An Open Book

Image of Book binding (Ethiopia c.1540 CE)
Friday, February 22, 2019 - 3:04pm
Carla DeMarco

In December, the University of Toronto was awarded CAN $1.25 million by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the initial phase of a collaboration led by Professor Alex Gillespie and co-principal investigators Professor Suzanne Akbari (Centre for Medieval Studies) and Sian Meikle (University of Toronto Libraries Information Technology Services). Together they are undertaking an international research initiative to investigate the origins and development of bookbinding in the project “The Book and the Silk Roads.”

“In this project we will be using non-destructive scientific methods to uncover questions that we have related to these ancient but surviving books, most particularly looking at the binding structures used to turn books from parts into wholes,” says Gillespie, who also holds appointments at the Centre for Medieval Studies and the Department of English on the U of T’s St. George campus.

Academics from several disciplines across U of T and UTM will join the study, and U of T Libraries will build tools and workflows to preserve and share these new research data, along with tools for their visualization and use.

In addition, the project brings together an international network of humanities scholars and scientists from around the world who are looking at various linguistic, religious and national histories. The project will include five separate research clusters that will examine the following: early Roman and South Asian contexts; Dunhuang bindings from the end of the first millennium CE; the influence of Islamic bindings on European decorative binding techniques; fifteenth-century Ethiopian binding; and early Hebrew printed books in Ottoman Istanbul. With these close investigations, the project’s research findings will help to tell a new story about the making and movement of books along the Silk Roads, the ancient network of trade routes connecting the East and West.

“We could not be prouder of Alex and her team for the support the University has received for their efforts and collective scholarly ambition,” says Professor Kent Moore, UTM’s Vice-Principal, Research.

“We recognize our researchers are contributing fresh perspectives to knowledge, and this kind of global, integrated approach Alex is undertaking is what UTM strives for in its aims to change the way the world thinks about and studies a particular field.”

This is not the first significant Mellon Foundation grant for the University of Toronto: in 2015, a project led by Gillespie and Meikle was awarded over $1 million in Canadian funds to support manuscript study and further develop the sort of digital scholarship tools that have become a necessity for scholars in the humanities. They expect that this additional Mellon funding to the university will provide the foundation for a more ambitious future project that will explore the connections of this shift in knowledge transmission and the evolution of the book over time.

University of Toronto receives grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support digital scholarship initiative (2015)
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grants Database, University of Toronto
How Chaucer and gaming fit into this Humanities’ scholar’s research (VIEW to the U podcast, 2017)

Gillespie is enthusiastic about this expanded opportunity to do research with her colleagues, and to connect complex histories across the different disciplines, institutions and countries.

“The picture that will emerge based on this research will be richer and more complex than what we previously knew about the history of the book,” says Gillespie.

“We believe this global approach to premodern book history can transform the story of human communication technology. We’ll be working to reveal networks of relationships, as well as the more complex technological and material entanglements that knit together communities in the past, and that still shape the modern world.”