Bibliography: An Endangered Skill?


Recently Jennifer Howard, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted a request on SHARP-L about whether bibliography was an endangered skill or art in the academy. She sought thoughts from teachers and students about this question an as well as “where the field bibliography might be headed.”

Her query generated a number of responses ranging from ones that indicated bibliographic training was alive and well in the responder’s particular program to ones that indicated students’ exposure to the topic was highly dependent upon the faculty member they had for a given course or the climate within the department. That Howard added a note later that afternoon in which she clarifies what she meant by bibliography–“I’m interested in the book-history side of bibliography, not in how to prepare correct bibliographic citations”–is telling in my mind. While responses posted to the list before Howard’s clarification primarily addressed the “book-history side,” I do wonder if off-list comments suggested possible confusion about what Howard meant by “bibliography.” Bibliographic citations, annotated bibliographies, and the like are still the standard staples of what is taught in first-year writing courses and even more advanced topics. So it would seem odd, to me at least, if someone had misinterpreted her query, especially one posted on a listserv devoted to the history of the book.

Many of our discussions on emob have noted the important relationship between traditional bibliographic knowledge and electronic resources such as EEBO, ECCO, and Burney. (See for instance the discussion that emerged in the collaborative reading of Ian’s Gadd’s “The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online.”) But we have not had an extended discussion about the state of bibliographic training. Rather some comments have considered it to be a given that descriptive and analytical bibliographic skills are not regularly or as vigorously taught in graduate programs (with admitted exceptions), while others have stressed the need for such knowledge. Thus, I would like to hear more about if and how we teach these skills in our undergraduate and graduate classrooms as well as whether students respond well to such lessons. How do colleagues respond? (One SHARP commentator made mention of “sneaking” this material into courses). What tools and materials do people use? And what is the context or type of course(s) in which such skills are taught? Some SHARP-L responses to Howard’s query favored teaching bibliographical skills within a textual studies context, while others preferred a “book-history” context.

I have tended to use both approaches, but it depends upon the course. In methods/skills courses, I have used Oxford University’s manuscript exercise, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” While some students found the process of editing tedious, almost all appreciate being exposed in a hands-on way to issues they had never considered. I also use videos and the workshop materials for the hand-press book from University of VA’s Rare Book School to teach bibliography from a book-history standpoint.


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12 Responses to “Bibliography: An Endangered Skill?”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor, for this interesting post. The link to Oxford University’s “manuscript exercise” for Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” seems like an outstanding pedagogical tool. I will be sure to use it in the future.

    Do today’s students have limited patience for the forensic methodology required for bibliographical studies? One of the good things about the Owens site is that it does the questioning for the student, focusing them on specific tasks. Part of the interest in bibliography is seeing what an object reveals about its history, but that interest is difficult to convey to students who have not seen rare books, are put off by their typography and spelling, and therefore have no interest in digitized texts. There is a lack of interest in the Other.
    Some students light up when they learn there is a history to the poem in their modern anthology, and they become curious about whether the words and punctuation on the modern printed page are correct. Others seem overwhelmed by textual uncertainty–as if the book has betrayed them.

    I, too, would like to hear from seasoned teachers about which approach they prefer–book history or textual studies–and about what other tools and materials can be used to make the teaching of bibliography work in the classroom. I’m sure there are great teachers of bibliography out there.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Regarding your question about the patience of students for such work, I think it is a matter of the individual. Far fewer students seem attracted to preparing descriptive bibliographic entries of books, but most seem to understand why having this information is important and how it can alter one’s understanding of and approach to other issues. Responses to the “Dulce et Decorum est” editing essay suggest that this work perhaps appeals to a slightly larger group.

    Not surprisingly, when students have the opportunity to work hands-on with rare books, the interest increases. Some who are attracted to the skill view seem to enjoy the pursuit of determining the book’s format, while others are drawn more to the relationship between bibliography and material culture.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Your point that students acquire interest in bibliography by working directly with rare books is a good one. Lisa Berglund’s excellent essay, “Book History on the Road: Finding and Organizing Resources Outside the Classroom” in Hawkins’ Teaching Bibliography, Textual Criticism and Book History (Pickering & Chatto, 2006), documents clever ways to help students encounter rare books.


  4. Dave Mazella Says:

    I’ve already mentioned this, but my Intro to Lit Studies always has a rare book room visit where they get to look at some Swift and Swift-era texts, and do a little bit of hands-on research. My experience in general is that students enjoy this kind of hands on stuff, as long it leads to real problem solving and discovery of connections between course readings and the stuff they’re handling. It would be interesting to hear how other profs integrate this material into their lit courses.


    • Anna Battigelli Says:

      Dave: I want to ask a simpleton’s question, but I’m curious enough that I’ll ask it anyway. What kinds of “real problem solving” exercises do you link with the visit to the rare book room?


    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

      I’d like to hear more about your problem-solving exercises, too, Dave.

      Digital resources such as ECCO, for those who have access, can also be used to create exercises that underscore the significance of textual studies. For example, having students read the endings of various editions of Defoe’s Roxanna available in ECCO (most universities will not have the actual physical copies) can illustrate the importance of attending to the various incarnations of a work. This exercise might be good exposure to the issues involved. Reinforcing both the importance of textual studies and skills in close reading, attending to word, phrase, or punctuation discrepancies within various editions of a given work often yields fruitful discussion and highlights that what might seem minor is actually a matter of high importance.


  5. rrhumanist Says:

    What a terrific post. I taught a book history course last year, and I will be teaching one again next spring, so the question is a live one for me, too, Eleanor. For the final course project, I had students create a hypertext edition of a work in the public domain using Dreamweaver (someone from our IT department guided the students and me through the program’s intricacies). They needed to collate all extant versions of the work available to them, record the variants, and decide which of the texts, if any, was authoritative. Then they needed to write an introduction of some 8-10 pages justifying their editorial procedure, along, for example, Tansellean or McGannian lines.

    I was surprised at how good the results were. Students had never encountered such an assignment before, and they relished it. I had prepared them for the project by assigning brief readings in Tanselle, McKenzie, and McGann; but the primary texts on the syllabus were still more important in bringing home to them the importance of bibliography, broadly construed. Thus, I had one half of the class read the A text of Faustus and the other half read the B text, cultivating what I think was a fruitful confusion. The students had the Bevington-Rasmussen edition of the work, which contains the A and B texts in succession, so we could clarify mix-ups as they arose during class discussion by referring to the appropriate edition.

    I also had them read various editions of Rochester, including the expurgated versions of poems published in the 1690s and beyond. That way, they could see censorship in action. We spent some time, as well, with John Bowdler’s edition of Romeo and Juliet; we focused on Act 1. There’s nothing quite like censorship to highlight the importance of collation and editorial spade work more generally.


    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:


      What wonderful assignments! I especially like the way in which you incorporated the digital with the textual editing. In my book history courses I allow the option of doing an electronic work that is accompanied by a preface in which students explain their rationale for choosing the digital medium and the work’s relationship to course concepts. Yet, I like how your assignment is a more collaborative one. I am not surprised that students were so highly engaged.

      Devoting time to Bowdler’s edition seems another quite fruitful segment and recalls to some degree Erick Keleman’s essay, “‘Not to Pick Bad from Bad, But by Bad Mend’: What Undergraduates Learn from Bad Editions” in Hawkin’s collection.

      As an aside, there are programs that help with collation–I am thinking of Peter Robinson’s Collate, for one.


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    That you bring undergrad majors to the rare book room early in their careers, Dave, is wonderful in my mind, for it exposes them to a range of issues about the materiality of texts as well as historical transformations and continuities.

    As for hands-on activities, borrowing from a panel I heard years ago at SHARP, I often have my students on the first day of a book-history class work in groups to either create a book or take a book a part. For the first activity, I bring in paper, scissors, cardboard, needle, thread, glue, construction paper, and more in a large box. I then set certain parameters for the books they need to create–number of pages, for instance. Less frequently I bring in duplicate copies of 18th-century works and ask them to disassemble the book to analyze its parts and construction. These activities supply the foundation for later, more sophisticated training in descriptive bibliography.

    Anna has already mentioned Lisa Berglund’s very fine essay in Ann Hawkins’s collection. Frequently recommended in the SHARP-L responses to Howard’s query, the volume offers a wide range of essays on this topic and ones from a variety of perspectives and also offers a two-page list of resources at the collection’s conclusion.


  7. rrhumanist Says:

    Thanks for the Keleman reference and for the tip on Robinson’s Collate program, Eleanor–I’ll be sure to use these in the next book history course I teach.


  8. Dave Mazella Says:

    Eleanor, Anna, I’ve posted my special collections worksheet/assignment, and would love to hear reactions. Best, DM


  9. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks, Dave!


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