Thanks to a pointer from Danielle Citron, I learned about Margot Kaminski's latest ("Reading Over Your Shoulder: Social Readers and Privacy Law"), which deals with the problem of sharing (sometimes rather widely) the contents of a reader's virtual bookbag. This is an issue of obviously large proportions for those concerned with privacy. But for a moment I want to part company with my librarian friends, or maybe it's not so much parting company with them as pointing out the importance of their project: as a historian I like it when we have lists of things Americans have read.
One of the projects I'm working on (slowly right now, but I hope to return to it with some vigor soon) is a study of the reading habits of southern college students before the Civil War. I'm interested in what uses students (and faculty, too) made of ideas in books. Sometimes I get at this in pretty direct fashion -- for instance by going back to the books that they cite and seeing what they pull out and cite and what's left behind. I'm going to be talking some about this at the University of Florida next week when I discuss Thomas Cobb, a law professor and later Confederate general, who wrote a proslavery legal treatise. Cobb brought a lot of sources together to create a zealously proslavery vision of human history. And one of the many sources he turned to were histories of Egypt, as well as treatises on reform of employment law in England. Cobb drew on a lot of different sources to create the sense that slavery was ordained of God, natural, and could not be ended without demographic and economic catastrophe to the white south. And of course one of the great virtues of legal treatises for those of us who work on the "history of the book" is that we can tell where judges took their ideas. Then we can compare judges' opinions on similar issues to make some kind of assessment of differences between judges' reasoning styles. Or you can see the authors and works that orators refer to -- never ceases to surprise me how much one can learn from paying attention to the ideas that come out of people's mouths or off their printing presses.
But at other times I want to come at the question rather differently -- not by using a single text and asking what sources were poured into it (and what ideas were left out). I want to know which books someone read. And therein lies the issue -- how much I enjoy snooping over the shoulders of students to see the books they borrowed from the college literary society libraries, for the records of several college literary societies have survived that have the books students borrowed -- not just the books in their catalog, which is valuable in itself, but actually what books the students borrowed. I get completely that this is a huge issue of privacy, but for precisely this reason, the lists of books that a student borrowed are helpful -- because we can begin to formulate a picture of the mind.
This calls to mind Ralph Ellison's admonition to African American newspaper editors to write as though the sheriff is looking over their shoulder reading their work -- because he is.
The illustration is of one of the antebellum literary society buildings at the University of Georgia.