Critical Bibliography and Social Justice

Assistant Professor of English, University of Mississippi Program Committee Chair, Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography

From left: Dorothy Kim, Chris Hunter, Alex Galarza, Rhae Lynn Barnes, Melissa Adler, Caroline Wigginton, and Priyasha Mukhopadhyay. Not pictured: Clare Mullaney. Image courtesy of John Jude Garcia.

In October 2017, in concert with the international Bibliography Among the Disciplines Conference, the American Philosophical Society hosted a roundtable on "Critical Bibliography and Social Justice." Sponsored by the new Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography, the roundtable brought together scholars from around the nation and across disciplines to examine bibliography’s relationship to colonialism and imperialism and its obligation to social justice.

To many, critical bibliographers are found in English and history departments and study pre-industrial European and Euro-American books as unique manufactured objects. Of late, the field has evolved to include scholars in other disciplines, including art historians and classicists, musicologists and digital archivists. It has recognized that Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and Africana studies also have long histories of engaging in critical bibliography. It has enfolded theories and techniques for considering textual objects that are not books as defined by Euro-centric traditions. Today's critical bibliographers concern themselves with the materiality of texts, rather than books, because the objects by which the world's cultures have documented, expressed, and narrated their histories and imaginations have been multifold.

As the title of October's conference--"Bibliography Among the Disciplines"--demonstrates, studying the materiality of texts rather than objects is invigorated by inter-disciplinary collaboration and conversation. But the field is also still very much shaped by the decisions of the past, including which texts to save, how to label them, and where to keep them. Institutions like libraries, archives, and museums were created to tell and preserve particular stories about the past, often the stories that those in power want to promote and remember. In this way, collections resemble monuments.

This resemblance between institutions and monuments was acutely apparent during this past summer's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which white supremacists marched on the University of Virginia’s campus and in the city’s streets, provoking terror and engaging in deadly violence. The Rare Book School--sponsor of the Bibliography Among the Disciplines conference and the Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography--is located in Charlottesville. The Society's fellows therefore organized the "Critical Bibliography and Social Justice" roundtable in order to discuss our dependence upon institutions and the preservation decisions of the past. It seemed fitting that the American Philosophical Society--an institution associated like UVA with Thomas Jefferson and also embarking on a consideration of its own history and future--would host the event and eagerly and graciously join with us in our discussion of social justice.

The roundtable gathered seven interdisciplinary scholars together to reflect upon the events in Charlottesville and to discuss the relationship between critical bibliography and social justice. Each presenter prepared five minutes of opening comments about bibliography’s relationship to colonialism and imperialism and its obligation to social justice. How should bibliography among the disciplines be explicating and responding to the histories of inequality and violence that are inextricably a part of the shape and content of our museums, universities, and libraries—the institutions that we work for and rely on? How can and should an ethos of social justice structure our teaching, our research, and our public scholarship?

The participants were Melissa Adler (Western University in London, Ontario), Rhae Lynn Barness (Princeton University), Alex Galarza (Haverford College), Chris Hunter (California Institute of Technology), Dorothy Kim (Vassar College), Priyasha Mukhopadhyay (Harvard University), and Clare Mullaney (University of Pennsylvania). They spoke with honesty about institutional pasts and with hope about bibliography’s pedagogical and scholarly potential for advancing social justice.

Just as the events in Charlottesville were emblematic of a resemblance of between institutions and monuments, the roundtable's organizers hope that October's conversation will similarly be emblematic of bibliography’s partnership with institutions like the American Philosophical Society and an ongoing commitment to think critically, clearly, and creatively about social justice.

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