F. M. Paisey
Summary: McKenzie, Donald. “The Future of the Book”
McKenzie: An Annotation on “The Future of the Book”
D. F. McKenzie closes his essay on the “History of the Book,” stating that, “The book
and its history will become something more than the history of the book” (301). Getting
to that point involves digging through a thicket of bibliographical history.
At the start, McKenzie details a dense description of the history of bibliography and
the Bibliographical Society in England. He charts the development of bibliography
through the mid-twentieth century when the seeds for the “new bibliography” took root.
At this point, during the latter part of the twentieth century, McKenzie points out that
bibliography opened to a change or sensitivity in perception. This resulted in archival
studies that documented the conditions and all processes and transactions involved in a
text’s production, dispersal, and reception.
These archival studies proliferated with the aim of reconstructing the events that
brought a text or book into being. This was the “new bibliography” that took into account
a book’s sociological context and narrative. From McKenzie’s perspective the book is
“an unstable physical form in “its descent through successive versions.” Tracing the
archival evidence relating to these versions and documents offers embedded “ubiquitous
evidence” (297). He views this evidence as invaluable in understanding the “conditions
under which texts are generated” and therefore understanding meanings and reading.
I found this paper intense and chock full of bibliographical history. McKenzie
addresses topics that embrace writing, replication, distribution and reception of texts
along with the description, collection, and classification of them. In addition to this range
of topics, McKenzie includes studies of the materials, technologies, and processes
involved with making, trading, and storing texts. Each of these topics is emphasized to a
greater or lesser degree in different periods or bibliographic eras.
McKenzie enumerates early pivotal events in the study of bibliography and book
history, noting that the U.K.’s “Bibliographical Society” has privileged the “history of the
book” since its inception in 1912. The “Society,” launched by McKerrow, is the U.K.’s
foremost bibliographic association. Its publication, “The Library,” includes studies on all
aspects of bibliography and the history of the book. Its members include academics,
collectors, librarians, and working members of the book trades with a mission to
“demonstrate the unity of all bibliographic enterprise and the means by which it entered
into the fabric of all historical enquiry” (292).
Three basic bibliographic periods dominate this paper—early, transitional, and
“new.” The early period identifies those scholars who were instrumental in establishing
the discipline of bibliography and the “Society.” Some of the earliest bibliographic
studies that opened the field to contextual evidence include:
Arber’s “A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of
Duff’s “Century of the English Book Trade”
Dictionaries of printers and booksellers with peripheral constituents of the
book trade by Plomber et al.
Greg’s, Boswell’s and Jackson’s studies of the records of the Stationers’
McKerrow’s text, “Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students” linked
bibliography to literary studies
McKerrow’s launch of the journal, “The Library” – U.K.’s pre-eminent
journal for the study of bibliography and role of the book in history and
the history of ideas
During the Society’s initial fifty years, its activities reflected two dominate concerns –
establishing a record of printed books to 1649 and how the most prominent texts in the
U.K. were transmitted from manuscript to print. These concerns entailed a history of the
documents and their chronological connections. This did not involve the historical role of
the book during the early years of bibliography. R. B. McKerrow, W. W. Greg, and A.
W. Pollard focused on applying skills that could reveal and trace the evidence and
relations between prominent or “classic” U. K. texts.
For the historical role of books, McKenzie refers to a group of bibliographers
including John Johnson, printer to the University of Oxford; Stanley Morison,
typographer; Strickland Gibson and Pollard, book binding; and Theodore Besterman, a
bibliographer and eminent biographer of Voltaire. These bibliographers produced a series
of monographs recording histories of subjects in their respective interests. Seven texts
were issued and provided documents that mapped the history of the book trade to 1830.
While there was not an immediate upsurge of interest in the history of the book, these
texts led to later, key publications – Pollard’s “Sandars Lectures” and Morison’s classic
work on John Fell and the Fell “types.”
Other works that contributed to the history of the book from 1930-1960 include:
Morison’s “History of the Times”
Plant’s “The English Book Trade: An Economic History of the Making and the
Sale of Books”
Howe’s “The London Compositor: Documents Relating to Wages, Workng
Conditions and Customs of the London Printing Trade, 1785-1900
Bennett’s English Books and Reader
Blagden’s history of the Stationers Company
Stevenson’s “The Problem of the Missale Speciale
Alticks’ “The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading
Other works covered topics such as:
Publishers and relations with authors
House histories of printing firms
Accounts of peripheral products of the press such as ballads, chapbooks,
children’s books, maps, prints, and music
As the “Bibliographic Society” developed, the interests of its members expanded and
sustained diverse scholarship centered on the historical study of the book trade in Britain
from Caxton to the mid-twentieth century newspaper. The era up to 1700 covered books
as objects, books as products of trade—by printer and publisher and the circumstances of
their production. Foxon’s authoritative catalogue of English verse planted the seeds for a
history of text production and, ultimately, Pollard and Redgrave’s “Short Title Catalogue
(STC). The STC served historical inquiry in several ways. It was (is—as the ESTC) a
chronological index that enabled study on the work of a specific author, printer, and
bookseller as well as the inter-relationship of texts that may be printed in any one year.
Despite this rich start to the bibliographic enterprise, there was no scholarly text on the
history of the book. The conceptual structure for book history was not in place—the
nearest sort of work was Pollard’s “Cambridge History of English Literature.” In this
work and others, Pollard addressed fundamental issues of text production and evidence
that had hitherto been examined. However, the emphasis lay on bibliographical issues,
rather than on the development and dispersal of books and the technologies associated
with their production and transmission. By the mid-twentieth century, bibliography in
Britain and the United States was not characterized by general and comprehensive
historical studies. There was more of a resistance to “generality and abstraction” (294).
In contrast, the French bibliographers and historians, Febvre and Martin, published L’
Apparition du livre in 1958, a comprehensive and general history of the book. McKenzie
regards the French direction in documenting a general, abstract history as involving a
linguistic proclivity in French—the book in French is an abstract noun; in English it
refers to the object. So, while Febvre and Martin’s momentous book introduced the
conceptual ground in general book history, McKenzie views British and American
interest in book history from the perspective of acquiring a new perception—the
“relevance of book-trade archives” (294). This perception raised questions about the use
of books beyond analytical bibliography. Marginalia, printers, and “unimportant” texts
became a focus of study.
Minor texts (and all processes related to production) came into focus and spawned an
array of topics related to texts that had been “kept from the centers of power by reason of
their sex, race, religion, provincial or colonial status” (295). These issues related to
cultural history and, in particular, “any culture served by print and the complexity of its
reconstruction” (295). Stanley Morison took up this cause and argued that the history and
use of the intellect are bibliographical because their findings may deepen historical as
well as bibliographical understanding.
McKenzie’s paper is a rich, concise documentation of the major achievements and
trajectory of English and American bibliography in the twentieth century. It is an
essential, foundational paper in understanding the growth, changes, and aims of
bibliography and book history as a discipline or disciplines.