How did Benjamin Franklin strike it rich in the printing business? Did Common Sense really start the American Revolution? What does it mean to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a deck of playing cards? This course will investigate book histories, and the worlds of readers, printers, publishers, and libraries in the Americas, from the colonial period through the nineteenth century.
We will ground our studies in the rich collection holdings of the Kislak Center at the Penn Libraries and the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Franklin and still a leading research library today. Some class sessions will be held at the Library Company, a quick trip away in Center City. The course will be organized around case studies. Each week we will look at books, newspapers, pamphlets, pictures, broadsides—big and small, famous and forgotten. We will think about how books work, not just as texts but as cultural artifacts, and we learn to decode their languages, from title pages to typography to bindings. Readings will include key source texts from early America and modern scholarship. Students will also have the opportunity to develop original research projects based on the collections we will study together.