Book History Comes West

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2011


As specialists defined it in the 1970s and '80s, "book history" was a field of inquiry with little connection to the American West. Following the lead of French academics, scholars of early modern English used the phrase "book history" to study the shift from manuscript to print in Europe. But others saw applications beyond Europe. By 1983, the Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society had established programs promoting the study of books as material objects in the United States. Despite the intent of these institutions to inspire national research, by the early 1990s, a group of scholars at the University of Wisconsin–Madison observed that the first wave of scholarship in US book history "tended to concentrate on white people living in the northeast, mostly before the Civil War"—a demographic particularly well represented by the collections of the American Antiquarian Society (Pawley 708). Now, some twenty years later, a short stack of twenty-first-century publications gives evidence that book history has quietly made the journey west.

In this essay, I am particularly interested in how a handful of national studies of book history represent the West and what they suggest for future directions in western literary, textual, and cultural scholarship. All five volumes selected for this review use the phrases book history and print culture more or less interchangeably to study relationships between authors, publishers, readers, government and private institutions, and print. Three of the volumes under review belong to the History of the Book in America series, a monumental project conceived at the American Antiquarian Society in 1993 and due to issue its last volume from the University of North Carolina Press as this review is being completed. 1

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