- The Center for the Book and the History of the Book
In the three decades and more since its creation, the Center for the Book has benefited immensely from John Cole's leadership in executing its broad public mandate. During these same decades the history of the book has become firmly established as a significant field of study, yielding an abundance of innovative scholarship.1 The development of the Center not only coincided but also intertwined with the emergence of book history as a field, especially from 1977 to 1980, years that were foundational for both. What has not been sufficiently recognized is the important role Cole and the Center have played in nurturing book history in the United States and indeed internationally.
In Anglo-American scholarship the history of printing and the history of books in the form of analytic and descriptive bibliography are venerable subjects.2 Not until the late 1970s, however, did a subject identified as "the history of the book" (or "book history") emerge in the English-speaking world. French scholars pioneered what they called l'histoire du livre, and the 1976 appearance of The Coming of the Book, the English translation of Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's groundbreaking L'apparition du livre (1958), is usually considered the first major event in the development of the new field. In 1979 two American scholars who had trained as historians of France published major works now also seen as seminal—Elizabeth Eisenstein's monumental The Printing Press as an Agent of Change and Robert Darnton's The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800. These works, as bibliographic scholar and textual critic G. Thomas Tanselle has remarked, "reflect … widened interest [in book history] and at the same time have served to stimulate it."3 (Eisenstein's work has been particularly instrumental in the formation of "print culture studies," a rubric that some see as defining a field related to but nevertheless distinct from "book history.") Within a few years the terms "history of the book" and "book history" had become widely current among English-speaking scholars. [End Page 56] Integrating French sociological approaches with Anglo-American bibliographic traditions, book history as a field attempts to combine many long-existing strands of scholarship (such as the history of printing and publishing, analytical bibliography, and library history) with newer concerns (such as the history of reading and sociological approaches to literacy).4
In 1977, a year after the publication of The Coming of the Book, the Center for the Book was established by act of Congress (Public Law 95-129). The text of the act encapsulated tenets that print culture studies and book history, inchoate fields at the time, would soon come to embrace: "the importance of printing and its impact"; "the importance of … the continued study and development of the written word as central to our understanding of ourselves and our world"; and "a program for the investigation of the transmission of human knowledge and to heighten public interest in the role of books and printing in the diffusion of this knowledge."5 To head the Center for the Book and direct the formulation and implementation of its goals, Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress and a noted historian himself, appointed John Y. Cole as its first executive director. The wisdom of that decision is evident in the Center's record of accomplishments over the past three decades and its vibrant health today. But the suitability of Boorstin's choice was no doubt evident even at the time.
At the time of his appointment in 1977 Cole had already spent a decade at the Library of Congress working in several units, including the Collection Development Office. He also had chaired the Library of Congress Task Force on Goals, Organization, and Planning, and it was from this task force's recommendations that Boorstin conceived the idea of establishing a Center for the Book. Cole's extensive working knowledge of the Library and firsthand familiarity with its collections were complemented by his scholarly insights drawn from his own historical research. His dissertation on Ainsworth Rand...