s unusual dealings with a library copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture(these involved masticating the pages of the book and creating a distillation—later duly labelled and returned to the library—from the remnants. Linking Latham’s with other bibliographical and biblioclastic artworks, Partington suggested that they raise important questions about where the essence of the book lies. Heather Wolfe rounded things off by discussing the activities of John Spilman, a High German who received a patent to make paper at a mill near Dartford in 1589. Tracing Spilman’s activities through the published literature, Wolfe initially encountered much assertion but little solid evidence. When she headed into the archives, however, she discovered that in the period following the Armada victory, many of the great officers of state were to be found scribbling missives on home-grown paper, watermarked with the royal arms, that was undercutting the familiar ‘pot-paper’ imported from Normandy. Here, perhaps, are the beginnings of a paper history for the Brexit age.

The conference was organised by Orietta Da Rold and Jason Scott-Warren, with Carlotta Barranu as administrator and Marica Lopez Diaz providing invaluable assistance behind the scenes. It was funded by the British Academy as part of Dr Da Rold’s project ‘Paper in Late Medieval English Manuscript Culture from 1300 to 1475’, with graduate bursaries generously sponsored by AMARC, and further funding from the Faculty of English and the Centre for Material Texts.


‘Collective considerations collating into Commonplaces’


CMT exhibition casesA backwater lay-by off the M5, Junction 24, three days before Christmas. A covert exchange of an unknown document, protected only by an iPad case, occurs between man, whippet and young woman. Shady as it may seem, this is not the stuff of reconnaissance but curation. This nineteenth-century commonplace book replete with beautiful illustrations, kindly donated by John and Caroline Robinson, now lies in situ on the first floor of the English Faculty, at the heart of the inaugural exhibition of the Centre for Material Texts. The exhibition, curated by myself and my MPhil colleagues on Dr Ruth Abbott’s Writers’ Notebooks course, focuses on commonplace books and the ways in which they acted as repositories for the recording of daily life in the nineteenth century. From passages of the Bible to Byron, musings on God to sketches of the family dogs, the commonplace book offered a powerful collective storehouse for the miscellanies and medleys of material that amassed at the center of communal family life.

19thcpbk1The unconventional method through which our exhibition materials were acquired proves apropos, given the unusual conditions under which the birth of our interest in commonplace books occurred. In another intrepid motorway adventure: a six hour, 250-mile minibus journey (nobly helmed by Ruth Abbott) with eight complete strangers, our group’s first weekend in Cambridge, was in fact spent in Grasmere, Cumbria working at the Wordsworth Trust. Guided by Ruth and curator Jeff Cowton we spent a full two days nestled in the archive, immersed in manuscripts and the materials which made them. It was a weekend stuffed with stuff. We created Thomas Bewick prints on a nineteenth-century printing press. We learned how to bind books on a sewing frame. Quills were carved and inks were made. Paste was pressed from pulp into paper (with the aid of a craftsman’s deckle and an improvised flattening dance on top of it). In a flurry of high spirits, fumbling with spirit-levels, our exhibition on the Wordsworth family commonplace books was installed.

19thCPBK3Like the chain lines and watermarks we spent the days studying in manuscripts, through curatorial collaboration we had impressed a profound mark on each other. The silence, sky and space of the Lakes and our collective academic endeavour had bound us together as tightly as the spines of the nineteenth-century treasures that lay on the archive’s shelves. What was particularly pertinent in creating this exhibition, born into being from deeply felt fellow-feeling from all parties, was that it chronicles and encourages the communal sharing of thought. The addition of our modern commonplace book to the display invites exhibition-goers to participate in shared forms of notetaking, to add their scraps and fragments of experience, their inmost thoughts, their favourite quotations and aid the creation of a beautiful, diverse collective text.

19thCPBK4Speaking to other students who have visited Grasmere, at a recent meeting with the Wordsworth Trust at London’s Brigham Young Institute, I further realised the true powerful potential of the material. Through awe-filled eyes, each sentence suffused with a quasi-religious fervour, they recounted the moment they were allowed to see a first edition of Lyrical Ballads and handle Dorothy Wordsworth’s real notebooks. In fact, the Wordsworth Trust’s website proudly proclaims ‘Visit the Wordsworth Museum to see Dorothy’s actual notebooks’. This is something our group reflected upon as we sat around Wordsworth’s ‘actual’ fire in Dove Cottage, reading his poems, souls stirred by the transcendent beauty of breathing life back into words where they were first brought into being. In curating this exhibition, in Grasmere and in Cambridge, and through Ruth Abbott’s phenomenal notebooks course we have relearnt the overwhelming magic of the material, the ability to encounter and interact with the ‘actual’. It is in this kind of engagement with ‘actual’ manuscripts, notebooks and papers that ‘with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things’.

19thCPBK5Through our immersion in the material practices from which texts develop, we learnt to cultivate a fresh appreciation for the ways in which literature is embodied and presented. The afterlives of the work we have done with these exhibitions, and the study of notebooks and manuscripts in general, like Wordsworth’s River Duddon, flow on endlessly. From future PhD projects to the reinstallation of the commonplace book exhibition in Cambridge ‘Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;/The Form remains, the Function never dies’. We hope that in this latest reimagining of our display, we encourage others to see the beautiful potential in collective interaction with note-taking practices. In doing so, our work continues ‘to live, and act, and serve the future hour’.

19thCPBK6Megan Beech, MPhil Modern and Contemporary Literature

Megan is a performance poet and created these two short poetry films in response to her experiences at the Wordsworth Trust and studying notebooks on Dr Ruth Abbott’s course:

Trust Wordsworth:

‘O! This is Our Tale Too!’:

EEBO-TCP hackfest


9 March 2015 10.00am — 6.30pm

Venue: Lecture Theatre, Weston Library (Map)

The Bodleian Libraries are hosting a one-day hackfest celebrating the release of 25,000 texts from the Early English Books Online project into the public domain. The event encourages students, researchers from all disciplines, and members of the public with an interest in the intersection between technology, history and literature to work together to develop a project using the texts and the data they may generate.

The EEBO-TCP corpus covers the period from 1473 to 1700 and is now estimated to comprise more than two million pages and nearly a billion words. It represents a history of the printed word in England from the birth of the printing press to the reign of William and Mary, and it contains texts of incomparable significance for research across all academic disciplines, including literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, theology, music, fine arts, education, mathematics, and science.

We’re looking for all kinds of people to participate; those with an interest in data visualisation, geospatial analysis, corpus linguistics, written and spoken word, web applications and programming, data/text mining, art, film and more are welcome. You don’t have be an expert to join, but you do need to be enthusiastic and prepared to help develop a project.

The hackathon will take place during the day (10am-5pm), with a reception to follow at 5pm. Prizes will be given to the best of the day’s projects.

More information about the project is available from the EEBO-TCP website.

Participants in the day’s event are encouraged to consider entering their ideas into the online Early English Books Ideas Hack, which seeks to explore innovative and creative approaches to the data and identify potential paths for future activity. Submissions for the Ideas Hack close on 2 April.

Perversions of Paper

Calls for Papers, News;
28 June 2014

Keynes Library, Birkbeck College, University of London

Perversions of Paper is a one-day symposium investigating the outer limits of our interactions with books and with paper. It considers unorthodox engagements with texts, from cherishing or hoarding them to mutilating and desecrating them, from wearing them to chewing them, and from inhaling their scent to erasing their content.

‘Perversion’ may apply to deviations from normal usage but also to our psychological investments in paper. To talk of having a fetish for books is common, but is there more to this than merely well-worn cliché? What part do books and other written artefacts play in our imaginary and psychic lives, and what complex emotional attachments do we develop towards them? Also, how might literary studies or cultural history register these impulses and acts; what kind of methodologies are appropriate?

This symposium invites reflections on perverse uses of – and relationships with – paper and parchment. We welcome proposals from a range of historical periods and disciplinary backgrounds, and from postgraduate students, as well as from more established academics.

Contributors are invited to consider bookish and papery aberrations from any number of angles, including but not limited to:

* the defacing or mutilation of writing
* the book as sculpture or art medium
* ‘upcycling’ or re-purposing
* the book or manuscript as a fetish object
* pathologies or obsessions related to paper
* psychologies of book collecting
* bibliophilia and bibliophobia
* book crazes, the tactility or sensuality of paper and manuscripts
* books, libraries and archives as sources of contagion, or as the focus of terror or abjection.

Deadline for proposals: March 30th 2014.

Please email abstracts of no more than 200 words together with a brief bio statement to Dr Gillian Partington (

More information: