New perspectives in book history: reflections on the yearbook and congress of the NBV

The Dutch Book Historical Society (NBV) held a 25th anniversary congress in Amsterdam Friday 1 June. At the end of an interesting and entertaining day the new Yearbook for Dutch Book History was presented.

At the occasion of their 25th anniversary the NBV organised an ambitious congress. The congress Nieuwe wijn én nieuwe zakken (literal translation: New wine and new bags) focused on innovative digital techniques and new approaches that could provide new opportunities and insights for researchers in book history. Researchers from related fields were invited to show how their research could contribute to book history. Even though it does no justice to the richness of the day as a whole, I focus in this report on the two opening talks of the congress. Both were about ongoing research projects that intend to link existing and new datasets and both projects aim to build a lasting research infrastructure.

The first presentation of the day was by Els Stronks, Professor of Early Modern Dutch Literature and Culture at Utrecht University, currently involved in the research project Golden Agents that aims to unravel the dynamics of the Dutch Republic’s creative industries. In order to do so, various cultural datasets are converted to RDF, connected and queried. Next up was Alicia Montoya, Professor of French Literature and Culture at Radboud University and principal investigator of the project MEDIATE. This project aims to explore the real bestsellers of the 18th century, or, as they call it ‘Middlebrow Enlightenment’. The backbone of the project are two databases that will be created from a corpus of sales catalogues of 18th century private libraries.

As is the case in all digital humanities research, both projects are hunting for data and data collections. Interestingly, where the data in the Golden Agents project comes from a wide variety of sources, the data in the Mediate project comes primarily from one source: book sales catalogues. Of course this difference can be explained by the aim and the scope of both projects, but how does it affect our interpretation of the sources? Are these datasets not merely shadows on the wall?

Well, Golden Agents may hope that the richness and variety of data covers the field sufficiently to paint the entire picture. The idea is arguably that what is lacking in one database, will be covered by another. It is, however, challenging to get a good overview of the things that are not in any of these databases. Mediate focuses on one type of source, even though handwritten catalogues and other lists on the collections of private libraries may be included. It might be problematic that only a fraction of the original catalogues has survived, but at least it should eventually be possible to come up with an estimation of the total number of auctions, private collections and catalogues.

The latest issue of the Yearbook for Dutch Book History is no less ambitious than the congress. Chief editor Saskia van Bergen explained that the editors aimed to include contributions of young and established scholars, abstracts of research projects, narrative and analytical articles, covering various book historical and related disciplines. Notwithstanding that it is a jubilee issue, with a festive outlook, the opening article questions some of the foundations of book history. Wijnand W. Mijnhardt states that the importance of books has long been exaggerated by book historians. The reading revolution of the 18th century is not supported by statistics and probably an invention, and print culture never successfully defeated oral and visual culture. Isn’t it time for new questions, Mijnhardt wonders.

To some extent, these new questions are raised by the projects mentioned above. First and foremost, new techniques ask for a critical reflection of our source material. It might not be a problem that we study the shadows on the wall, but it is a problem if we don’t know the size of the cave, the location of the fire and what is left in the dark. Moreover, in line with the topics discussed at congress and in the yearbook I agree that we can learn a lot from relating fields of research. But do we really need to marginalize book history as a subject? One attendee of the congress sighed at the end of a long day: ‘I would be so pleased to attend a congress that is about edition science, publisher’s funds, and book trade.’ This was no desperate call for the non-digital, but a sincere desire for solid research and measurable science on a micro-scale. Luckily, the yearbook offers plenty examples of this.

NBV Jaarboek 2018
Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis = Yearbook for Dutch Book History 25 (2018)
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