Two weeks ago I was in Paris, partly for holiday, partly to attend the annual SHARP book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. Its conferences are held each year, usually alternating between North America and Europe. I’ve been to SHARP conferences four times now, since 2005, and always find it a rewarding experience. I’ve written up my 2016 experiences below, mainly to have a record for myself for the future. In a nutshell I had a great time, and was inspired as usual, but had some wheelchair accessibility issues, and other concerns about the conference venue. If you want to read on feel free, but note it is long!
This year’s conference, per the usual format, was held over three main days, with over 100 panels of usually three talks, up to eleven panels simultaneously at any given time. In addition there was a day of postgraduate talks and activities. The conference was held at the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the university site BULAC. This conference would turn out to have the biggest attendance yet of any SHARP conference so far. In addition the conference was bilingual, including live translation in place for the audience at key talks.
I could only go to the conference on one day. I have a neurological illness, similar in day to day symptoms to multiple sclerosis, and am limited in how long I can attend any academic event. I am also very weak after any event, and need to rest, preventing any chance of attending on successive days. I usually bring my wheelchair if possible, to help me last longer. Sadly wheelchair accessibility at sites varies, but usually we manage pretty well. As usual, I contacted the conference organisers before registering. This was partly to check wheelchair accessibility, but also to ask if my husband could be admitted free as my helper. I can’t wheel myself around, and having him there to help me through doors etc. and manage meals etc. is enormously helpful. Usually conference organisers are happy to do this, and that would be the case this time too. We intended to attend the Paris conference on the Wednesday, including the digital showcase, but had to wait for the final programme, released just before the event, to be sure. A drawback for me was the conference being split across two sites, with a long walk/push between them – fine for fit and healthy people, not so great for me in a wheelchair. So we were keen to stick to the one venue. Fortunately I found enough talks I wanted to go to on one day at the main BnF site. Ideally we would have been there for the opening panel at 9am, indeed earlier to allow time to register. But with the logistics of getting a wheelchair across Paris by taxi we aimed instead to get there for 9.45, when we would meet a BnF staff member to guide us in with wheelchair, negotiating the lift etc.
The conference started on the Monday, with postgraduate sessions, before starting properly on the Tuesday. I followed the tweets from conference attendees over the opening days – many more tweets than I’d ever seen for any previous SHARP conference. From the tweets it was clear that many people were struggling with heat, in unusually warm weather for Paris (up to 36C). This made me extra relieved that I was only aiming to attend on the one day, in a modest way.
Wednesday arrived. It was another extremely hot day, but luckily we had a scary but trouble free taxi ride across the city to the BnF. We met BnF staff member Isabelle who took us into the building, including via the lift. I was quite surprised at how much security there was in the BnF building, but in the circumstances it’s sensible. We registered us both with no problems – because my husband was recorded as a full attendee (albeit paying no conference attendance fee) this meant he got an identity badge too, which was good to have. At registration we ran into a St Andrews book historian we know, which was nice, then wheeled through to the auditorium foyer where the publishers stands were, and also the venue for many coffee breaks. Here we had our first hiccup with the building: an awful lot of doors to go through, which had to be opened wide. Again I was grateful my husband was with me, not coping on my own, though other conference goers rushed forward to help too, which was extremely kind of them.
We found the Brill publishers stand and managed to buy the book I wanted – a recently published St Andrews book conference proceedings, bought at SHARP at quite a discount. It was nice to see another familiar face with the Brill rep there, who we’ve seen before multiple times at SHARP and St Andrews. Then time for a quick drink, before heading off for my first panel at 11am.
Here we ran into more problems. The BnF is a very long building, and it was a very long walk to the salle Jules Verne where our panel was. I couldn’t have walked that distance, even when I’m on my feet and coping well. So thank goodness for the wheelchair. Though it was not always easy to wheel on heavily carpeted floors. Of course heavily carpeted floors are good for sound proofing, in a library environment. There were lots of “Silence!” signs around as we travelled along, past many quiet reading rooms.
The Jules Verne room itself was problematic. I had to get out of my wheelchair to get through the door. Even more troublesome was noise coming in from people speaking outside in nearby corridors, seemingly on three sides of the room. This was very distracting for audience members, and very distracting for the speakers, who often tried to raise their voices to be heard over audible conversations we could hear and follow from outside. This was not a great setting for an academic talk. Also seating in the room was poor for the audience trying to see the slides at the front. Much of the audience couldn’t see the PowerPoint pictures being shown by the speakers, with fellow audience heads in the way. Again not a great arrangement of room for what was needed.
Having said that, the talks were fascinating. This panel was about 18th century libraries, so bang on topic for me who completed a PhD on Scottish reading habits in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I particularly enjoyed Jason McElligott’s talk about book thefts in 18th century Dublin. Partly this was for a personal reason: I have Dublin ancestry, and my ancestors would have lived in the city then. I doubt they ever set foot in Marsh’s Library, though I wouldn’t put it past them handling stolen books! But I also enjoyed it because it gave a different perspective on reading and book collecting tastes at the time. I actually commented on this in the Q&A section after the talks, suggesting to Jason that he could use the detailed lists of books stolen to reassess Irish reading tastes at the time. It’s quite likely that it would give a different picture from conventionally studied records like library catalogues and bookseller adverts.
After this it was lunchtime. So first was a long wheel back to the grand auditorium foyer where lunch was served. Here was a particular delight: individual take away cardboard lunch boxes, with handles, full of sandwiches, salad or pasta, fruit and a drink. It was a great way of giving out the food tidily, but also meant attendees could carry their lunches easily to wherever they wanted to eat in the building.
The Digital Showcase of book history computing projects is usually held on the middle day of the conference, and I was keen to get it. One project on display I was interested in had no-one there to talk to about it, and the information board was all in French, which stumped us somewhat, though we tried our best to read it, my husband even resorting to a simultaneous translation app on his iPad, photographing sections of the information board, and then letting the app try to spot the words and instantly translate. Quite magic, but a bit limited. However I was relieved to get to talk to Jan from St Andrews – another familiar face – about Book History Online. I’d recently noticed some gaps in its coverage, and wanted to know more about how the resource – an online bibliography of book and library history – is compiled. I came away much wiser. I’m sure it will be a useful resource for me to use in future. Fortunately although it is subscription only I can access it through my honorary research fellowship at Dundee University.
After this we made our way to the next room. And here problems were manifold. The next panel we were going to, about shipboard publications, was in the room designed PLK1, in one of the outside towers, outside the main BnF building. Fortunately we had studied the maps to know how to get there. But even once there we couldn’t get in the door. And the building’s security guards didn’t have a clue what was going on, or why we were wanting to get in that door. Eventually they phoned someone inside the building to come and open it from inside, but it was chaotic. And once inside we had to get to the first floor, with no lift. And my wheelchair. I had told the conference organisers in advance which specific panels I wanted to go to, but I believe there was a breakdown of communication at their end, and they didn’t move this panel to a more accessible room. Fortunately I’m not wheelchair bound, though very weak at attending a long day of academic conference. Most helpfully my husband was willing to carry the wheelchair up and down stairs, while I struggled with my sticks. So I was able to get to the panel I dearly wanted to attend. But this should never have happened. Once inside the room we were joined shortly by two of the speakers, who weren’t sure if they were in the right place, and wondered if anyone else would find the room! Fortunately more people did, and there was a good audience by the time the panel started. Though there was no trustworthy looking wifi in this venue for audience members to use, including no access to the main BnF wifi network. I ended up connecting to something that looked somewhat dodgy, but would hopefully let me live tweet. That wasn’t a great situation to be in.
Thankfully the panel was really interesting, and worth the struggle up the stairs with a wheelchair! The three speakers all spoke about different aspects of shipboard writing. I was particularly agog at the story of the New Zealand troop ship magazines being saved thanks to a Dunedin librarian with much foresight requesting in the 1920s that the magazines be sent into the library, for posterity’s sake. I also found the stories of emigrant ship magazines moving, giving a sense of community to people setting out on new lives. For example it was touching that these magazines, compiled by the emigrants themselves, referred to the ships as ‘home’. All the talks were well presented, and on time, and followed up with a lovely Q&A, with good cross-panel discussion from the panellists, as well as participation from the audience.
I had originally intended to attend a third panel of the day, on archives and book history. But what with the extremely warm temperature combined with our struggle up and down two flights of stairs I decided to leave early. So we called a taxi, and were picked up at about 4pm outside the BnF.
All in all I had a rewarding day. I’m not totally sure about the suitability of the BnF as a conference venue. Not just for my problems with wheelchair accessibility, but also due to relatively poor signage, widely spread out lecture rooms, and quite a lot of noise coming through into at least one of them. That room also had problems for people trying to view PowerPoint slides on screen. And we had wifi problems in the other room too. But we were made very welcome, and the lunch was superb. And, as usual, I found attending even the one day of SHARP incredibly stimulating intellectually. Even from just the two panels attended I have lots of fresh ideas to apply to my own research and writings, and feel inspired.
I’m not sure when I will be back at SHARP’s annual conference again. Probably when it is back in Europe. Health permitting. But I look forward to it. Meanwhile I have great memories of my time in Paris, including a day at SHARP 2016.