(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books? / Collections & Conclusion (Post 4/4)

Guest post by Kristina Hartfiel & Tobias Winnerling, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Lehrstuhl für Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. This series of guest posts is inspired the workshop „Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher“ – „About (Making) Use of Books“ (cf. https://bookhistorynetwork.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/conference-book-use-the-practices-of-using-books-in-the-early-modern-period-dusseldorf-november-14-15-2014/)

(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books?

Collections & Conclusion (Post 4/4) – links to Posts 1, 2 & 3

Research designs are not to be based on any inherent properties of the research materials (if those exist) but are most of all dependent on research questions, methodology and pragmatic considerations, as Deleuze and Guattari have reminded us: “The coordinates are determined not by theoretical analyses implying universals but by a pragmatic composing multiplicities or aggregates of intensities.”[1]

This, on the one hand, allows for establishing links between individual material books-as-objects analytically, as the examples in the last two blog posts (#object itself / #paratexts)of this series about the Workshop “Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher” (Düsseldorf 11/2014) have shown already.[2] On the other hand we are faced with links of this kind which have already been established historically, as in the case of collections, which we now turn to. The increase of books available through printing facilitated collecting them in larger numbers than before, making the size and number of private and official libraries grow throughout the whole early modern period. The practice of accumulating a large number of different books over time results in the production of collections which by their distinct character constitute a particular field of inquiry.[3] A collection is organised by an internal context of meaning. The collection consisting of objects interconnected by this context of meaning may be viewed as an ‘object of objects’. As such an ‘object of objects’, the collection has its own materiality distinct from that of its parts. A collection of books such as a library differs strongly from a randomly assembled amount of paper, even though a library might appear as just a truckload of books when being moved. Therefore, the spatial configuration is of major importance in regard to libraries. The materiality of books influences the order of books in libraries – books are sometimes big and heavy – and can even make some kinds of arrangements impossible. That this materiality imposes specific restrictions on the collector was Elizabeth Harding’s claim at our workshop in her presentation on the private libraries of various professors of Helmstedt University.[4] She showed that the limited space of the professor’s houses which held their libraries was partitioned by the need they felt to address different audiences – colleagues; students; visitors without connections to science – in different ways precisely by the arrangement of certain books these groups were to face as part of the surroundings in which the visitors were received. The houses frequently proved to be too small to facilitate that, creating unwanted situations in social contact. The symbolism and representative status of certain books and/or parts of the collection could be used to communicate important self-presentation claims – if properly presented in the context of a library.

The material object of the book in this process assumes the function of a non-textual information carrier: the books on the shelves do not have to be read to convey their messages. This is only possible because they intrinsically are textual information carriers: the message rests on the assumption that it is indeed possible to read the books on the shelves. Though the visitors of the Helmstedt scholars if at all only partially read the books displayed to them, they could only work as status and scientific position indicators if the visitors assumed that their host was able to read them and, theoretically at least, really had read them all.

The library as a part of the “extended self” of its collectors or users could be put to use in drawing on its representative functions by its material presence to reach out beyond learned circles only. Julia Bangert illustrated this by the example of the ducal house of Brunswick-Lüneburg that did so in printed texts and images alike to fashion its own image “deo et posteritati”. These texts which catered to an audience far wider than just the circles of university scholars provided a general public with detailed information about the state and configuration of the ducal book collection and its uses. It did so for the purpose of casting a most favourable light on the ducal house by and through the library it had assembled.

Similarly, Iris Bunte at our workshop exemplified how researchers can make the transition from the seemingly superficial corporeality of a book collection to its informational content. She analysed the traces of use within the Erbsälzer libraries, ranging from markings and notes to materials deposited in the books such as plant leaves and small stones. These traces can be related to each other much more meaningfully in the context of the libraries as wholes. By this means, Bunte was able to make visible the connections the users made within the library as a space constituted by books between individual titles, other titles, their personal lives, and their place within the family tradition and genealogy.

Any analysis of a collection could be much enhanced by taking into account both sides of the assembled books, the material as well as the textual. We would like to stress that collections of books – and library rooms or buildings as spaces connected to them – should neither be viewed as a large quantity of things nor as a mass of collected texts only. They are more than the sum of their parts. To incorporate materiality into the analysis of libraries and collections as a research guideline is a useful strategy to produce new research questions in this quite popular field of inquiry. It also may serve to critically evaluate existing claims put forward by intellectual history about books so far. To do so, it will be necessary to test how these claims fit together with new findings made through the close inspection of the physical objects. If the hypotheses resting on analyses of the intellectual content of collections differ from those resting on their materiality, we will be challenged to bridge them in a new way.

Approaching collections in this way will mean to expand one’s research design. If you are already researching libraries or collections, a turn to materiality may mean that you will have to conduct a lot of additional work – yet it will provide valuable insights and new perspectives.

Non-concluding remarks

In the end, does all we told you in the last posts come down to the simple insight that objects can be quite troublesome? In a certain way – yes. Materiality produces endless questions, and more often than not it is quite difficult to use it to get to the answers. This especially pertains to books whose materiality is not like an epitext separated from (para/)texts. It is not just another part of the whole to be decoded according to known rules. We cannot just read materiality. Size, thickness, weight; matter, features, condition, usability; entries, marks of use, damages; all these are carriers of information about material books but no biblio-glyphs, no transcribable kind of alphabet. The three key foci #1 the object , #2 paratexts and #3 collections are nothing but signposts for the field of inquiry materiality studies focusing on early modern books open up. The reward might be that we can put forward claims about readers and users who have long vanished from this earth except for their material traces. These traces can be found in the material objects of their reading and use: books as physical objects. And this should be enough of a reason to go on counting, weighing, measuring, and reading in new ways.


Please note: a complete PDF of this four-part essay will be uploaded to the blog shortly.

[1]             Giles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic 2013, p. 15.

[2]             For more information on individual presentations see the conference minutes by Nancy Erasmus: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/index.asp?pn=tagungsberichte&view=pdf&id=5819.

[3]             Cf. Burckhard Dücker, Vorbereitende Bemerkungen zu Theorie und Praxis einer performativen Literaturgeschichtsschreibung, in: Friederike Elias/Albrecht Franz/Henning Murmann/Ulrich Wilhelm Weiser (Eds.): Praxeologie, Berlin/Boston 2014, 97–128; p. 119.

[4]             See also her recent book: Elizabeth Harding, Der Gelehrte im Haus. Ehe, Haushalt und Familie in der Standeskultur der frühneuzeitlichen Universität Helmstedt (= Wolfenbütteler Forschungen 139), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2014.


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