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Though modern day notions of the book tend to be conceptualized in the form of paginated codices, “book” is a capacious term. The physical form of the book, which changes through time and endless technological developments, has a rich history that forms the basis of bibliography and the basis of how our societies consume information today.

This site is a compilation of the research conducted across the Fall 2018, Fall 2020, and Spring 2022 classes of Professor Whitney Trettien’s Cultures of the Book undergraduate seminar. The Fall 2018 page, Material Book Cultures Through the Ages, emphasized observing materiality, especially in the form of numerous objects from the University of Pennsylvania's Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts collection, unraveling discussions on the creation of meaning beyond content, from parchment and pagination to mimeographs and HTML, various book technologies were explored through presentations before being turned into research papers. In 2020, our class, which was taught remotely, heavily utilized Amaranth Borsuk's text "The Book" as a central framework for our understanding of what a “book” is. This central text considered the complex history of the book as a technology, as well as the various methods of analysis scholars employ when studying the book. Moreover, Borsuk’s writing also pushed us as a class to challenge our notions of what makes a book a book, allowing us to better understand the true breadth of scholarly considerations of the book as a technology. In 2022, each member of the class adopted a book from Kislak's special collections to research, with help from John Pollack and the staff at the library. Each student wrote a material text analysis as well as original research on these unique items.

Among other topics, researchers in this class have focused on:

  • substrates: how do paper, parchment, and palm-leaf, among other materials, inform us of the contexts in which works were created?
  • inscriptions: what implications do para-texts such as footnotes and apparatus such as binding have on the way content will be consumed?
  • and platforms: in what ways do devices, software / hardware, and operating systems contribute function transitionally to give voice to content?

2018 Contributions

This page contains a compilation of resources from the Kislak Center gathered by the 2018 class.

Material Book Cultures Through the Ages

2020 Contributions

Remote Book History Resources

2022 Contributions

Each of these entries links to an article on a unique book in Kislak's special collections.

A German Miscellany

A Brief State on the Province of Pennsylvania

The Xerox Book

Bartholomew Fair

Catharine Gould Scrapbook

Chinese Poetry Paper by the Master of the Ten Bamboo Hall

John B. Thayer Titanic Memorial Collection

The Nuremberg Chronicle

Scrapbook 1936

Synergy by Mike Piazza


John Wright Commonplace Book: A Unique Late 18th-Century Manuscript

World War I Trench Newspapers

Perpetual Card: Vaticinia Varia

Minnie Recipe Book

A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke

Biblia Pauperum

Home Economics Foods and Food Preparation

Grimm's Goblins Illustrated

Mayan Medical Receipts and Spanish Translation

Edwin Forrest's Plays

Useful Knowledge

The Illustrated Tang Poems

The History of Tom Thumb

The Graphic: a Premier Illustrated Newspaper

William Penn's 1683 Letter to the Free Society of Traders

The Provincial Freeman and Weekly Advertiser

The Aldine Psaltērion

The New World

Maps and Plans Illustrative of Thucydides

House of Mystery, Volume 2: Love Stories for Dead People

The Boke of Common Prayer (1583?)

The American Farmer, Vol. 1

A British Soldier's Photoalbum of India


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