Books, Material and Digital
A mashup of a course: book history, material and digital explorations, and making.
This past semester (Summer, 2021) I taught a course titled “Books, Material and Digital,” a course that combined book history, hands-on making, and explorations of libraries, reading, and digital scholarship. (Kristen Iemma co-taught as TA.) Designed originally as a hands-on, special-collections intensive seminar for advanced undergraduates, pandemic rules changed it into a mostly remote first-year seminar with significant hands-on work, remote speakers Zooming in, and a final project. Despite the challenges, it worked very well, with students enjoying the course and producing some remarkable projects.
The course had its start when I became the Faculty Director of Brown’s Center for Digital Scholarship, based at the Brown University Library. I imagined the course as a way of combining my interests to material culture, digital scholarship, making and repairing, and the history of knowledge into a free-ranging exploration of books as material and digital things. Students would examine books in their many forms and many environments, and more than that, try their hand at making them. They would have a chance to interact with Library staff and explore some of the issues we were addressing at CDS, from online publication to 3D printing. I also hoped to bring together several Library organizations, including Special Collections and Preservation, as well as the library-adjacent Book Arts Studio (in the library, but run by the Visual Art Department) and the Brown Design Workshop, part of the School of Engineering but enthusiastic about all kinds of making projects.
The course got odder with the pandemic. In-person visits to Special Collections were out. So too were visits to print shops or the conservation lab. The Book Arts Studio was closed. The Brown Design Workshop was open, but only for individual work, not groups. Classes met over Zoom.
But even with that, hands-on activity was key to the course. I had worked with a small group of students the previous summer to explore ways to make books at home, and that experience was essential to the course. The Book Arts Studio allowed us to move materials to make paper to the Brown Design Workshop (thanks!), and we added equipment to allow students to experiment with paper marbling, bind books, and (in a very minor way) play with a printing press. But Covid rules meant no hands-on instruction. Students could watch videos and follow instructions that the students had put together last summer, and read instructions on books or watch them on YouTube. That worked surprisingly well. The goal was not to become experts, but to explore materials and contemplate the nature of skill, and understand the challenges that can be invisible in looking at a finished product like a book, and learning in this self-directed way seemed to encourage it.
The syllabus guided students through a combination of readings, writings, and projects, divided into some very general categories:
- Looking at Books, including a quick glance at descriptive bibliography and artist’s books, with a visit from a rare books librarian and staff from Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, to talk about Western and non-Western books.
- Making Books, with visits from a book conservator, a virtual tour of a local offset printshop, and student working in the Brown Design Workshop to make paper, marble paper, cut letters into linoleum, and experiment with toy presses. I talked about the process of turning my book from manuscript to book. Brown’s Digital Publications editor introduced the way that manuscripts are turned into books and the challenges of digital books. Students experimented with and wrote about a variety of digitization techniques, from OCRing to text encoding.
- Buying, Selling, and Owning Books included visits from an antiquarian book dealer and three librarians. Students visited local bookstores and virtual book fairs and wrote about them. They described their personal libraries, or the digital libraries on their phones or computers, and imagined book collections they might build.
- Using Books considered reading and research. The pandemic was easing, and Brown allowed in-person meetings, and we took advantage of that with students reading aloud to the group examples of reading meat to bread aloud, from Supreme Court justices’ dissents to children’s bedtime stories to Dragons and Dungeons scenarios. And we explored a faculty office and a departmental library in the building we met in, an exercise in what I called “forensic librarianship”: what can you tell about a person or a program from analyzing their library?
The final projects were quite wonderful. The guidelines were quite loose – make something, material or digital, that helps you learn something about books. For many students, that meant making some kind of artist’s book, though perhaps it’s better to call it something new, perhaps a “historian’s book.” Some of my favorites:
- A book that used laser cutting to capture the soundwaves of a reading of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” inspired by Ken Liu, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”
- A concrete “book” the size and shape of Audubon’s double-elephant folio Birds of America with the famous flamingo image drawn on the wet concrete and spray-painted
- A girdle book reimagined for 2021
- An exploration of the 1950s hobby of printing newspapers on a toy printing press, based in part on an interview with a former printer, with the result printed, in part, on one of those toy presses.
Along with their project, each student wrote an essay describing it, putting it into the context of book history and their personal history with books.
The course was an eccentric success. A success in that students enjoyed it, learned new things, and explored new ways of knowing. Eccentric in several ways. It was based on book history, but not a book history course. A course about making things, but done in a time when teaching making in the usual way wasn’t possible. A material culture course, but about an object that is in essential ways more than just material, and with a strong emphasis on the digital. A course that produced some wonderful artist’s books, but not an art course. In some ways, it was an ideal summer pandemic course, taking advantage of both virtual and physical approaches; and an ideal first-year seminar, allowing new students the opportunity to explore a topic with both humanistic techniques and artistic creativity.