Print History Conference Enlightened by Rare Book Exhibition

Tuesday 23 July 2019

This year’s annual Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) conference brought scholars from all over the world to St Andrews. Over the course of the June conference, more than fifty print historians analysed the book market during the long eighteenth century, ultimately addressing the question at the heart of this symposium: was this a period of  ‘Crisis Or Enlightenment?’ However, it was not just early modern book historians who flocked to South Street; early modern books were also assembled in the historic St Mary’s quad. A display curated by St Andrews University Library’s Special Collections librarians fabulously contextualized the conference programme by furnishing tangible examples representing the incredible breadth of genres and formats printed in the European Enlightenment.

Conference group viewing the Special Collections items on display

A major theme that developed during the conference was the role of printed book catalogues in forming a canon of Enlightenment texts across Europe. St Andrews PhD student, Hanna de Lange, shared her findings regarding the proliferation of English books in European markets, based on her study of Dutch and Danish auction catalogues. Graeme Kemp, also from St Andrews, picked up the discussion of auction catalogues by exploring rare Scottish examples for insight into the beginnings of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the British Museum’s Alexandra Ortolja-Baird explored Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogues. Radboud Universiteit’s Anna de Wilde used Dutch catalogues to investigate the circulation of Jewish and Hebrew books, while her colleague, Evelien Chayes, used manuscript and print catalogues to study Jewish and Christian book collecting in Venice. Rounding out the catalogues discourse, Helwi Blom, explained how it was not just the textual content of these catalogues that influenced the burgeoning Enlightenment, but importantly, also the paratext. The classification systems employed in early modern auction catalogues often reflected newly established Enlightenment ideals regarding the thematic and systematic arranging of information. Nowhere is this epistemological Enlightenment impluse better observed than Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie, which the conference participants saw firsthand when examining an eighteenth-century St Andrews volume from the multi-volume set.

Perfectly punctuating our exploration of printed catalogues, the Special Collections exhibit included Bibliotheca Heinsiana, the auction catalogue for the book collection of Dutch classical scholar and Neo-Latin poet, Nicolaus Heinsius (1620-1681). As was mentioned in the conference, auction catalogues often had a life beyond simply advertising an estate sale. For famous names, like Heinsius, these catalogues were reissued to celebrate the collector, while also serving as a reference for those building their own collections in his image. This significant catalogue was juxtaposed with the collection of the lesser-known German Lutheran theologian, Thomas Ittig (1643-1710), whose catalogue was also displayed. The conference attendees were also treated to a 1692 catalogue printed in Edinburgh. This Scottish catalogue is the first printed survey of the freshly established Advocates Library collection, whose founder, George Mackenzie (1636/8-1691), envisaged it as ‘a modern Lyceum and a new Stoa where brilliant wits will be exercised in harmless encounters’. How very Enlightened!

Title page of the catalogue of the Scottish Faculty of Advocates Library [1692] (TypBE.C92MM)
Conference group viewing the Special Collections items on display

The selection made by the Special Collections team reinforced and supported many of the findings of the USTC conference, while also allowing space to reflect on the future of collecting. Directly before the doors of the exhibit opened, our first plenary speaker, Professor Ian Maclean, gave a paper analysing advertisements for the relatively new genre of academic journals in Frankfurt fair catalogues. Professor Maclean showed how academic journals reshaped the Republic of Letters by opening new scientific findings to a wider, and not exclusively Latinate, international market. Consulting the St Andrews copies of Philosophical Transactions (the first and longest-running scientific journal), one delegate wondered how modern academic journals’ rapidly changing format has already shaped the knowledge production and discoveries for which we will be remembered. Over the three-day conference, we heard about trends in printing and collecting agendas across diverse readerships, but it is a testament to the incredible power of primary sources that these probing questions and modern parallels were prompted when we directly engaged with early modern material culture.

On behalf of the USTC team, thank you to the fantastic stewards of the St Andrews’ Special Collections for a truly enlightening exhibit!

Conference group viewing the Special Collections items on display

Nora Epstein
PhD student

Nora is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews researching the intersections of print history and material culture by tracing image transmission during English and Scottish Reformations. After receiving her Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, she earned a Masters in Book History from the University of St Andrews. Most recently, she was a Special Collections and Archives Librarian at DePaul University. You can follow her on Twitter at @NoraEpstein.

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