SHARP was founded in 1992, a year when popular excitement about the future of the book was encouraging scholars to look back at its past. Book history had a prehistory, of course – among historians asking whether pamphlet publishing had led to the French revolution; among literary scholars opposing the theoretical turn their discipline was taking; among rare books people inspired by the idea of bibliography as a “sociology of texts”; among students of contemporary publishing seeking historical perspective. But there was no interdisciplinary meeting place, no online discussion forum or website, no newsletter and no journal – until two enthusiastic early-career Victorianists met their third musketeer in August 1991. The first two scholars – Jonathan Rose (an American in a History department) and Simon Eliot (an English Literature professor in a British university) shared an interest in how books and periodicals had been created, circulated, and read in the 19th century. At the Santa Cruz, California conference on “Victorian Literature in the Marketplace” they proposed a new Society for studying the printed word from a materialist and empirical perspective. Patrick Leary, then a graduate student in History researching Victorian authorship, enthusiastically pitched in to help get the idea off the ground, undertaking to create an online, email-based discussion group (“listserv”). Other scholars at the conference – including Robert Patten, who became Treasurer and later President – were also keen to lend a hand. In 1992, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, & Publishing was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization, the newsletter SHARP News was launched, the first members were recruited, and SHARP-L went online. SHARP’s inaugural conference, at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center in 1993, attracted some 130 attendees.
The discussion list and the conference began a process of inter-communication that would prove characteristic of SHARP for all of its long history, providing channels through which people with diverse professional and disciplinary backgrounds and place/period specialties could share with and learn from one another as practitioners of the history of the book. SHARP’s founders had articulated a capacious global and temporal vision for their new organization, one that quickly expanded in both space and time to encompass what our constitution now calls “the interdisciplinary study of the composition, mediation, reception, survival, and transformation of written communication in material forms, from the ancient world to the present day.” At the New York meeting, a first constitution was adopted and officers were elected. Leslie Howsam, who would later serve as SHARP’s president, recalls “an urgent, even competitive, feeling in the room – a sense that this was what many of us had been looking for and we wanted to be part of it.”
The following year’s conference in Washington was held at the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. In 1995, another channel of communication was opened when SHARP made its debut on the brand-new World Wide Web. Cobbled together by Leary just in time for the Society’s third conference, held in Edinburgh that July, SHARP Web began as little more than a collection of reference documents and links but over the next decade became an established destination for teachers and researchers alike. The distinguished historian of technology, Edward Tenner, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 9 March 2007: “The goal in the next decade or so should be to prepare students to be discerning users of, and contributors to, all media. An excellent starting point on the Web is the site of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing.”
SHARP has held a conference every year, in which local organizers have worked closely with the Executive Committee on themes, guest speakers, and schedules. Beginning in 2003, SHARP also sponsored regional/focused conferences, each one addressing a specific region or historical problematic, held in Australia, India, various European countries, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil.
In 1998, after several years of planning and discussion, the leadership of SHARP undertook to publish an annual journal. Book History was limited to scholarly articles, because book reviews continued to be commissioned for and published in the quarterly SHARP News, which also compiled an invaluable bibliography. Eleanor Shevlin set up liaisons between SHARP and other scholarly societies. Other members of the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors devoted hours of voluntary academic labour to SHARP’s success. Each of SHARP’s eight presidents has been a distinguished book historian with a long record of service to the Society.
Another kind of support has come from foundations, private donors, and SHARP members. The Delmas Foundation has provided funds to enhance the experience of students and independent scholars attending SHARP conferences. The DeLong family generously endowed a Book Prize in 2004. The editors of Book History initiated a prize for the best essay by a graduate student. For many years, a portion of the conference registration fee has been set aside to support student and independent scholar travel to the subsequent year’s conference. And many long-term members supplement their annual fees with a donation to support the work of the Society.
SHARP became international, initially, merely by encompassing the study of books produced anywhere in the world. Then members outside the Anglo-American core began to organize conferences. The Mainz meeting in 2000 was held in tandem with the celebrations of Gutenberg’s 600th birthday. The first bilingual event was the Toronto 2009 conference, and others followed in Montréal (2015) and Paris (2016). The politics of language, and of varying ways of defining and interpreting the history of the book, imposed difficulties but also offered opportunities for collaboration. In 2010 SHARP became a member of the International Committee of the Historical Sciences and now participates in that organization’s quinquennial “history Olympics”. In 2014, SHARP initiated a program for translation into English of key articles previously available only in their original language.
Meeting in Canada in 2017, SHARP elected a president hailing from New Zealand. Sydney Shep served for many years as editor of SHARP News; fittingly, her research interest is in the transnational history of the book.
What does SHARP do?
SHARP’s annual conference brings together about three hundred scholars from across the world to share and discuss the latest research relating to book history. We visit a different city each year and, as the conference is always organised by local members, every conference has its own character. In recent years, we’ve visited Helsinki, Washington DC, Dublin, Philadelphia, Antwerp, Montreal, and Paris. SHARP also sponsors smaller conferences, focusing on specific themes and regions. Through our regional liaisons we support a plethora of local book history workshops, symposia, and other events.
SHARP discusses research questions regularly through its highly active email-list, SHARP-L, which is open to members and non-members alike. We publish reviews, short essays, announcements, and a bibliography through our quarterly newsletter, SHARP News, and an annual scholarly journal, Book History, edited by Greg Barnhisel, Jonathan Rose, and Beth le Roux. We run a website and a Twitter account (which is especially active during the annual conference).
SHARP partners with other organisations to support scholarships and other research activities. Currently, it provides scholarships at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, California Rare Book School, the Digital Humanities Summer School at the University of Victoria, the London Rare Book School, the Institut d’Histoire du Livre in Lyon, the Australiasian Rare Book School, and the Texas A&M University’s Book History Workshop.
Membership in SHARP includes a subscription to SHARPNews and all other SHARP publications. Individuals may join SHARP via subscription services at Johns Hopkins University Press. Institutions may order subscriptions to Book History through Johns Hopkins University Press. Contact jrnlcirc [at] press.jhu.edu or phone 1-800-548-1784, or 410-516-6987.
- 1993-1997 – Jonathan Rose
- 1997-2001 – Simon Eliot
- 2001-2003 – James L. W. West
- 2003-2005 – Beth Luey
- 2005-2009 – Robert L. Patten
- 2009-2013 – Leslie Howsam
- 2013-2017 – Ian Gadd