Book, Archive, Museum – Notes from the Symposium on 10/28


Click to read the full symposium program.

Last Friday I convened a symposium at Penn State Abington called “Book, Archive, Museum.” Inspired by a new curricular program we’re developing on campus, I invited students, faculty, staff, and guests to participate in a day-long conversation about these keywords. I’ve decided to share a version of my opening remarks and some further reflections here today before the vital ideas and questions raised at the event slip away from me.

This event was sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School with additional support from the Division of Arts and Humanities.

Opening Remarks

We are here today to have a conversation about the art of the printed word, broadly conceived through our program keywords – book, archive, museum – and the keyword presentations we will hear this afternoon. I suggested convening a brainstorming event like this one because of many conversations I’ve had over the last few years as a member of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School. I know that these words – book, archive, museum – mean very different things to people from different disciplines and professions.

As a scholar of early modern English literature, I think about hand-press books, the circulation of works in London book trade, and the dynamics relationship between print and manuscript in the era. When I organized my first RBS-Mellon symposium called “What is a Book?” at Scripps College in 2015, I heard papers about digital poetry, the process of making artists books, and the communities engaged by a Hedwig and the Angry Inch fan zine. These are diverse, but connected, modes of thinking about the art of the printed word. I know from conversations with Classicists working on epigraphs and Art Historians studying paintings on paper that these terms mean different things in different disciplines. I read tweets from archivists working on materials from the Ferguson protests and the Occupy movement on the one hand, and family papers on the other, and see that they face interconnected, but distinct challenges. Admittedly, I know less about museums, but I do know that curators and conservators strive to maintain the safety and stability of their objects while presenting them in meaningful ways and crafting compelling narratives.

If I asked each of you to define book, archive, or museum, I suspect that a map of overlapping definitions would emerge, rather than neat, codified, or consistent answers. This afternoon I hope we will make that map together, because, I trust, the map and the process of mapping will inflect the design and implementation of the Book, Archive & Museum Program.


Over the course of the day, a map of overlapping interests and definitions did emerge. During the morning workshops, I watched my students learn about the Ogontz Archives held on our campus for the first time by handling rare material and listening to our expert librarians. Standing in front of a shallow tray of water, my colleagues became playful and giddy as they practiced the Suminagashi paper-marbling method and suspended colorful inks on the fluid surface (example below). Friends and colleagues that I’ve known for ages, or only a short while, participated in interdisciplinary dialogues about sewing kits, herb-slicers, cigarette cases, and other objects as we sat on stools in the art studio. We all found common ground.

A number of the short, keyword papers in the afternoon sessions challenged accepted definitions of books and archives: what does it mean when something is bound? when literacy is taught in a kitchen? when treasured books reside in a public library that provides so many other essential services? when facsimiles — in the book and museum worlds — trouble any definition of the “original”? when archives bear witness to exclusion, prejudice, and privilege? when the boundaries of the book or the page are challenged by artistic processes, alteration, and emendation?

Moreover, even when we’ve acknowledged these messy parameters, what do we make of the materials we have at hand? how do we (as scholars, librarians, conservators, public historians) conserve, curate, and provide access? how to we avoid replicating the structural disparities of our culture as we tell the stories of our objects? From chemistry curricula to germolata, zines to an overview of the Rosenwald collection at the Library of Congress, we shared expertise.

We also considered the different ways these questions might engage our campus and the broader community of the greater Philadelphia area. From class activities to chance encounters, how do we encourage students, colleagues, and community members to think about making, interpreting, and handling books? how to we bring people into archives and museums and/or encourage them to see these spaces as sites for research and storytelling? how do we cultivate chance encounters on the one hand and deepen specialized expertise on the other?

My colleagues and I have a lot of thinking to do.

Links to Institutions and Organizations Featured in the Symposium

Ogontz Archive

Rare Book Department, Free Library of Philadelphia

Culinary Literacy Center, Free Library of Philadelphia

The Library Company of Philadelphia

Barnard Zine Library

The Soapbox

Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

Abington Art Center

Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress

The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania,



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