I am a book historian. The biggest gathering of book historians takes place every year at the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), which was held this year at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from 18-21 July 2013. The theme was "Geographies of the Book," which was interpreted both literally (e.g., "circulation... within cities, countries, and across continents") and figuratively (e.g., "imaginative topographies or journeys within fictional works").
In addition to presenting a paper at this year's conference, I was also invited to be one of 12 speakers at the closing plenary session. Each of us was either a PhD student or an early scholar—participants whose voices are rarely heard at plenary sessions. We were given five minutes each, but we were also instructed not to tell anyone about what we were going to do because we were supposed to listen to our colleagues' comments and share their feedback during our reports. (For photos of the closing plenary session, as well as some of the heartening reactions on Twitter to my contribution, see my Facebook post.)
Some speakers spoke extemporaneously, but like a few others, I wrote down my contribution. Here's most of what I said...
First, I will state the obvious, just to get it out of the way. Second, I will state what is not so obvious, just so you know where I'm coming from. And finally, I will state what I am currently doing to promote book history in Asia, as well as what I intend to do in the next few years, which I suspect many of you have already done in the past.
First, despite its global ambitions, it is obvious—based on my own observations, comments whispered in my ear, and tweets posted online, with someone actually using the word "angry" in my presence in relation to yesterday's supposedly global session—that SHARP remains predominantly white, Anglo-American. This reality is reflected in the sites chosen for its annual conferences, as well as the large percentage of papers presented on the book in the West.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing anyone for a state of affairs that is not unique to SHARP. I'm also not blaming anyone for not addressing questions they never sought to answer. SHARP's focus on the book in the West is not new. In 2001, Amadio Arboleda, who is based in Japan and could not make it here this year, wrote about what he called the "Gutenberg Syndrome," in which the history of the book is viewed in terms of Western principles and practices. I suspect that his sentiments were not entirely new then, and they're certainly not new now. But I suppose it's worth asking, "How much have things changed since then?" I have a suggestion to address this later.
Moving on. What is not so obvious, perhaps, is that while I am clearly representing Asia today, I am not—in many ways—entirely representative of most Asians, the great majority of whom probably have very little time to think about books because they are more concerned about finding food and work. I have been very privileged. It was as a PhD student that I was able to present papers at SHARP's annual conferences in Oxford, Helsinki, and Toronto. I received most of my travel funding from University of Toronto, but the discounted student membership and conference registration rates were very helpful, and for this I am grateful to SHARP.
I am here this year because I received a scholarship from SHARP—and for this I would like to thank the generous donors who contribute to the travel fund, as well as those who administer the fund. The scholarship I received, however, was sufficient to cover only half of my airfare from halfway across the world, so thankfully again, I am gainfully employed and privileged enough that Ateneo de Manila University has given me enough to pay for most of the other costs of going to Philadelphia.
For the final part of this short report I ran out of time to write it out, so I hope you'll pardon me for relying on bullet points to describe what I hope can be done at future conferences:
Because of my own privileged status as the director of a university library with its own budget, I plan to do the following things to promote book history in Asia:
- nice to have this year because of the theme, but can still be done next year: GIS map of book historians, book history prizes, not just place, but also over time
- immediately: talk to someone i don't know, talk to the person sitting next to me
- next conference: badge for "first timer"; session for first-timers; mentors for first-timers
Thank you very much.
- collect public school textbooks for research purposes, and if possible, publishers' archives, in addition to the documents we already collect
- organize a book history panel for a conference in the Philippines
- 3 to 5 years: organize a book history conference for Southeast Asia in the Philippines; participate in planning to bring annual conference to Asia, specifically Japan
- 5 to 8 years: organize annual conference in the Philippines