Book Formats and Reading Habits in Early Modern Europe

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Jani Marjanen

    University of Helsinki

  2. 2. Hege Roivainen

    University of Helsinki

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Introduction: Reading and the materiality of the book
The late eighteenth century entailed a rapid change in reading and writing books. Rolf Engelsing (1970; 1974) famously suggested a reading revolution took place in the second half of the century in which the public gradually switched from reading a few key works, such as the Bible, intensively and repeatedly, to reading extensive amounts of literature by different authors. The breakthrough of extensive reading and the ensuing exposure to a broader spectrum of ideas is linked to the political mobilization of people, but assessing these links requires better knowledge of when and where reading habits changed. Information about changes in reading habits is available only through individual statements about changes in reading. To trace changing practices of reading, we have focused on one aspect that facilitated a transformation in reading, that is, the changes in the material outlook of books produced in the early modern period. Earlier research has suggested that smaller book formats, in particular the octavo format, became more popular in the eighteenth century and thus coincide with the changes in reading habits (Buringh and van Zanden, 2009; Horstbøll, 2009; 2010; Galbi, 2011; for formats in general, see Gaskell, 1972).
Smaller formats cannot be assumed to be a direct result of changes in reading habits or vice versa, but the size of books does make a difference in how people read. Smaller books could be easily transported, carried in a pocket to places where individuals could read in solitude. Larger books were more appropriate for reading out loud to an audience by a desk or from a piedestal. To properly assess the change in the material dimensions of books and other print, we turned to bibliographies as a large-scale data source for early modern publishing.

Materials and methods
Our statistical analyses are based on four large bibliographies, which allows for more reliable and more detailed studies on the change in book formats than what has been possible before. While bibliographies have been compiled to provide as good coverage of the publication record as possible and thus provide an undervalued data source for the exploration of print culture, they have so far been used only to a limited degree. Bibliographic information, such as authors, titles, publishers, languages, publication places, publication years, and book formats, have been used to conduct analyses (for a description see Tolonen et al., 2018; Lahti et al., 2019). To deal with gaps, inconsistencies, bias and ambiguities in the data, we have extensively harmonized selected metadata fields of the Finnish and Swedish National Bibliographies (FNB and SNB, respectively), the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC), and the Heritage of the Printed Book database (HPBD) which is a compilation of 45 smaller, mostly national, bibliographies. Data handling was mainly carried out in R and Python using dozens of data science packages. Altogether, these bibliographies cover 2.64 million harmonized entries from the investigated period. In terms of coverage, the ESTC, the SNB and the FNB provide the best possible dataset covering printed material for the early modern period in Britain, Sweden and Finland. The HPBD has a larger geographical scope as it covers most of Europe, but its level of coverage varies depending on the source bibliography.

Results and discussion
A statistical analysis of changes in book formats, their shares in titles and in paper consumption, shows clearly how the octavo format became more popular in Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century, but also indicates that the development was uneven in the sense that the timing and speed of the development varied according to location. The Swedish case (SNB) shows a clear rise in the production of octavo books in the second half of the eighteenth century and a decline of the larger quarto format. In the British case (ESTC), a similar trend is slightly earlier, but there is also an increase in the production of the smaller duodecimo format, indicating an overall shift towards smaller books. In the Finnish case the trend is only visible in the nineteenth century, indicating a slower development in the European periphery. Despite unevenness in the data, the HPBD shows a similar trend for the whole of Europe, but zooming in on individual cities shows remarkable regional differences – for example, most German cities show a growing trend, whereas Spanish cities have a much stronger presence of larger book formats during the century. Overall, capital cities, commercial centres and university towns tend to have slightly different profiles (Lahti et al., 2019).


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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO