Friday, September 12, 2008

Print culture and science/technology knowledge production

I'm here at the UW-Madison Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America conference on "The culture of print in science, technology, engineering, and medicine" today. As one of the co-organizers, I made some opening remarks on the study of print, science, and technology which fit with my weblog theme quite well, and I thought I'd reprint them (extended version) here:

I was trained in a program in the history of science, medicine, and technology — after having earned an engineering degree — long before I knew there was a field called "print culture studies" — and long before I found myself dealing with print culture on a daily basis as a faculty member in both a library school and a journalism school. But even from my graduate training it was clear to me that both the artifacts of print culture studies — books and periodicals, advertising and ephemera, newsletters and correspondence — and the social processes of print culture studies — making meaning and building community through the collective production, circulation, consumption, and interpretation of knowledge made physical through text and image — were central to the study of science, medicine, technology, and engineering practice in America.

Take the artifacts of print culture studies first. It is difficult to imagine how scientific or medical practice of any sort can take place without a social process of textual production, peer review of those texts, scholary publication of those texts, and professional librarianship to find those texts again when needed. In the middle of the 20th century the military demands of the Cold War and the information technologies of the computer suggested to some that the academic monograph, the academic journal, and even the academic article were all hopelessly out of date as efficient modes of scientific communication. But every technology that has been proposed to replace these print products — from the microfilmed technical report to the online weblog — still draws on the metaphors and practices of print culture. And behind the scenes, well before publication of scientific findings, a vast print culture of laboratory notebooks, emailed correspondence, and powerpoint presentations lurks under all of our scientific work.

This brings us to the second connection, the social processes of print cuture. After all, if there is one thing that broad science and technology studies share, whether they focus on nanotechnology or evolutionary theory, information technology or the germ theory of medicine, is that at their core they are about constructing, reproducing, and legitimizing certain ways of knowing — practices of knowledge production, circulation, and consumption.

A good friend of mine who was also trained as a historian of science and technology, Josh Greenberg (who coincidentally is now heading up digital print projects at the New York Public Library), uses an unusual word to describe this connection: "epistemography." What does this mean? To find out you can consult the online print archive known as Josh's weblog, in which he writes, "the name epistemographer comes from one of my graduate school professors (a fine historian of science named Peter Dear), who wrote an article in which he argues that Science Studies is really about charting knowledge; where it comes from, how it’s made, and who’s doing the making. Thus we studied epistemography, which makes me an epistemographer." I don't bring this up to suggest we all run off and form yet another new discipline, but to suggest that the work we're already doing probably points more in the same direction than we might normally think.

There's one final way in which print culture studies and science/technology/engineering/medicine studies inform each other, in my view. This one is a little more tricky, though, because it assumes a particular kind of print culture and science studies. Here at the Center we've built a long tradition of focusing not just on the products of print, or on the ways they've been put into social practice, but the relationship that print culture products and practices have to power — political and economic, social and cultural.

What this means is that the Madison Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, following in the research traditions of its founders Jim Danky and Wayne Wiegand, and building on those traditions with so many of its participants over the years (wholeheartedly including the research of current director Christine Pawley), places special focus on how those lacking power in American history — sometimes literally lacking a voice in the mainstream historical record — have used the tools and techniques of print to call attention to their claims and build a shared identity under circumstances of marginalization. We see it as our special responsibility to collect, catalog, and understand "the print culture collections of groups whose gender, race, occupation, ethnicity and sexual preference (among other factors) have historically placed them on the periphery of power but who used print sources as one of the few means of expression available to them."

We in science and technology studies are in a similarly exciting moment with research that has, especially in the last few decades, finally begun to seriously and systematically foreground the role of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and language in the production of scientific knowledge, in the construction of technological infrastructure, in the decisions about engineering values and the application of medical advances. I'm proud to be a participant in both the print culture and science studies disciplines, because I think much like the professional cultures they nurture — librarianship and publishing on the one hand, and science/engineering/medicine on the other — our academic efforts hold within them a real mission to make sure that the benefits of human knowledge are made accessible with equity and justice across the globe.

1 comment:

David said...


I love this definition of print culture:
"making meaning and building community through the collective production, circulation, consumption, and interpretation of knowledge made physical through text and image" this essay.