Thursday, March 1, 2012

History of the Scientific Book and Journal

Every Monday afternoon, I go to Narnia. At least that is what it feels like to me. In the post I wrote about the book Blood Work, I mentioned that I am taking a class on the history of the scientific book and journal. I've been asked to elaborate on what we do in that class, which I'm happy to do because it is easily one of my favorite courses I've taken.

The course is offered through the History of Science Department here at UW, and is taught by Robin Rider. We meet in the special collections department of UW's Memorial Library. The reason I equate going to class with going to Narnia is because special collections is accessible by a single elevator, separate from all the others, which is the only one that goes all the way up to the ninth floor. Special collections is gorgeous. When you step off the elevator into this magical land it is all glass and dark wood with soothing low lights and the books, oh the books. For me, short of my own library complete with floor to ceiling bookshelves and a ladder to ride around and find things, special collections is as good as a library is going to get.

via University Communications
What I love most about the class is that it gives me the ability to just completely nerd out for a few hours. There is something I love about holding a book in my hands, I felt it when reading Science Ink a few weeks ago, and I feel it every time I get to handle the class materials. A few weeks ago in class we got to see the library's copy of Andreas Vesalius' 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the structure of the human body). I was pretty awe struck, to actually get to see for yourself something from so long ago that was so important in its time was amazing to me.

Two years ago I was an intern at a science journal (BioTechniques) and was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of the editorial decision making and publication processes as the journal was put together each month. I found getting to handle copies of the Philosophical Transactions (including the first one published!) of the Royal Society and the Memoirs of France's Academy of Sciences particularly interesting as early examples of journal writing. There is just something about getting to turn those yellowed pages myself that thrills me. Nerd alert, I know.

There are a lot of issues from back then, when the conventions of printing and publishing were just coming to be, that are still worth debate today. For instance in preparing for my next class meeting I was just reading about the issue of author anonymity in writing. Now, for the most part I believe that putting your name on something is a good way to evoke trust in what you say - at least you are owning it. However, at the same time I see why there are people out there (some wonderful science bloggers come to mind) who choose to operate under a pseudonym. Safety in the wake of backlash against what you say (extreme or not) was an issue back then (ahem, Galileo) and it remains one today. Writers - no matter what you choose to write, scientific paper, blog post, etc. - open themselves up to criticism which can and does escalate. I find it interesting that so many centuries later, claiming individual ownership over words would still be an unsettled issue.

I enjoy that in my last semester of grad school I am being exposed to so many wonderful pieces of science history, but also to the ideas, procedures, and processes that go into creating a printed work. We got to tour the Silver Buckle Press, which is located in Memorial Library, during class. I had no idea UW had a collection of old printing presses, let alone that they were set up in a working print shop on campus. I even got to print something myself, which believe me was fun. For me, this class is about incorporating new experiences and ideas with things I already knew or had at least heard of in some way. It is like taking a step deeper into the world of the written word, and so far it has been amazing.

I'm taking this class as an elective, and I would recommend it. The downsides are that the readings sometimes take more effort than a few clicks of the mouse to get to, and special collections is cold sometimes. Otherwise the professor is enthusiastic, the course work isn't particularly heavy, and I've learned a lot.

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