the book logo

The Book: Methodology

Entire courses are taught in methodology. However, let's explore some of the tools and techniques that researchers use to gather data and study book history.

From defining terms to developing arguments, many decisions go into book history research. As an interdisciplinary and growing field, it's important to look at methodology from multiple perspectives.

Read The material history of...? by Erin Blake (2012). This blog posting explores some of the problems facing researchers in the area of terminology. What do you see as some of the problems with dealing with an interdisciplinary field?

The Status of Digital Scholarship

When people think of book history research, they often envision dust old archives or delicate books and rubber gloves. Although hands-on research continues to exist, digital scholarship and digital studies is a growing area within book history.

Read Kirschenbaum, Matthew & Werner, Sarah (2014). Digital scholarship and digital studies: the state of the discipline. Book History, 17, 406-458. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Future of the Book

The introduction of digital collections and the ability to read books electronically has had a tremendous impact on book research. While many scholars have embraced these new tools and and approaches, others are concerned about the potential impact on the quality of research.

Read Grafton, Anthony (2015). Codex in crisis: the book dematerializes. In M. Levy & T. Mole, The Broadview Reader in Book History. Broadview Press, 555-573. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Approaches to Book History

There are many approaches to studying book history.

Vander Meulen (2003/2004) identified ten examples that represent different approaches to book history.

  1. Surveying what exists
  2. Describing, and learning from, physical details
  3. Using external records
  4. Thinking clearly about bibliographical evidence
  5. Defining the field
  6. Interpreting variant physical features
  7. Recognizing the cultural values inherent in design elements
  8. Discovering book producers' intentions
  9. Assessing the responses of readers
  10. Preserving the artifacts

Michael Suarez (2003/2004) identified issues and concerns related to the study of book history.

Rubin (2003, 557) described a classification system for book historians including three areas: production, distribution, and reception. Production includes authorship, editing, technological innovations, government directives, and economic factors. Distribution involves activities that connect books with people including "advertising, book selling, transportation networks, censorship and self-censorship, learned societies, libraries, and schools." Reception refers to reading and the use of books by individuals and groups. Rubin (2003) categorized book history studies based on three questions:

  1. On what material foundations did the history of the book in American rest? Or simply: What was there? What forms of printed existed? What economic, geographical, and political conditions affected their production? Who imagined texts, arranged for their publication, set them in type (or handwrote them), and bound them? What people and institutions disseminated them? What did readers read?
  2. What values and needs have books served in American society? Which values, interests, ideologies, and needs have shaped the production, dissemination, and reception of books?
  3. How does a culture work? How can a history of books illuminate the nature of culture?

Read one of the following articles. Think about their approach to book history. What are the strengths and weaknesses of their approach?

Black, Fiona A., MacDonald, Bertrum H., Black, J. Malcolm W. (1998). Geographic information systems: a new research method for book history. Book History, 1, 11-31. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Blair, Ann (January 2003). Reading strategies for coping with information overload ca 1550-1700. Journal of the History of Ideas, 64(1), 11-28. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Eliot, Simon (2002). Very necessary but not quite sufficient: a personal view of quantitative analysis in book history. Book History, 5, 283-293. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Joshi, Priya (2002). Quantitative method, literary history. Book History, 5, 263-274. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Hedges, Blair S. (2006). A method for dating early books and prints using image analysis. Proceedings of the Royal Society. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Moretti, Franco (2005). Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verson. Preview Available:

Vander Meulen, David L. (2003/2004). How to read book history. Studies in Bibliography, 56, 171-193. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Book and Literary History: Micro vs Macro Approaches

Many book history researchers go directly to rare book sections of libraries and archives for their research. This approach continues to be essential for some types of studies. However, scholars are also seeking other ways to collect and analyze data. Matthew Jocker (2013, 9) notes that "today's student of literature must be adept at reading and gathering evidence from individual texts and equally adept at accessing and mining digital-text repositories". Through analysis at both the micro and macro scale it's possible to have a better understanding of book history. Let's explore the options.

Close Reading

Close reading methodology is a common approach to analyzing historical texts. Historians use close reading to uncover layers of meaning in texts. When studying a book, a scholar would use close specific techniques to describe what the source says, identify the context of the source, and analyze the language used to convey meaning.

Distance Reading & Macroanalysis

Franco Moretti (1950 - ) is an Italian literary scholar who uses the term "distance reading" to describe the activity of identifying the overall interconnections among texts rather than analyzing each book individually. Moretti (2005, 1-2) uses "graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary theory" to visualize this data. He suggests that by viewing data on a large scale, it's possible to make connections with literary cycles and political trends.

For lots of examples, browse the illustrations in the first chapter of his book.

MacroanalysisMatthew Jockers's book Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (2013) provides a new way of thinking about the use of digitized literary works. He describes how computational analysis can be used to retrieve key words and identify linguistic patterns across thousands of texts in digital libraries.

Jocker (2013, 19) states that "close reading is a methodological approach that can be applied to individual texts or even small subsets of texts but not, for example, to all British fiction of the nineteenth century". He suggests that new methods of analysis are needed to extract information from digital-text repositories on a large scale so that researcher can expand their research questions, visualize patterns and identify trends. He states that

"a methodology is important and useful if it opens new doorways of discovery, if it teaches us something new about literary history, about individual creativity, and about the seeming inevitability of influence" (2013, 10).

The combination of digital collections with macroanalysis opens up a wide range of literary historical questions. Jocker (2013, 27) listed a few areas of exploration:

Read Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History, pages 3-18. This is a preview of Matthew Jocker's book. If you have an interest in this topic, I highly recommend purchasing the book.

Jocker's website provides visual examples discussed in his book. For instance explore how cloud visualization can be used to extract themes from 19th century novels.

tryitTry It!
Go to 500 Themes.
Use the pull-down menu to explore examples.
Now, let's make our own. Find an online text from Project Gutenberg or try a Poem such as The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Copy the text. Be sure you only copy the text itself and not other elements of the page.
Go to Wordle. Click CREATE. Paste the text. Click Go.
Or, try Tagxedo. Click LOAD. Paste the text. Click Submit.
Check out the screen capture from Tagxedo for the poem The Raven.

Word Cloud

Book History with Digital Collections

Regardless of whether a researcher is using micro or macro techniques, digital texts are growing in importance. The dramatic increase in digital texts made available over the past couple decades, makes the study of individual books as well as huge text collections realistic. Of course not all older books are digitized and many more recent books aren't available because of copyright restrictions. However enough texts are available to make large-scale inquiries. Matthew Jocker (2013, 7) states that

"the ubiquity of data, so-classed big data, is changing the sampling game. Indeed, big data are fundamentally altering the way that much science and social science get done. The existence of huge data sets means that may areas of research are no longer dependent upon controlled, artificial experiments or upon observations derived from data sampling... the once inaccessible "population" has become accessible and is fast replacing the random and representative sample. In literary studies, we have the equivalent of this big data in the form of big libraries (and) massive digital text collections."

Millions of books have been digitized. Large-scale digitizing projects like Google Books are just the beginning. Many scholars are working together to make smaller digital collections available on a large scale. Explore Nines: Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online and 18th Century Connect as examples. Notice the many groups that are participating. Nonprofits like HathiTrust and are also involved.

The Book Genome Project is a real-world application of digital book collection analysis. The project was "created to identify, track, measure, and study the multitude of features that make up a book. Components such as language, character, and theme are mined and analyzed in order to sift, organize, categorize and ultimately separate one book from another in a crowded and complex 'bookosphere'". Their companion website called BookLamp makes tools for analysis available to the public similar to how Pandora matches music lovers with music. Unfortunately, it was purchased by Apple and is no longer available. Hopefully, something similar will be available for the public soon.

Text Analysis

Think about the analysis of texts. Whether analyzing all the works by a particular author, comparing different editions of the same book, or exploring a single book in-depth, these digital collections are making book research much more practical.

Increasingly, researchers are using digital versions of texts for analysis and annotation. Standards have been developed to help scholars develop and share digital objects. For instance, the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) is a consortium that develops and maintains standards for representation of texts in digital form.

tryitTry It!
Go to Digital Thoreau. Their digitized documents have been "enriched by scholarly annotations, links, images, and social tools that will enable users to create conversations around the text." To see an example of the types of research being conducted using this approach, read Digital Thoreau and Parallel Segmentation.

Ted Underwood suggests that those interested in digital humanities revisit questions we couldn't answer in the past because evidence was lacking.

Ted Underwood (2013) has begun exploring these interesting questions using data drawn from HathiTrust, a collection of 700,000 18th and 19th century volumes. For instance in one blog posting, he's been able to track the number of books classified as fiction from 1700 through 1900. He's looked at whether there's been a change in whether novels are written in first or third person. Of course, he's not able to examine data from all the books ever printed. However, the sample is much larger than what was available in the past.

Ben Schmidt (2013) is doing similar work in digital humanities. In one of his blog postings, he examined the ratio of male to female pronouns in the top 100 authors in the Bookworm database.

Underwood, Ted (2013). We don't already understand the broad outlines of literacy history. The Stone and the Shell. Available:

In addition to digitized books, these digital collections also contain bibliographies, catalogues, and other interesting works.

Book historians often use catalogues as a way to see what was published. To see what was available, researchers can browse publisher catalogs and library catalogs. For instance, you can view the University of Georgia from 1850. What books were available from various fields?

tryitTry It!
What are your book questions? How could large-scale digital collections help you answer these questions? Brainstorm a list of possible questions. Spend some time exploring digital collections. Select a collection and think about how the collection might be used to address these questions.
Google Books
Nines: Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online
18th Century Connect.

tryitTry It!
A new way to access digital collections is the Digital Public Library of America which provides access to millions of documents. The documents can be viewed on a map or timeline. They also have exhibits to explore.

Book History through The Life Cycle of a Book

During eighteenth-century France, both books and catalogues were required to pass the censors. As a result, only the books passing the royal copyright system appeared in the records. An enormous underground system of book production and distribution fueled the French Enlightenment. Book historians like Robert Darnton used publisher records and other types of records such as letters and diaries to examine the underground book trade.

Rather than trying to trace to origins of all books, many historians have used a single book to reflect the larger scope of publishing for a particular time period or era. By tracing the life cycle of a specific book, it's possible to explore the connection between the content, author, editor, printers, publishers, booksellers, and readers. Think of it as the biography of a book.

Let's explore an example.

In The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800, Darnton (1979) traced the history of Diderot's Encyclopédie. Denis Diderot along with Jean d'Alembert began editing the encyclopedia in 1751 and completed the plates for the last of 28 volumes in 1772. The publisher started selling the first eight volumes in 1754 with the promise to subscribers that other volumes would be coming. However it would take another twenty years to finish. The first four editions of the Encyclopédie were "luxurious folio publications ordinary readers could not afford" (1979, 6). The publisher kept records of contracts, subscriptions, and sales so the development and early publishing history of the book can be traced through official records.

However soon after distribution of the first edition of Diderot's Encyclopédie, French authorities recognized the danger of an encyclopedia. Darnton noted that

Organizaiton of Human Knowledge Tree"it did not merely provide information about everything from A to Z; it recorded knowledge according to philosophic principles expounded by d'Alembert in the Preliminary Discourse. Although he formally acknowledged the authority of the church, d'Almbert made it clear the knowledge came from the senses and not from Rome or Revelation. The great ordering agent was reason, which combined sense data, working with the sister faculties of memory and imagination. Thus everything man knew derived from the world around him and the operations of this own mind. The Encyclopédie made the point graphically, with an engraving of a tree of knowledge showing how all arts and sciences grew out of the three mental faculties. Philosophy formed the trunk of the tree, with theology occupied remote branch, next to black magic. Diderot and d'Alembert had dethroned the ancient queen of the sciences. They had rearranged the cognitive universe and reoriented man within it, with elbowing God outside" (1979, 7).

Click the image on the right to see Diderot's Encyclopédie's Tree of Knowledge.

In 1759 the French government revoked the encyclopedia's privilege meaning that it could not longer be legally published. Pope Clement XII placed the book on the Index Librorum Prohibitorumon March 5, 1759 and warned all Catholics who owned a copy to burn it. The famous censorship publication known as "Index" traces the official church banning of the work.

Although the authorities banned the work, they ignored its continued secret publication. Hundreds were involved in the printing process. Darnton (1979, 12) noted that "its survival marked a turning point in the Enlightenment and in the history of books in general."

How is it possible to trace the history of publication when the church and government have banned it?

Letters and other informal communication become important tools to researchers when official documents are no longer being kept. For instance, Malesherbes, the director of libraries was placed in charge of the official destruction of the book. While Malesherbes officially went about seizing the original documents associated with the book, he unofficially made a deal with Diderot to rename the publication and apply for a new privilege. A new edition and additional volumes were created under a false imprint.

Between 1777 and 1782 quarto and octavo editions were printed. Darnton notes that the book changed to meet the needs of the expanding audience. Diderot's Encyclopédie became "the biggest best seller of the century" (1979, 6).

In addition to letters and other informal communication, publisher records can also provide insights. According to Darnton (1979, 521),

"a complex story, which began with ragpickers begging old linens at the back doors of bourgeois houses and ended with the same rags returning through the font doors, transformed into pages of the Encyclopédie. Thanks to the records of the STN, one can follow the flow of paper from individual mills, through the printing shop, and into copies of the quarto in libraries today. One can trace watermarks to particular mills with particular styles of manufacturing and pick out bits of thread, which had once lined gentlemen's underwear and ladies' petticoats. One can even identify the fingerprints on the quarto's pages. And by searching through some forgotten pathways of working-class history, one can link them with the lives of the men who produced the book."

Charles Joseph Panckoucke purchased the rights to reprint the encyclopedia and added five additional volumes between 1776 and 1780. Between 1782 and 1832 Panckoucke and others expanded the work to 166 volumes and called it Encyclopédie Methodique. Thousands were involved in the printing and distribution process.

When marketing beyond the borders of France, the book met with many misadventures. Pirates from England threatened to copy the work in 1751, however the publishers paid a ransom to maintain control. However two volumes were successfully pirated in Italy in 1770. In addition to problems with piracy, the book also faced challenged from powerful bookdealers throughout Europe who were willing to buy pirate copies. Darnton (1979, 20) was able to trace this competition through researching "prospectuses, circular letters, and journal advertisements."

The Parisian police confiscated 6,000 copies of the first three volumes that has just been reprinted and weren't released until 1776. In the meanwhile, Panckoucke moved the operation from Paris to Geneva. Again, letters exist documenting the process and decisions that went into the move. Published contracts reinforce the content of the letters. According to Darnton, the publishers wanted to appease the state and make money. They weren't particularly interested in the politics. However the book sold for the same reasons it was banned. It challenges traditional beliefs and the authority of the Old Regime.

In The Encyclopédie and the Art of Revolution, Clorinda Donato (1992, 12) states:

"The encyclopedians successfully argued and marketed their belief in the potential of reason and unified knowledge to empower human will and thus helped to shape the social issues that the French Revolution would address. Although it is doubtful whether the many artisans, technicians, or laborers whose work and presence and interspersed throughout the Encyclopédie actually read it, the recognition of their work as equal to that of intellectuals, clerics, and rulers prepared the terrain for demands for increased representation. Thus the Encyclopédie served to recognize and galvanize a new power base, ultimately contributing to the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones"

Darnton (1979, 9) concluded that "the Encyclopédie was a product of its time, of mid-century France, when writers could not discuss social and political questions openly, in contrast to the prerevolutionary era, when a tottering government permitted a good deal of frank discussion."

Darnton (1979, 524) stressed that it's difficult to connect the spread of books with the spread of ideas. However the study of book sales can provide some insights. He stated

"book consumption can serve as only a crude indicator of tastes and values among the reading public, and it may appear impertinent to talk about 'consuming' books in the first place. But the purchase of a book is a significant act, when considered culturally as well as economically. It provides some indication of the spread of ideas beyond the intellectual milieu within which intellectual history is usually circumscribed."

The high price of Encyclopédie limited the power of peasants and artisans to purchase the work. However with each new edition, the format size was decreased, fewer plates were used, and the paper quality was reduced bringing the production costs down. The publisher also reached more remote locations with each edition. With the publication of the quarto edition, the Encyclopédie became a book within the reach of ordinary readers.

Another approach Darnton used in analyzing Encyclopédie was combining sales statistics with maps. In this way, he could examine where sales took place and the types of people living in those areas. He combined this information with correspondence of booksellers and concluded that the book sold better in towns than in villages and better in some areas of the country such as cultural and administrative centers. The industrial areas showed little interest in the book.

Maps can also be used to trace the flow of the book outside the country including areas where pirate copies and editing editions can be found.

Darnton (1979, 528) concluded that "the story of how the Encyclopédie became a best seller demonstrates the appeal of the Enlightenment on a massive scale, among the upper and middle ranges of French society, if not the 'masses' who made the Revolution in 1789."


Black, Fiona A., MacDonald, Bertrum H., Black, J. Malcolm W. (1998). Geographic information systems: a new research method for book history. Book History, 1, 11-31. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Darnton, Robert (1979). The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800. Harvard University Press. Preview Available: and full-text is available at

Donato, Clorinda & Maniqui, Robert M. (eds.) (1992). The Encyclopédie and the Art of Revolution. G.K. Hall.

Eliot, Simon (2002). Very necessary but not quite sufficient: a personal view of quantitative analysis in book history. Book History, 5, 283-293. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Grafton, Anthony (2015). Codex in crisis: the book dematerializes. In M. Levy & T. Mole, The Broadview Reader in Book History. Broadview Press, 555-573.

Jockers, Matthew (2013). Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History. University of Illinois Press. Preview Available:

Joshi, Priya (2002). Quantitative method, literary history. Book History, 5, 263-274. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Moretti, Franco (2005). Graphics, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory. Verso. Preview Available:

Underwood, Ted (2013). We don't already understand the broad outlines of literacy history. The Stone and the Shell. Available:

Vander Meulen, David L. (2003/2004). How to read book history. Studies in Bibliography, 56, 171-193. IUPUI students can view the article online.

| eduscapes | IUPUI Online Courses | Teacher Tap | 42explore | About Us | Contact Us | © 2013-2019 Annette Lamb

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.