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This week I attended the online SHARP 2021 book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and holds annual academic conferences for book historians. Usually these are held face to face, and I have attended many of them in the past. But this year, because of the Covid pandemic, it was a fully online conference, hosted by the University of Muenster. The conference ran over five days, from Monday 26th July 2021 to Friday 30th July 2021, with often very packed days of parallel sessions, up to 12 hours or so each day.

I was particularly grateful for the conference being online because due to my progressive neurological disease it is now increasingly difficult for me to attend face to face conferences, even those held relatively nearby to me. It may also not be feasible for me to travel to attend any more international ones, given how knocked out I am from my brain disease, the logistics of getting there and extra costs/difficulties of attending with a helper, and problems re wheelchair access.

Even so I could only attend a small fraction of the time available to attendees, being knocked out sleeping for up to 18 hours a day due to my brain disease. Luckily I could attend from bed, in my pyjamas, with my iPad and headphones. Hence my not turning my camera on at any point when asking questions!

The conference programme was full of variety and interest, as well as some experimentation in the format of panels. There were quite a lot of 5-1-5 panels where 5 speakers would each speak for 5 minutes about a single slide per speaker before a Q&A. I must admit that I was initially rather baffled at the start of the week by what 5-1-5 meant, and ended up going back to the conference’s original call for papers for clarification! Generally though I tuned in for 60 minute panels with 2 speakers (the conference’s 60 minute variant on the more traditional 90 minute panels with 3 speakers), where each would speak for 20 minutes, before usually a lively Q&A with the audience. All handled by a chair – always very effectively in my experience at SHARP 2021. I must also praise the speakers for running admirably to time, allowing lots of time for audience participation.

The conference’s primary online delivery method was Zoom, with up to 4 rooms used simultaneously for individual sessions. Generally this worked well for me, tuning in on my iPad. Though I had some hiccups on day 2 getting into the relevant room, with initial passcode errors. So I missed the first 25 minutes of that panel, but fortunately caught most of a talk I was particularly keen to see. Online conferencing can sometimes seem very impersonal, but I found it very effective for following speakers and their slides, and for good Q&A sessions afterwards. There was also a lively text chat section available during each session, which was well utilised by audience members to make comments on points mentioned, share references and knowledge, and to ask questions. Other questions were asked live via webcam/microphone as appropriate.

The range of participants at SHARP conferences is always varied, and unusually welcoming to young scholars. But I felt this online version was particularly wide ranging in the people taking part. It was especially nice to see many questions being asked by PhD students, as well as PhD and Masters students presenting their work at the conference alongside more established academics. There was throughout a very strong sense of camaraderie and willingness to help and share information and knowledge, which was very much appreciated.

Most of the sessions were held live and not recorded, so had to be watched at the scheduled time or you’d have missed it. But a fair number were pre recorded, allowing conference attendees to watch when suitable, including throughout August. I even started watching two recorded panels on the Sunday before the conference officially started! This did not allow me to take part in live discussion with the presenters, but was an appreciated and welcome innovation. It probably also helped with some time zone and availability issues. Though it was very nice to see people attending from all around in the world, in multiple time zones. For example North Americans waking up to watch during the day in Europe while Antipodeans were staying up late to catch online panels live.

Over the week and my earlier pre-conference start I watched 9 panels. Topics covered were diverse, ranging over bookselling during a pandemic, biblioforensics and book biography, the early modern English book trade and copyright and stationer wills, dispersed libraries and library organisation (including Samuel Pepys!), the book trade in present day Mexico City and New Delhi, SHARP’s own journal Book History and its new paperback incarnation, new research into Scottish library borrowing registers (a project I’m involved with, having gifted some of my own transcripts of borrowing records from my many years ago PhD on historic Scottish reading habits), translating medieval/Renaissance books between English/Scots and Spanish and vice versa, and initiatives at the Bodleian library in Oxford re digitisation of material. All were fascinating for me, and again just a tiny fraction of the events on offer to attendees over the full 5 days of the conference.

For all the events I attended I was an avid viewer of the presentations. Often participating in the chat too, and asking questions in the panels, sometimes through the text chat, occasionally unmuting my microphone (but camera still off – pyjamas!) to discuss something more complex. Throughout I felt thoroughly engaged, inspired, and eager to do more research of my own, and learn more about some of the issues and topics I learned about during the conference.

A nice bonus is that attending the conference prompted me to rejoin SHARP. I have been a member for many years in the past, but drifted away in recent years, as my progressive disease was worsening quite dramatically. But I am still an active researcher of book history and reading history, and attending the conference inspired me to rejoin the society. The only question was whether I would rejoin with a Book History journal included. While attending the event discussing the new incarnation of the journal my mind was made up: get the new paperback journal! Plus I should add that the $38 reduced rate for students / independent scholars / retirees helped too!

Over the coming weeks – throughout August – I plan to watch more recorded panels and keynote sessions. I’m very much looking forward to this. Looking further ahead I hope that I can participate in SHARP conferences in future in some way, albeit remotely. I think it’s unlikely as I say that I can ever attend SHARP in person again. So I hope there will continue to be some online provision, even after most book historians have returned to a more normal way of working.

I also want to thank the organisers for an extremely well run event. I would particularly like to praise conference lead Corinna Norrick-Rühl, who valiantly helped me when I had connection problems. And she must have had so much else to deal with all week! I really appreciated the personal touch.

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