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

This project focusses on probably the most central working material of the humanities across history: paper. Scholars have read from and wrote on paper, thought with paper pages, paper models and paper theatres for centuries. They have collected, archived, exhibited, and preserved historical paper for conducting 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 which needed to be centralized, archived, and conserved.

The project investigates the use and reuse of paper in the German-speaking humanities around 1900, following its chains of production back to the raw material and forward to decomposition. It aims to show how the supposedly immaterial “Geisteswissenschaften” were, via the medium of paper, deeply bound up in material practices and economic networks. A starting point is the city of Berlin, where large-scale paper intensive projects such as the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (1862–present), carried out by the Prussian Academy of Science, were underway. These Big Science projects manifest the humanities’ impact on science policy and involved the production of a comprehensive set of print media. It was also in Berlin where Wilhelm Dilthey gave his famous lecture “Archives for Literature” (1889), requesting state-funded archives for intellectual history. Starting from these initiatives, the project asks: Where did the humanities’ paper come from, who and what were involved in its production? Did the humanities develop practices and discourses of sustainability in their use and reuse of paper? And how did they cope with times of shortage during wars and inflations, when paper intermittently became a scarce commodity again?