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This seminar brings together from various disciplines scholars who work on the history of the book and the study of material texts in order to place the technical and bibliographical study of text objects in dialogue with cultural studies and both the textually- and the materially-oriented humanist disciplines more broadly.  Over recent decades, book history has emerged as a necessarily and productively interdisciplinary field; with this in mind, this seminar focuses on the interpretation of material textual objects from an array of disciplinary perspectives.  Our aim is to provide a clearinghouse for emerging methods and work, and a nexus for scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to discuss and pursue shared interests in the study of the book and the material text.

The seminar meets at 6:10 pm in Faculty House or, if noted, Butler Library Room 523 or the Morgan Library (please consult the calendar to verify the location).

Past Meetings

Alexis Hagadorn

Professor Joseph A. Howley

Sierra Eckert

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/26/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Leopoldo Cicognara’s and Julius von Schlosser’s Italian Art Bibliographies
Jeanne-Marie Musto, Independent Scholar
Speaker Link Abstract


Two Italian art bibliographies written a century apart demonstrate the power of bibliography to constitute a discipline within a specific intellectual and cultural framework. Comparative analysis of these works throws into relief the extent to which each employs bibliography as a vehicle to express deeply felt, and divergent, perspectives on the nature of Italy and the nature of art history. The earlier bibliography, Catalogo ragionato dei libri d’arte e d’antichità, published in 1821 by Leopolodo Cicognara, represents Cicognara’s personal library. While not presented as geographically specific, it conveys Cicognara’s overriding concern with Italy. As the first significant art bibliography, his catalogue exerted broad influence among European institutions devoted to the visual arts. Julius von Schlosser wrote the later bibliography (or, more properly, extended bibliographical essay), “Über die ältere Kunsthistoriographie der Italiener,“ in 1925; it appeared in Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Instituts für Geschichtsforschung four years later.

Both Cicognara and Schlosser were citizens of Austria – Cicognara of the Habsburg Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, and Schlosser of the First Austrian Republic. Both composed their works during restive moments in European history and in the discipline of art history. Cicognara, an enthusiast of the French Revolution, was appointed President of the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts when it was re-founded under Napoleon. He composed his bibliography during the reactionary Restoration period. Schlosser, an early proponent of Austrian Anschluss with Germany, chaired the “second” art history department at the University of Vienna. He expressed great admiration for Cicognara’s Catalago in his essay, which he composed in a resort area of Fascist Italy. Comparing these works underlines sharp differences in their relationship to an Italian nation and to the discipline of art history – neither of which had been fully formulated in Cicognara’s day, and both of which were sites of bitter conflict in Schlosser’s.

10/11/2019 The Heyman Center and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
1:00 PM
Book Parts: A Conference


The field of book history has never been more vibrant, nor has the importance of interrogating the material dimensions of text, its creation and circulation and consumption, been more clear, as digital media upend traditional modes of publishing, reading, and even academic librarianship. “What is a book?” is a question whose stakes have never been higher, and book historians and bibliographers have risen to the challenge, producing work that examines not just how books exist as physical objects, but how those physical existences have been conditioned by historical circumstances, and how they in turn condition cultures and practices and reading and interpretation. The University Seminar in Material Texts proposes an event that will bring together scholars in this vibrant field, including several Columbia faculty members, to discuss new and ongoing work.

Summer 2019 sees the publication by Oxford University Press of Book Parts, edited by Dr. Dennis Duncan (writer and translator) and Prof. Adam Smyth (Balliol College, Oxford), a bold and imaginative intervention in the fast-growing field of book history that “pulls the book apart.” In twenty-two chapters, it tells the story of every component of the book, from title pages to endleaves, dustjackets to indices, and everything in between. It shows how these parts of the book that we know, love, or take for granted emerged over time, make meaning for book makers and users, and hide in plain sight. The volume covers the pre-print era to the digital age, and each chapter is written by an exciting scholar working in the field of book history today.

To showcase the exciting and innovative work being done in the fields of book history and bibliography at Columbia and across the Atlantic seaboard, the Columbia University Seminar in Material Texts and the Heyman Center for the Humanities will host a one-day “Book Parts” event on Friday, October 11, 2019. Eight speakers from among the volume’s contributors will each speak about the history and meaning of different “parts” of the modern book (such as endsheets, tables of contents, and footnotes) and the keynote speaker, Leah Price (Rutgers), will respond to the day's papers and the volume as a whole. The final portion of the program will be a pop-up exhibit at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, for which conference speakers will select items from Columbia’s rich special collections holdings that illustrate or speak to the phenomena in their presentations.

Full Program:

Notes: Full Program:

Conference Speakers:
Dennis Duncan (independent scholar, writer and translator; volume co-editor), “Indexes”
Nicholas Dames (Columbia University), “Chapter Heads”
Jenny Davidson (Columbia University), “Footnotes”
Joseph Howley (Columbia University), “Tables of Contents”
Whitney Trettien (University of Pennsylvania), “Title Pages”
Meaghan J. Brown (Folger Shakespeare Library), “Addresses to the Reader”
Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore College), “Epigraphs”
Claire M. L. Bourne (Pennsylvania State University), “Running Titles”
Keynote respondent: Leah Price (Rutgers University)
10/24/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Littoral Language: Charles Olson's Maximus and Maps of the Gloucester Coast
Sarah Arkebauer, Columbia University


In this essay I read Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems (1950–70) through the object of the map and its underlying technologies in order to reinterpret Charles Olson's hallmark poetic values — projection and sound — as cartographic. I examine projection as it relates to the visual distribution of a map, and sounding as the technologies for determining the depths of the ocean. These reorientations allow us to reread Olson's work with a new attention to the Gloucester with which his Maximus poems are intimately concerned. My work provides an examination and critique of the systems of mapmaking Olson uses, as well as his own hesitancies about their limitations. I discover maps operating at increasing degrees of abstraction: diagrammatic maps; lines shaped like a coastline; depth charts rendered in language. These map-objects shift in light of the poetry that surrounds them, revealing the instability of shores as constituent parts of a mappable world.

11/14/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Books and Butchers: Manuals for Kosher Meat Preparation in Early Modern Europe
Joshua Teplitsky, Stony Brook University, SUNY


Kosher meat was both an ingredient of Jewish physical sustenance and an important marker of cultural identity. The expertise to produce kosher meat rested in ancient traditions that had, in the age of print, been codified in manuals of instruction that appeared in no fewer than sixty-three editions (in Hebrew and Yiddish) between 1549-1727. Study from these books, however, was not sufficient for the task upon which Jews depended for their meat. In the blank pages of guides to butchering kosher animals evidence survives of the close personal relations between teachers and students in the form of certifications inscribed by hand by scholars who had tested and approved the student’s skills. These handwritten certifications transformed the impersonal printed book into a source of personal credential for its holder, as the bearer of the book could now present the object as material evidence of knowledge acquired. This paper will explore the phenomenon of certification of kosher butchers as they appear in handwritten inscriptions to printed books and consider the way the print and manuscript addenda interacted in the transmission of mimetic learning alongside “book learning.” It will also consider the obverse phenomena: cases of forgery and deception, and the upheavals caused by discoveries of fraud. By reflecting on specific material traces and using the tools of critical bibliography, the paper with will consider the relationship between knowing and doing in books, study, and the production of kosher meat in early modern Europe.

12/10/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Unseen and at hand: Slaves, tablets, and Roman literary production
Joseph Howley, Columbia University


Ancient Roman poets made regular reference in their poetry to the ultimate physical form that poetry would take, the libellus or little book-roll. But their material figurings of poetic work also included the tabellae, or waxed wooden tablets, on which they wrote their drafts. These tablets, a ubiquitous part of literate practice in the Roman world, have come to be a defining symbol for the material realities of Roman literary production. But Roman authors also depended heavily on another tool: the enslaved secretary. Enslaved stenographers and clerks were ubiquitous in the Roman aristocratic households that produced Latin literature, and some of the most famous Roman writers depended on enslaved amanuenses. The labor extracted from these human tools is omitted from Roman descriptions of literary composition, or else only glimpsed obliquely.

Using a book historical approach to the Roman media ecosystem of literary text and to the logistics and labor of book production, I reconstruct the role of secretarial slaves in Roman literary composition, and reexamine the poetic image of the tablet in light of that use. I situate these secretarial slaves in the larger context of Roman domestic servitude, and trajectories of enslaved life at Rome. I conclude by asking what it would mean to more centrally locate enslaved labor, often erased or elided in literary evidence, in our history of the Roman book, and consider what it means to write the history of book technology when that technology includes enslaved human beings.

01/23/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Kristina Richardson, Queens College, CUNY

02/13/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Kathryn Swartz, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

03/12/2020 523 Butler Library, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Morgan Adams, Columbia University

04/14/2020 523 Butler Library, Columbia University
7:00 PM

Russell Maret, Independent Scholar

05/05/2020 The Morgan Library (225 Madison Ave.)
7:00 PM

John McQuillen, The Morgan Library