New Frontiers of the History of Books, Media and Libraries

This piece is part of our 2020 Alumni Magazine. The magazine pieces for this year’s edition will be published online, as well as included in a combined 2020/21 printed volume next summer.

Blog written by Dr Arthur der Weduwen. Dr der Weduwen’s research focuses on history of communication, the early modern print world, the development of the state and the growth of a politically-engaged public.

I first enrolled at St Andrews as an M.Litt student in 2014, after which I took up a PhD in Modern History the following year. As a postgraduate student, my research developed in two areas, both focussed on the history of the Netherlands. I firstly embarked on a study of the emergence of newspaper publishing in the seventeenth century. The Netherlands was a hotbed for the development of the newspaper, and Amsterdam was one of the earliest newspaper centres of the world, responsible not only for multiple competing Dutch papers, but also the first English (1620), French (1620) and Yiddish (1687) newspapers in the world. My work with these early papers, which took me to dozens of libraries in thirteen countries, was published in 2017 as the first complete bibliography of the early Dutch press.

While my interest in these newspapers allowed me to gain insights into the development of commercial news media in the early modern Netherlands, my PhD subject allowed me to acquire a complementary perspective: that is, how government engaged with printed media. The authorities of the highly decentralised Dutch Republic increasingly relied on printed matter – edicts, ordinances, tax forms – to communicate with their citizenry. Based on archival research throughout the Netherlands, my research revealed for the first time to what extent the oligarchic regents of the seventeenth-century Netherlands were at pains to solicit the consent of ordinary citizens to support their administration. At the same time, this work brought home to me how non-commercial jobbing print, like government ordinances, was essential work for the printers of the Dutch Republic: the work was steady, well paid and increasingly lucrative.

A copy of the oldest book printed in the Icelandic language, a New Testament, produced in Roskilde, Denmark (1540). Credit: Proquest

St Andrews was, undoubtedly, the best place to work as a postgraduate student in history. I had the continuous support of the sizeable group of scholars and students who work at the school, not least the group working on early modern book history, revolving around the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) project. The USTC, which was started in St Andrews in 1995 by Professor Andrew Pettegree, is a free online resource that aims to provide descriptions of all books printed before the year 1650, covering the first two centuries following Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. I first encountered the project as an undergraduate student at Exeter when I joined the USTC for its annual summer volunteering programme. Once at St Andrews, I continued to work on the project, mostly on my area of expertise, the Low Countries. From the autumn of 2018 onwards, after finishing my PhD, I had the good fortune to be able to stay at St Andrews and work as a research associate of the USTC project. Since then I have worked closely together with Andrew Pettegree on two further projects: a general history of book publishing and trading during the Dutch Golden Age (published last year by Yale University Press as The Bookshop of the World) and a two-volume history of the invention and development of newspaper advertising – a process that also took place in the precociously innovative Dutch Republic.

Baroque glories. The eighteenth century saw the transformation of many libraries in German and Austrian monastic houses from humble work rooms to grand library halls – impressive for visitors, not much congenial for study. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The global pandemic threw a spanner in the works for many research plans this year, not least the cancellation of the symposium on newspaper advertising in Amsterdam that was to accompany the publication of our latest project. Nevertheless, I was lucky to be able to turn to other work that could be done from the safety and convenience of home in St Andrews. One of the most exciting aspects of this work was the advancement that the USTC team – staff, students and volunteers – made to expand its coverage of the national print cultures of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. The art of printing, invented by Gutenberg in Mainz in the 1450s, spread rapidly throughout Europe but failed to settle permanently in broad swathes of northern and eastern Europe. For this reason, countries like Latvia (where printing started in 1588), Estonia (1632), Finland (1642) and Norway (1643) did not feature strongly in the first iterations of the USTC. We have now rectified this, adding records of thousands of books printed in these countries, as well as in Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Lithuania and Belarus. It is a real pleasure to bring this work to a global audience. It has also allowed me to introduce myself to a whole new range of European scholarship and languages (I’ll admit that my Swedish is getting on better than my Estonian). We are keeping up with progress as I write: our current work concentrates on Hungary, Romania and Poland – more sizeable, but equally remarkable print domains.

In The Library, A Fragile History, we write about libraries of all shapes and sizes, including the mid-twentienth century vogue for an organised pack horse library service that ran throughout the Appalachian range. Credit: University of Kentucky Library

The period of lockdown also proved to be an amenable time for writing. The past eight months has seen Andrew Pettegree and myself write the text of a new book, The Library, a Fragile History, to be published by Profile in 2021. In this work we survey the global history of libraries, from ancient Alexandria to the present day, and frame the current crisis of public library funding and closures within a broader narrative in which institutional libraries have always struggled – for funding, status and survival. It has been exciting to write on such a broad topic and to learn so much in the process about different time periods of history and different cultures. Although I’m certain that the early modern Netherlands will always remain dear to my heart, it has been a fantastic experience to move seriously beyond its remit.

I received the happy news earlier this summer that I will be able to stay in St Andrews on a three-year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the British Academy. One thing is clear to me – I would not wish to work anywhere else. The new teaching and research regime imposed by the pandemic will undoubtedly bring its challenges, but I am confident that staff and students at the school of history will flourish as before.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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