The Bibliography Course (as of 1997)

The official description of the course, that goes out to students, and a short paper I wrote about the course recently.


The Bibliography Course: official description

Bibliography is the study of printed books as physical objects; paleography is the study of handwriting. The course covers all aspects of printing from hand printing to the use of computers (desk-top publishing) and includes practical experience in both of those subjects. In addition to the study of printing all aspects of the transmission of literary texts from author's manuscript to printed book are covered. The course also deals with the theoretical implications of this study, and a grounding in literary theory is provided. This is of particular relevance to the study of English Literature, and is designed to tie in with work done in the English Department.

The handwriting part of the course focuses on the detection of forgery: the teacher of the course has acted as an expert examiner of handwriting from the point of view of detection of criminal forgery for a number of years, and the course is based on examples from his casework. Practical research skills are taught, based on original research (done by the students of the course) into forensic analysis of handwriting.

It is intended that the course should combine intellectual interest with solid practical work. A basic competence in hand printing, word processing, layout and design, and desk-top publishing will be taught; also, basic research skills (use of libraries, consultation of computer-based sources of information, design of research projects). These skills are useful for most occupations that a student might take up after University, but particularly journalism, publishing, librarianship, and any occupation dealing with the written or printed word.

Note: 11/2/99

The course has changed considerably since I wrote this: there is much more of an emphasis on layout and design, and Web page creation, and less on forgery. I am very proud of the web pages produced by the students in 1998. My valued colleagues Maureen Bell and Valerie Edden now teach half the second year of the course. I will update this description before the course is offered again to first year undergraduates.

Davis, Tom. “Book History for Undergraduates: Bibliography Course at Birmingham University.” SHARP News 5, no. 4 (1996): 3-4.

Reading the recent correspondence questioning the possibility of teaching Bibliography as an undergraduate subject in the SHARP mailing list was rather like reading the latest book about the possibility of the existence of the Loch Ness monster. If, that is, you happen (as I do) to be the monster in question.

There is a three year undergraduate course called Bibliography and Paleography in the School of English at Birmingham University; for most of its long life it has consisted of a seminar group of 12 students (maximum), usually selected by lottery since it has normally been seriously oversubscribed, meeting for two hours a week, with quite a lot of extra time devoted to practical work. It was founded by my admired predecessor Peter Davison, former editor of The Library, among many other things, and I was appointed to teach it in 1974.

The subject matter of the course is the study of the book as a physical object. For book read any carrier of the written word: manuscript, Web page, forged cheque, advertising billboard... A long list. Obviously the subject expands towards a study of the presence and significance of written language in this and any other culture, but it retains its allegiance to Bibliography as Greg defined it by resolutely placing more emphasis on the physical vehicle than on the content it conveys.

There are other defining emphases. The theoretical base is deconstructive. Students (eventually) study theory of text as revealed in the theory (or lack of it) of textual editing, and from there on out to topics like access to print, canon-formation, and so on, This means that students can take the course towards cultural studies, or sociolinguistics, both of which are strong disciplines in Birmingham, and it will cheerfully follow them. The more I teach this course, and the more it develops, the more amazed I am at the opportunity it offers to study and penetrate deeply into almost any aspect of the culture though looking at its central vehicle, the written word.

Another emphasis is practical. From this viewpoint, the course teaches two things: usable marketable skills, and the theoretical consideration of those skills. Students learn how to create print, from hot metal to HTML, and to think about what the implications of what they are doing while they are doing it. So they learn the hand press (perhaps not a *very* marketable skill, but certainly character-forming) from a specially created package of three videos and a manual, and then from work in our own small but reasonably well equipped printing shop, the Flat Earth Press. The task is to design, print, and sell a Christmas card in time for Christmas. It is a useful microcosm of all aspects of creating and selling print, and they learn both the economics and the techniques of hand printing with their own hands. At the same time they are learning the principles, and problems, of textual editing in books of hand- and machine-pressed books, leading up to a critique of Greg's Rationale of Copy-text.

After this they are introduced to desk-top publishing: each student is asked to do a series of exercises on the computer, beginning with a simple poster using only typography to make its point, through more complex arrangements of graphics and type, until by the end of the second year each student will have created their own pages on the World-Wide Web.

The teaching methods incorporate this emphasis on the technologies of communication. So at the beginning of the course students are introduced to e-mail and expected to use it for all communications to do with the course. There is a typing test after Christmas. Some of the seminar sessions are presented as lectures, and in each lecture two students are appointed scribes, and are asked to collaborate in preparing a set of notes on the lecture which they then e-mail to me. I check the notes for error and then post them on the Bibliography Web site. They thus learn about note-taking, and simultaneously collaborate to construct a complete outline of the course. The students1 efforts at DTP are also posted on the Web, as of course are their Web pages. As the Web develops and becomes more rich in information (and this is happening very fast) students will be encouraged to perform Web-based research projects that will be published as Web pages.

The Paleography aspect of the course was originally a training in how to read secretary hand. This was enjoyable (as crossword puzzles are enjoyable) but not perhaps highly useful. My own interests moved from paleography to the study of forgery (I became, and have been since 1974, a practicing forensic handwriting consultant, with, by now, a vast set of samples of handwriting problems from my casework) and the course has followed me in this pursuit. So the students study crime in handwriting: how it is done, and how to detect it. In addition they get a training in the theory and practice of scientific research: sampling, experiment constrcution, literature searching, report writing and so on. By the end of the course are expected to have taken part in two practical exercises in real research in forensic handwriting analysis (a wide open research field).

I am by early training and inclination an analytic rather than a historical bibliographer. The forensic work has satisfied this detecting impulse in a way that analytical bibliography and textual editing failed to do, and at the same time has led to a certain scepticism about any stories about the past whatsoever. Luckily my valued colleague Maureen Bell does not suffer from this cynicism, and she introduces the Bibliography students to the history of the book with exactly the same balance of practical and theoretical work that is the spirit of the course.

So: can, or should, undergraduates study Bibliography? What would one use as evidence to decide this question? Students enjoy the course, and are stretched by it, and learn a great deal, it seems to me. And every year I get letters from former students thanking me for helping them develop a particular skill that was the key to finding a job they wanted. To give pleasure, instruction, and employment certainly feels as if it validates the work we do in Bibliography in Birmingham. Mind you, I expect the Loch Ness monster has much the same feeling.