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  April 19, 2004

History Of Printed Word Explored
In New Graduate Course

A historian of early America is putting the electronic communications revolution in perspective.

Image: Robert Gross with graduate students.

Robert Gross, center, Draper Chair-holder in Early American History, and graduate students Glenn McCaskey, left, and Carl Brown, talk about a book at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. Gross emphasizes hands-on learning in his class on the history of books and printing.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

Robert Gross, who holds the Draper Chair of Early American History, says there are many parallels between the arrival of printed books in the early modern era and the emergence of electronic communications in the present.

"Much of what's happening now is very similar to the invention of the printing press," Gross says. "The printing press offered an increased ability to accumulate knowledge, index it, and compare, contrast, and improve it, and that's what the Web is doing now."

In a new graduate-level course, "Authority of the Word," Gross teaches the history of ideas and of intellectuals in the West through the history of the book.

The course explores the production, distribution, and reception of the written word, in manuscript and print, and in diverse historical settings and periods. Topics studied include the history of literacy and popular reading; censorship and the control of knowledge; democratization and the expansion of the literary marketplace; gender and reading; and the future of books in an electronic age.

"The printing press made available works that were hard to find. Similarly, the Web has given us access to many books that had gone out of print," Gross says. "But, as with early printed books, questions are being raised about the authentication of information on websites."

The history of books is a relatively new field, launched in the mid-1970's at a time when the rise of copying machines and the advent of personal computers were beginning to make an impact.

"Not until the middle of the 20th century did academic historians discover the subject as a key to social and cultural history," says Gross. "The history of the book has taken shape as a scholarly field at the very moment the electronic revolution of our time is dramatically altering the media for disseminating and representing the written word."

Some of the students were surprised to find that the subject is a field in its own right.

"I had not known that book history was a professional field, complete with a particular set of inquiries, methods, conferences, and professional journals," says Glenn McCaskey, a master's student in history who is taking the class.

Gross, who joined the UConn faculty in the fall, emphasizes experiential learning. Several classes took the form of a workshop or field trip. One day the students learned about the mechanics of producing a book: how the sheets are folded into sections, how the sections are sewn together and the pages cut, and how to identify in the finished product the production methods of a particular book. Another week, the class visited the Dodd Center, where the students handled samples of various different types of books. The class also met at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., to research the printing histories of works listed in a late 17th-century shipper's book invoice; and at Old Sturbridge Village, to look at old books and printing presses.

"'Authority of the Word' is hands-on history," says McCaskey.

Other classes have opened with one of the students presenting a research paper for discussion - a lesson not only in content but also in research methods.

In a recent class, Robb Haberman, a Ph.D. student, presented a draft paper, "Judging a Magazine by its Cover," in which he explored what the study of a particular late 18th-century magazine as a physical object could reveal about the nature of contemporary print and society.

Gross began by setting the stage.

Early America began as a shallow version of the institutions of the Old World, he said. Printing presses were few, paper was scarce, and skilled workers were rare. But as the government committed itself to subsidizing the production of newspapers and the penny post, literacy surged, printing expanded, and the country soon became a leader in the mass production of books and the culture of print.

During the discussion that followed the student's paper, Gross prodded the group to pursue alternative interpretations of the evidence and to mine their existing knowledge of American and European history for clues to understand the magazine: What did it mean that each issue cost 18 shillings, a sum equivalent to half a month's wages for a day laborer? Why was the list of subscribers published in each issue? What was the significance of the magazine's title?

"I think it really matters that this was called The American Museum," said Gross. "The British Museum was opened in the 1750's or 1760's, and that was to mark not so much the genius of British painters as the power of the British empire. People were talking about America as the growing 'empire of liberty.' They couldn't build a physical museum, but there could be a literary equivalent. The 'repository' became a magazine. And by binding the magazine into a book, the ephemeral became permanent."

Students find the class both intellectually stimulating and fun.

"This is one of the most engaging seminars I have taken during my graduate studies," says Michael Emmons Jr., a master's student in history, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. with Gross as his advisor.

Ann Daugherty, a master's degree student who has just returned to school after 30 years, says "Professor Gross has an amazing way of making connections between different things and asking questions that draws out deeper meanings."

Daugherty is doing a special study of the reading habits of a girl called Sally Ripley, born in 1785 in Greenfield, Mass., who recorded in a diary the books she read.

"I am trying to find those books," she says, "to uncover the things they can tell us about society and culture during her lifetime."