My National Library: Professor of Book History
Interviewer: Harri Ahonen, Librarian
- You have been appointed the first chair in book history in Finland. What exactly is book history?
Book history studies the entire lifecycle of a book, from writing to printing and publishing. Other relevant issues include distribution and retail, in other words, how books get into readers' hands. Current key topics include reading and reader experiences. For the purposes of book history, books include not only traditional books, but also other printed products, such as ephemera and newspapers.
- You have a background in church history. How did you end up studying book history?
I wrote my Master's thesis on early devotional literature and its ownership and use. I became fascinated with old books and later wrote my dissertation on general church history focusing on various translations of English devotional literature and the changes made to the original text, as well as the reception of the books in Finland at the beginning of the modern era. At the time, I was also working in the then Helsinki University Library, now the National Library of Finland, in a project cataloguing early Finnish literature, which contributed to the development of my identity as a book historian.
- What instruction is currently offered in book history?
Next autumn, all university students will be able to complete 25 credits in book history as a minor subject. The purpose is to provide basic information about book history. Various lecture series, proseminars and advanced seminars with varying themes are also offered each year. For example, this past spring I lectured on education and propaganda in children's literature, and for the next academic year I will talk about the foundations of book history. In addition, an advanced seminar will be held in autumn 2012 on reading and writing as book and church historical phenomena.
- What is the significance of the National Library of Finland and its collections to Finnish research in book history?
The National Library houses diverse collections which are particularly useful for the study of early book history. Finnish literature is one of my personal interests, as I have both catalogued and studied it extensively. The National Library's collections can be used in a wide range of ways in teaching and research in book history. What saddens me, however, is the National Library's current approach to research and expertise in "Fennica" literature. Although experienced specialists in this area have retired or are about to retire, the National Library has not deemed it necessary to consider Fennica expertise in recruitment. I find it surprising. After all, issues related to Finnish literature are central to the National Library despite its important international collections.
- How should collaboration between libraries and scholars be enhanced?
Academic libraries should view themselves from the research perspective. Library staff include plenty of skilled professionals interested in book history and collections. They could be encouraged to cooperate more broadly with scholars and share their collections expertise with them. Scholars would then be able to share their research knowledge with library staff, not only through personal contacts but also through lectures and talks. Library staff and scholars could participate in joint seminars, and the former could be encouraged to complete studies in book history as work-related continuing education.
- What do you as a book historian think about the digitisation of books and libraries?
Book historians are of course pleased to find resources they can use for free on their home computer. As an extensive international project, digitisation provides scholars with access to sources that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to access. But in the midst of the digitisation craze, we should not lose sight of the importance of printed literature and libraries. Digitisation does not provide all the answers. We still need libraries to read research and source literature on site and to borrow material for use outside the library.
- Do book historians need original printed publications alongside digitised copies? What is the role of printed books in research?
Many relevant research issues cannot be addressed by studying digitised material only. The scholarly significance of original material cannot be overestimated. That is why scholars appreciate collections from which they can borrow original items and which offer additional material for, for example, comparisons between various editions or information about the ownership of books based on dedications. One such collection is the Heikki A. Reenpää Library, which Professor Reenpää donated to the National Library.
Professor of Book History
Photo by Linda Tammisto