A stack of books

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Library/Lukas Külper.

Project (2020-)

The Use and Reuse of Paper in the Humanities

Paper is probably the most central working material of the humanities across history: Scholars have read from and written on paper, thought with paper pages and paper models for centuries. They have collected, archived, exhibited, and preserved historical paper to conduct research, which would be transposed onto paper again. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the introduction of cheap wood pulp paper, paper production reached an apex. This “paper flood” promoted the work of humanities scholars who initiated publication projects in the form of thick monographs, handbooks, and sourcebooks. At the same time, scholars developed a deeper interest in paper as a historical source, a medium that needed to be centralized, archived, and conserved.

This project investigates the use and reuse of paper in the German-speaking humanities in the nineteenth century and until the middle of the twentieth century, a period in which the proliferation of inexpensive wood pulp paper coincided with far-reaching institutional and methodological developments within the humanities. It asks, to what extent did the availability of paper bring about new research questions and methods, publication formats, and knowledge formations? Thereby, it examines paper-based working media, identifying their material composition and provenance, as well as the practices of researching, publishing, archiving, preserving, and editing that these media helped to enable. In doing so, the project aims to show how the supposedly immaterial “Geisteswissenschaften” were in fact, via the medium of paper, deeply bound up in material practices of socio-economic and ecological importance.

During my stay at the MPIWG, I will focus on letters and study guides that the philosophical faculties of Nazi universities sent to soldiers enrolled in correspondence courses during World War II. Their production happened amid a severe paper shortage, a consequence of the regime’s autarkic wartime economy. My approach to these media considers the circumstances of paper production, paper provenance, and the concurrent ideologies of academia and war. I hope to show how the humanities were involved in the economic exploitation and political context of the Nazi regime and World War II.