Conference Report: Languages of the Book, SHARP 2016, Paris

Guest post by Jan Hillgärtner

Over 400 delegates met up in Paris for the annual SHARP conference in July 2016, making it the biggest SHARP annual meeting so far. In over 100 panels, speakers presented their works and topics ranged from the study of incunabula, the book and reader between Renaissance and the modern day, editorial work, the history of libraries and digital literature to digital humanities.

As a topic, the organising committee chose ‘The Languages of the Book’, making this year’s conference widely accessible for a community of book historians, textual scholars, librarians and scholars of translation studies. Following from the rationale set out in the past years, the first day was devoted to presentations of PhD students and their ongoing research projects. This happened in an engaging and intellectually stimulating environment. The challenge was to boil down the projects to fit the main points into a ten-minute ‘lightning’ presentation. The reward for this effort was the input of the audience at the end of the session. It was here that advanced scholars shared their views and experiences with the postgraduate students, allowing them to further their perspectives about their topics.
As per usual for SHARP, the topics of the panels covered a wide geographical, temporal and thematic span. The conference managed to attract papers with a strong interdisciplinary focus ranging from themes such as paratexts in Early Modern and modern Chinese books to the history of library architecture in the United States and the United Kingdom (note: all of the conference abstracts can be accessed here). Scholars who drew their conclusions based on digital projects took up a prominent space in the conference. Such projects could deal with indexing the bequest of an author to the ways that printed material can be made available online.
For the Digital Project Showcase, SHARP dedicated one afternoon to the presentation of ongoing digital projects. Eleven predominantly young scholars gave an insight into their work and demoed their online tools to the community. All projects reached beyond the traditional limits of scholarly enterprise where results are made available to the community via the means of a publication. The databases, websites and bibliographies presented at this forum strive not only to uncover aspects of the history of the book and authorship but also to make available primary materials, metadata and statistics to the community to build further research upon. The conference has proved to be an ideal meeting place to spread the word about the exciting tools and databases available online.
The keynote lectures brought the community together at the end of each day. On the first night of the conference, Antoine Compagnon of the Collège de France explored the importance of French in today’s world. He responded to the popular sentiment that sees the book paling more and more in insignificance by pointing to the ever-increasing importance of reading; be it in paper-based or digital media. He shrewdly argued that the book is in itself an ideal perfect object, containing more than just knowledge. The book conveys memories and provides snapshots of the past, condensed on the pages, accessible to anyone who picks up the book.
David Mcitterick of Trinity College, Cambridge addressed the topic of rare books and value. He traced the history of the term ‘rare’ in connections with books and found the first reference in an English auction catalogue of 1609. He pointed to the often arbitrary classification of books as rare and how differently libraries understand the term. Some mix it up with ‘valuable’ and describe the most precious books as valuable. Whereas the Gutenberg Bible or Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle are certainly of high value, they are hardly rare, given how badly other editions of the same period survive. Booksellers too applied the concept of rarity to describe their stocks. Here, they spoke about rarity when they related to text that were hard to come by because of censorial and other restrictions. The book titles of Early Modern editions used ‘rare’ when they attempted to relate to something remarkable, such as the 1670s broadside ballad A rare Example of a Virtuous Maid in Paris.
In her keynote lecture, Anne Coldiron from Florida State University revisited the debate about the interplay between translation, paratext and design. She argued that a successful translation in the Renaissance as well as in our day and age, needed to be successfully mediated through physical texts. She explored the many ways translators could become visible as well as the attempts to disguise the fact that a text was translated by authors and printers alike.
With ‘Technologies of the Book’, the topic of next year’s conference, SHARP will take a look at the technicalities of book production. The conference will be held in Victoria, Canada on 9-12 June.


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