I spent today at the opening day of the 6th Annual St Andrews Book Conference. I’m a bit alarmed as a book historian that I’ve missed the prior events. I will try not to miss future ones! Though having said that, the focus of these conferences seems to be on the Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern periods, which is quite different from the 18th and early 19th centuries my research focuses on. The theme of this year’s conference was how book historians can tackle the difficult problem of researching books that are now lost, but can in at least some cases be detected through other evidence, like inventories, printers’ lists, etc.
The conference was held in St John’s House on South Street, an old building which is not very wheelchair friendly. And I had to use my wheelchair while there, to be able to last for the whole day. Luckily the organisers Flavia Bruni and Andrew Pettegree were very accommodating, and kindly moved the main talks to a room I could access, with disabled toilet too. My husband accompanied me as my helper, and was admitted free, and fed/watered. He is an academic at another university, and was easily able to access the Eduroam wireless network for academic visitors on his iPad, though conference visitors were also given guest Internet accounts.
The conference started with opening words from organiser Andrew Pettegree. Although he researches a very different book history period from me I found much of general application in what he said. For example the books produced in a country are not the only ones read there, which echoes my later 18th century research into Scottish reading habits. Likewise surviving editions are no surrogate for production, which may seem to have obvious application in the Early Modern period, but was also relevant to me researching circa 1800, and now starting to wonder how good a guide existing imprints are to printing and publishing concentrations!
The opening session was two longer talks. These were quite thought-provoking, and I suspect there may be further heated discussion tomorrow, between those who advocate a more statistical approach, and those who consider using statistics and similar techniques in this context poses enormous problems. As a former scientist, albeit one who later picked up three more (history) degrees, I am open to statistical techniques, with care. I am sorry that I will be missing tomorrow’s talks on modelling book survival by Jonathan Green, Frank McIntyre, and Goran Proot. I must seek out their writings on the subject. As a downside the opening speakers often assumed that the audience had more knowledge of certain 15th and 16th century book history aspects than I certainly did. A little explanation might have helped, for book historians in the audience, like me, researching other periods. Not everyone there was an Early Modern specialist, or familiar with the same research tools or terminology.
Lunch followed. I was stuck in the talk room, because of my wheelchair, but my husband fetched food and drink for me, and others also kindly offered to help. I was also able to have a good long chat with a colleague and friend, and with others too. So although I was away from the main lunch venue I did not feel too left out. I also bought a Brill academic book from the reduced offers, having sent my husband upstairs to check out the titles on offer, photograph the display stands on his iPad, then bring down titles of interest for me to look at, before filling out the order form with the Brill rep.
The two main afternoon sessions contained three talks each. In the first there was a good mix of scholars from Sweden, St Andrews and Italy. I particularly liked Alexandra Hill’s talk about her research into the English Stationers’ Company Register. As I said to her in the question section after, her findings of which books were more likely to be preserved and survived versus those more likely to be lost echoed my own research into book buying, collecting and reading habits two centuries later. I also greatly appreciated that her talk was extremely well judged in timing terms, and made excellent use of PowerPoint. Some more experienced speakers today could have learned lessons from her, particularly on how to time a talk for a conference – practice, practice, practice!
The second afternoon session looked at dispersal of collections. Again a nice mix of talks, feeding well into each other. I was struck for example by Anna Giulia Cavagna speaking of a 16th century library taking five (yes five!) years to be transported from Vienna to Italy. I quizzed her about this afterwards, and it was very enlightening to learn more details about how valuable books were transported, slowly, with negotiation, and much care. It also tied in nicely to some of the afternoon’s earlier speakers.
I had to miss the evening’s closing session which was in an inaccessible venue for me, although the relevant curator had offered to give me a private tour, which I had to decline due to illness. But this was not a problem. I very much enjoyed what I was able to attend, and was very glad to be there. Thanks also to the session chairs for allowing me to ask a question three times. I’m fairly clueless when it comes to the 15th and 16th century and book history, but was inspired enough by what the speakers had said to engage with their research, and quiz them further. Thank you to all for being so accommodating.
The conference continues tomorrow and on Saturday morning. Sadly I will have to miss these due to my MS-like illness: I always had to choose one main day, with a slight hope (but not happening now) of attending on the final morning too. But I am very pleased with what I was able to attend, and found it quite inspiring. For example I’m currently working on several new journal papers, and one of these, albeit that it is looking at book history in the 18th and early 19th centuries, picks up nicely on some of the themes from today. So that is extremely useful, and it was a very worthwhile day.