Confined to the library

Book in box

For many of us in the Centre for Material Texts, the focus of our research is the relationship between books and the contexts in which they are produced and consumed. Some of this work involves consciously reflecting on and examining aspects of book culture which for centuries was considered too inconsequential or ‘familiar’ to warrant attention: the way in which an individual reader marks his or her own books by underlining passages or folding down a corner of the page, the ways in which the size and weight of a book demands to be carried and read in certain spaces, the particular order in which books are stored on a library shelf. We scrutinize the historical dimensions of processes which we ourselves also perform in our everyday lives as authors, editors, and readers of our own and others’ work as we write, read, collect and order books.

Consultation on the University of Bristol’s decision to invest in a new library, which will house the Arts and Social Sciences collections, created a moment for everyone in the Faculty of Arts to reflect on the importance of the physical book and the way in which it influences the behaviour of those using it. When presented with the possibility of a new library which might not consider physical books on shelves to be a central concern, we are all (book historians and non-book historians like) acutely aware of the ways in which our research practice and intellectual endeavours continue to be enriched and informed by contact with books which we can browse on library shelves, pick up and leaf through, and spread out on the desk next to us.

The long view of material texts teaches us that our current experience of the paradigm shift from print to digital mirrors earlier shifts from oral to written, and written to print. But we also know that the codex has an extraordinarily long and powerful history as arguably the most successful book form of all time. When building a library for the future, we believe that it is forward-thinking not to ignore the lessons of history. We should recognize and celebrate the centrality and longevity of the material book and its continued importance for all users of the library.

As part of its feedback on proposed plans for the library, the Faculty of Arts commissioned an artist’s book from a former student of the University and local book artist, Kate Bernstein. This was presented to the Vice Chancellor, Hugh Brady, by the Dean of the Faculty, Mike Basker, Faculty Research Director, Robert Bickers, and the Centre for Material Texts.


Entitled ‘Confined to the Library’, the book reflects the intellectual riches captured within a library, as well as the emotional and sensory experiences lying in wait. Books and libraries can be – at one and the same time – private, intimate, journeys of discovery as well as public, magisterial symbols of status, intellectual and financial wealth. Bernstein’s meticulously-made book triggers responses to its weight, its texture, and its smell, which cannot be replicated in a digital facsimile. It is a familiar codex, but the complexity of its form only becomes apparent once it is opened: its unfamiliarity provokes a reflection of the way in which we navigate our way around a book, both physically and intellectually, moving forwards, but also backwards, perhaps missing some elements entirely and only discovering others when re-reading.

Bristol book plateCentre spreadbook on box

As the new library will provide a lasting legacy for the University’s ambitions in early twenty-first century, so we hope that the book will have a long life ahead of it, housed in the library when it is built, and enjoyed by generations of library users to come.

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