Having studied transnational history for 3 weeks now, I believe that I have a (hopefully!) interesting starting point for my project. By far my favourite module so far has been MO3052- the history of the library. It might not seem like much at first thought, but this module opened my eyes to the influence of books and libraries on the lives of their users, and our research was certainly global. When thinking about a possible project, combined with the reading this week on micro-transnational histories, I remembered the individual book collectors we studied. So, here are a couple of ideas as to where my project could go…

Hernando Colon, the son of Christopher Columbus, amassed a library of over 10,000 books and 3,000 prints before his death in 1539. Since this amount of books were far more than Hernando could ever read, we see that books were symbols of wealth, and in Colon’s case also symbols of travel and culture. Very helpfully for us, Colon inscribed in every book the price he paid, and the circumstances around the purchase. Here we have an example of the travel links of books during the 16th century, as Colon created a system of contact between six major cities of book production- Rome, Venice, Nurnberg, Antwerp, Paris, Lyon. He made four European trips, which was a great amount in the 16th century, and his library became a home for scholars travelling far and wide. Perhaps I could take this actor and discuss the circumstances around his travels, and the wider social picture his collection is evidence of.

Gian Vincenzo Pinelli provides an insight into the fragility of book collections. Just like other determined Italian intellectuals, Pinelli’s goal was to keep up to date with the best in contemporary learning, and he went to great extent to obtain Protestant works during the counter-reformation. Just like many elite collectors, Pinelli wished his book collection to survive long after himself. However, no book collection is as important to anyone as it is to its owner. First a servant plundered the collection, then the government deemed much of it sensitive information so it fell victim to confiscation. The nephew Pinelli had left the library to died 14 moths after Pirelli, and his desire to publish the library as a memorial to his uncle died with him. Pirates attacked ships containing the books and threw them overboard looking for greater treasures. Of 33 chests, 22 were recovered. Here is a collection which has a story in itself. Why did Pinelli choose the books he did, and what does this show us? Who came and read in his library? Where did so many of the lost books end up? All of these are very hard to answer, but a history which focused on Pinelli’s motivations might expose some of the wider themes of the time. 

Right now it seems that the direction of my project is one focusing on the individual. However, the books themselves as commodities are also crucial. So, how to integrate these two? I am yet to encounter an actor who’s collection was necessarily global, but I am wary to focus only on the European. Perhaps I should focus in even further, and find an individual scribe who’s books travelled Europe, or a middle-class citizen who collected books. Wendy Kozol in the AHR conversation put the point across that, 

“the most effective transnational historical studies are those that examine how cultural practices and ideologies shape, constrain, or enable the economic, social, and political conditions in which people and goods circulate within local, regional, and global locales”

Wendy Kozol in Christopher A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review 111/5 (2006), 1441-1464, here: 1451.  

This seems like a lot to integrate into a project, but perhaps I should start with a cultural practise or ideology. The first which comes to mind is the use of books to strengthen imperial rule at home and in the colonies. In Germany, indoctrination of the unassuming masses was undertaken by political parties in the lead up to the first world war. Colonial exploration generated a market for travel and war tales, as Pygmies and other human ‘curiosities’ excited interest among the working classes. There was a cultivation of a more informed public, but the masking of colonialist literature as more scientific does not displace its ideological function.

During the Second World War, ghetto libraries were erected to ensure the dissemination of knowledge. One great resource is Warsaw’s secret archive of the ghetto. This was organised though assembling diaries and other writings, buried just before the Warsaw uprising. Over 35,000 documents were recovered, comprising of poems, food stamps, diary entries, and photographs. Similarly, British mass observation began in 1937, and encouraged people to write diaries. This history from below could provide a great starting point for a project. 

In the colonies, books were used to strengthen claim to rule. In the Netherlands’ rule of the East Indies, the material inside new public libraries was designed to indoctrinate western ideals. Novels undermined Javanese tradition, instilling colonial values of efficiency and self-reliance. However, even though readers were veered towards these materials, they steered away, favouring the Malay thrillers. The libraries also became gathering spots for young nationalists. Thus, what came with the colonial library was the the tools needed to explore the other Western concepts of independence and egalitarianism. One reason for the eventual call for the end to the culture system was the publishing of the novel Max Havelaar in 1860, which described the miseries resulting from Java’s transformation. Bayly calls for a history of ideas which “transcends the elite-subaltern divide”. I agree, we need to move away from grand narratives of domination, but we can recognise that “even in the world of literature… there were power and victims, dominances and exclusions”.

Leading on from Max Havelaar, perhaps I could take, as Milinda suggested, an individual book and write its transnational history. This could be an interesting point of view, as travel links made it increasingly possible for books to be read and interpreted differently across the globe. 

Perhaps I could take the idea of libraries in a decade or a year, looking at how they differed across the globe and how each community and individual used the books inside them as means to different ends. Take 15th century contrasts between Mughal India, for example, where the literary culture was centralised around the imperial court, and nothing like the open market in Europe. Contrastingly, China’s system was much more secular, and had access to printing technology. However, unlike in Europe, it was not popular for centuries since there was simply a different market.

So, I suppose the main question I have going forward after this big word splurge is ‘how can I do transnational history?’ What do I include? What do I omit? What perspective do I take? How do I point to themes and nations without being dogmatic? Going back to the AHR conversation, I think that my focus must be on the desire to break out of the nation state as being the main category of analysis. I do not think that my analysis has to be entirely global and avoiding these nations altogether, however they should merely be used as bases. I hope to integrate this viewpoint, and others, into my project, and will no doubt be helped by our discussion of the micro and the transnational this week. 

Project possibilities…

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