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Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 201-203

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Book Review

A Handbook for the Study of Book History in the United States

A Handbook for the Study of Book History in the United States. By Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, and New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2000. ix, 155 pp. $15.00. ISBN 0-8444-1015-2.

The Library of Congress's Handbook for the Study of Book History in the United States is a slim volume: a scant eighty pages of text, ten pages of notes, and fifty-five [End Page 201] pages of bibliography. But the content of the three sections--and their relationships to one another--gives an outstanding introduction to the field of book history. Two things make the Handbook truly satisfying. The first is the clarity with which Ronald and Mary Zboray situate the evolving field of book history within its constituent disciplines; state its various aims, methods, and questions; and suggest ways to use extant sources. The second, perhaps even more impressive accomplishment is the generosity with which the Zborays write. The Handbook explains that book history exists because "print touches upon nearly every one of the many specialized areas of human endeavor in our society." Like
libraries themselves, print culture is a democratic and inclusive institution, and the study of it offers "a wide-angle view of American civilization" (3). Because everyone is already a participant in this culture, anyone can become a scholar of it as well. In a moment when the academy appears increasingly marginal to mainstream American culture, the Handbook speaks to readers of all stripes,
reminding them that they are a part of history and offering ways for them to become more conscious of that fact.

The text portion of the volume consists of an introduction, conclusion, and one long chapter, all in outline form. Together they cover a host of practical matters for book historians, including the field's relationship to other disciplines and institutions; its working definitions of key terms and concepts; and the nature, types, and locations of its primary and secondary sources. Section 1, the introduction, examines the hows and whys of book history as it has evolved in the United States. It makes the Handbook's only explicit argument, namely, that "mediations of producers, disseminators, and consumers of printed materials provide insight into how a society produces meaning" (5). Introduction and conclusion alike suggest that book history's interest in those "mediations" is a reaction against midcentury consensus history and New Criticism, one fueled by social and cultural history and literary criticism's "new historicism" (5, 6, 79). Like these feeder disciplines, book history sees "culture as a field of contests, contradictions, and interests rooted in specific conditions" and explores the way "people . . . navigate among conflicting authorities expressed through print" (5).

Section 2, "How to Locate and Use Sources," consists of four main parts. It is here that libraries--public, private, research, mercantile--figure most prominently, not merely as repositories but as active agents in the communications circuit. The first section, "Where to Begin," shows readers how to become researchers, describing the main forms of U.S. print culture and their histories. After this brief overview, "Producers," "Disseminators," and "Consumers" map out the print world, with the outline gracefully dividing and subdividing those bulky categories down to the level of lowercase Roman numeral detail. Successive enumerations parse the major characters in the drama of print culture, flesh out their roles and the kinds of records they have left, and summarize the kinds of scholarship that have been--and remain to be--done on them. So as not to disrupt the clear descriptive flow of the outline structure, problematic definitions, theoretical debts, and internecine scholarly debates are handled in the notes.

Readers of the Handbook will probably want two bookmarks while reading--one to hold a place in the notes and the other to stay current within the "Suggested Readings" section. Constant flipping back and forth is required to get the most out of...


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