Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Lonely Bibliographer; or musical chairs

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a heart-wrenching article, "The Career Risks of Scrutinizing the Physical Side of Books," by Jennifer Howard. It appears on the front page of the print version of July 16, 2010, vol. LVI, no. 40, but the link above will take you to the digital version if you have a subscription. The article focuses largely on R. Carter Hailey, an analytic bibliographer whose painstaking scholarship into the physicality of books and manuscripts allows him to do detective work on early publishing. For instance, he has been able to authoritatively assign a date to the publication of Hamlet, which had never been done before. The marks left on the paper from the wires in the Renaissance papermaking molds, minute variations in watermarks, these are the fingerprints that allow him to track the evidence.

But Mr. Hailey has never held a permanent position in academe. He would like to hold a faculty appointment, and teach as well as pursue his scholarship. So far, Hailey has cobbled together a series of research associate and fellowship positions at various institutions. He has an impressive resume, teaching as well as peer-reviewed articles and books. Various professors that the Chronicle quotes, who know Mr. Hailey consider that, despite his excellent qualifications, he may be a victim of "shifting emphases in English departments over the past two decades." Bibliography, meaning the study of the physical aspect of a book or other item, was in vogue before the rise of textual criticism and literary theory. That change in how to approach graduate-level teaching and practice doomed the last generation of trained bibliographers, I suppose. Other speakers comment that departments would be more likely to hire "a period specialist with bibliographic skills" than "a bibliographer who can also teach literature." But the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards bibliography, at least at a few schools, according to the article. So, perhaps, Mr. Hailey can hope for a faculty position in the future.

I was fascinated at the description of a deeper sort of bibliography than any I was ever trained for. The article is fun to read, in that way. But it is quite sad, in terms of Mr. Hailey's career, and his obvious excellence in his specialty. The moral, if there is one to be had, I suppose, is to try to avoid being the one left standing in the awful Musical Chairs game where society changes its mind about what it wants.

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