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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
Slavery and the circulation of books in Imperial Rome
Joseph Howley, Columbia University


In ancient Rome, every stage of what Robert Darnton (1982) called the “communications circuit” of books was facilitated by enslaved labor. Enslaved workers aided with the composition and revision of literary works, copied and produced new editions, and facilitated reading. This paper argues that any history of the ancient Roman book must take this enslavement into account as central not only to book culture but to the definition of the book in antiquity, as both technology and practice; and specifically, that the role of slavery in the reproduction and circulation of Roman books is fundamental and definitive, even given the existence of a private book trade. The argument for this is threefold: that the existence of domestic enslaved book labor depressed Rome’s commercial book market; that formerly enslaved scribes were the main source of labor for the commercial market; and that standards of textual quality applied on the commercial market had their basis in the logic of Roman domestic slavery. The defining book technology of antiquity was not “manuscript” but “enslaved manuscript,” and book historians and classicists must confront the central roles of domination and human exploitation in the life of the Roman book.

01/23/2020 Low Library, Burden Room, Columbia University
6:00 PM
The Book and Print Cultures of Medieval Itinerant Shi’i Astrologers
Kristina Richardson, Queens College, CUNY
Speaker Link Abstract


The intellectual lives of itinerant Shi’i astrologers of the Banū Sāsān departed from most other groups of the 10th to 15th centuries in their embrace of an innovative book and print culture. The ghurabā’ were cultural innovators and producers, though their ingenuity was generally denounced in premodern Arabic sources as “trickery.” In the realm of arts and letters, the Banū Sāsān have inspired numerous characters in maqāmāt (picaresque tales) and shadow plays, but their own contributions to what Shawkat Toorawa has called “Islamicate writerly cultures” deserve elaboration. The ghurabā’ astrologers developed and sustained the most sophisticated literary culture. They introduced block printing to Middle Eastern communities, likely serving as the vector of transmission from Central Asian communities that had been block printing for centuries prior, and created a new genre of illustrated astrological book that they called bulhān. There is evidence that block printing developed and spread beyond gharīb circles and that the books used by street astrologers were adapted to royal tastes at the Ottoman court.

02/13/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Organizing Peoples’ Situations: Mehmed ‘Ali and the First Ottoman ‘Newspaper,’ al-Waqa’i‘ al-Misriyya (1828–1839)
Kathryn Swartz, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Speaker Link Abstract


In December 1828, the government of the provincial ruler of Ottoman Egypt, Mehmed ‘Ali (r. 1805–1848), published the first issue of al-Waqa’i‘ al-misriyya, or Egyptian developments. This moment is widely understood to mark the establishment of “the first Arabic-language newspaper,” and has been connected with later developments in the century such as the growth of the press in the Middle East, the spread of Western thought, and the rise of nationalism and politics. While al-Waqa’i‘ al-misriyya was indeed the first of its kind, with printing integral to its conception, constitution, and circulation, I suggest that scholars apply these insights not to the late nineteenth century, but rather in time, to recognize it primarily as an innovative tool of statecraft. Relying on issues from its first ten years, I show that it was not a newspaper as such, but rather a periodical which was intended to move select information of concern to the government to, from, and between its far-flung and many operatives. Mehmed ‘Ali’s overarching goal in initiating al-Waqa’i‘ al-misriyya, I argue, was to create a managerial system which would ultimately put his province in order. Its contents therefore form a unique government archive — in an age when scholars are restricted from accessing such papers — whose holdings are as revelatory to us now as they were to readers who were made to consume the publication then.

03/12/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Hidden in Plain Sight: Identifying Evidence of Curtains in Medieval Manuscripts in the Morgan Library & Museum
Morgan Adams, Columbia University


Building on an important study of curtains in medieval manuscripts by Christine Sciacca, this essay examines the physical evidence of lost curtains in nearly forty manuscripts in the Morgan Library & Museum. Aside from a few examples in which manuscript curtains survive in situ, most have been lost. However, important physical evidence about them remains. This essay provides a brief introduction to the concept of curtains in medieval manuscripts to help us imagine how curtains would have looked and functioned in manuscripts. Next, extant curtains in the Morgan’s collection are examined as a framework for interpreting the evidence of lost curtains. Working from the Morgan’s examples, the essay then provides a typology of the physical features suggestive of lost curtains and discusses the challenges to interpreting this evidence. Finally, research areas that could be advanced by systematic study of curtain evidence in manuscripts are identified through examples from the Morgan collection. The primary aim is to help scholars recognize and describe curtain evidence so that they may more thoroughly document these features in manuscripts, thereby contributing to object-based interpretation of manuscripts by art historians, codicologists, and conservators alike.

04/14/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Editors, makers, encoders: three approaches to materiality in a Digital Critical Edition of a Renaissance artisan’s manuscript
Clement Godbarge, Columbia University

Tillmann Taape, Columbia University

Tianna Uchacz, Columbia University

05/05/2020 The Morgan Library (225 Madison Ave.)
6:00 PM
Materials and Function of 15th-century European Blockbooks
John McQuillen, The Morgan Library


Blockbooks were heavily illustrated works printed entirely from woodcut and popular in the Netherlands and southern Germany in the 1460s–70s. Produced on order from sets of existing woodcuts, they were the first print-on-demand books. Although they ultimately lost out to the dissemination of typographic printing, they are pivotal examples of developing bibliographic desires in the period. This show-and-tell presentation has grown out of an on-going project examining the Morgan's blockbook collection (and other copies in the US), in an effort to more fully understand and describe the production and use of the genre as well as the modern collecting history (provenance) of individual copies.