Teaching Bibliography

Subject. Rare book schools are very much about: “look at the object, and tell me what you see”; at the same time, courses on how you tell people to do this are not common. A course on “Teaching the History of the Book” has been offered at RBS Virginia on a number of occasions, with teachers such as Terry Belanger, most recently in 2007; here however the plan is something rather different, i.e. find out whether you know enough about bibliography and books to talk about them in a convincing fashion. So, it is as much about your ability to teach as your ability to do bibliography. Doing this course, therefore, means putting yourself to the test, constructively and positively, learning techniques and skills you can take back to your own lessons and students.

Materials and locations. The base for the course will be at Musée de l’Imprimerie in the very centre of Lyon. As well as printing presses and all sorts of other paraphernalia, the Musée has an impressive and very idiosyncratic collection of early printed books, many of them acquired because they exhibit some unusual typographical feature. A number of scholars following diverse lines of inquiry have written short pieces on items in the collection, which were brought together in the recent Guide déraisonné, a book that we shall be taking, well, as a guide.

One of our sessions at the Musée will explore some of the more unusual features of the collection, such as the ephemera, and also take the chance to look at the collection of woodblocks and clichés; likewise it is intended to hold a practical session in the workshop, in which students see typecasting, set type, and perhaps print a text. The Musée will also be hosting a McLeod collator for the duration of the course, with an aim to providing basic training on an unusual instrument. The other feature of the course will be that lessons will be hosted in other Lyon libraries, as well as at the Municipal Archives, with the collaboration of the curators, in order to view unusual and interesting items in their collections. In particular, we shall have one or more sessions at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, with particular use being made of the “fichier Parguez”. This is a card index that lists books with unusual or idiosyncratic features, something that is very useful when searching for things to talk about.

Potential users. Courses for academics, or intending academics, are quite rare and hardly ever form part of a university curriculum. At the most, they are expected to pick it up as they go along, or to learn it from their teachers. Actually, this view is not very helpful and some sort of training about basic teaching skills, which sometimes means survival, would be valuable. When I was beginning my Ph.D., my university did provide a one-day seminar about university teaching and I found it very useful and enlightening. Unfortunately, it was only that one day. Lyon is offering four!

Teaching bibliography also takes account of the fact that scholars rarely study bibliography as an academic subject; quite often, they start off doing something quite different, and “drift”. I’ve been there, I’ve done it, I know how it happens. So the course is offered with a mind to Ph.D. candidates and young scholars, who are looking to develop their university teaching skills, both for lectures and seminars, in a critical environment, and more mature scholars, who are interested in adding book studies to skills they already possess. A further potential category of users are librarians and conservators, who wish to improve their “show and tell” techniques, also perhaps through the medium of a library blog. Here again the examples of Stoddard’s inspirational Marks in books or of the Lyon Guide déraisonné might encourage other librarians and conservators to produce a publication of their own. And finally booksellers, who are looking for ways of adding value to what they propose through better and more elaborate forms of description.

Plan détaillé du cours: 

The course involves almost entirely hands-on practical sessions, with a minimum of classroom time, and rather than being specialist, encourages students to look at all aspects of a book, including Nineteenth-Twentieth-century material.

The idea is that you should be able to say anything about any book that happens to hand and see how and why it is remarkable. A selection of items from very different periods and geographical areas will be provided, though in some sessions they will be coherent, for instance, manuscripts (both parchment and paper), incunabula, Renaissance books, Eighteenth-century, modern books, ephemera, and so on.

Each session will begin with a group discussion about the characteristics of the selection, after which students will have a few minutes to examine chosen items. A group discussion will draw attention to features of interest and explore ways of describing them for others. In some cases, research will be conducted on repertories and online resources to discover the background to bibliographical features: again the emphasis will be on doing this as quickly and skillfully as possible. The course will also look at ways and means of building up a collection for teaching purposes, including the concept of “broken books”, and testing your abilities to recognize formats. Another session will bring together different versions, including manuscripts, of a certain text and explain how the work evolves as a published artifact through time and space.

Languages. Though the teaching language of the class will be English, discussion can be in any language, even American! Francophone, and other non-native English, speakers increasingly find themselves having to deliver papers and presentations in English. So, while practising bibliography, advice will also be given about English idiom and other characteristics.

Teacher. I have a long experience in teaching bibliography and book-related subjects, including paper, at a university level, as well as in the École of the IHL and elsewhere. Much of it has involved learning the tricks of the trade and the skills involved in taking a book, looking at it as a physical artifact, seeing what there is to see, and expounding it to a class. Little games, such as distinguishing mould/felt side in a sheet of paper, recognising which side of a sheet was printed with the first forme, are quite simple to learn, but appear almost magical to those not in the know. The secret is practice. Over the years, I have assembled an extensive collection of “material objects”, which are shown to students and passed around during the lesson. It prevents them from going to sleep, but also knowing the objects beforehand is a huge advantage in terms of savoir faire.


Critical Literature:

Guide déraisonné des collections du Musée de l’Imprimerie et de la Communication Graphique, Lyon, Musée de l’Imprimerie, 2014.

● Roger Stoddard, Marks in books, Cambridge, Harvard University, Houghton Library, 1985.

Teaching bibliography, textual criticism, and book history, edited by Ann. R. Hawkins, London, Pickering & Chatto, 2006.


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