SHARP’s History

The idea of SHARP was generated in 1991, a year when popular excitement about the future of the book was encouraging scholars to look back at its past. Although questions that we now consider book historical had been active in the study of literature and history for some time, there was no interdisciplinary meeting place, no online discussion forum or website, no newsletter and no journal—that is until Jonathan Rose and Simon Eliot proposed the idea of a new international society for studying the history of authorship, reception, and publishing.

In 1992, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization, the newsletter SHARP News was launched, and SHARP-L (created and managed by Patrick Leary), went live. SHARP’s inaugural conference in 1993 at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center attracted some 130 attendees. At that meeting, a first constitution was adopted and officers were elected. Leslie Howsam, who would later serve as SHARP’s president, recalls “an urgent, even competitive, feeling in the room—a sense that this was what many of us had been looking for and we wanted to be part of it.”

In 1995, another channel of communication was opened when SHARP made its debut on the brand-new World Wide Web. Cobbled together by Leary just in time for the Society’s third conference, SHARP’s website began as little more than a collection of reference documents and links but over the next decade became a destination for teachers and researchers alike.

In 1998, after several years of planning and discussion, the leadership of SHARP undertook to publish an annual journal, Book History. In 1999 the Council of Editors of Learned Journals named Book History “Best New Journal.” The journal continued as an annual hardback through 2020, then expanded to two paperbound issues a year.  Book History Unbound, a space for including digital material and data complementing articles in the journal, launched in 2016. Book History is posted in print to all members as well as being available on Project Muse.

In 2001 the editors of Book History initiated a prize for the best graduate student essay, and in 2004 the DeLong family generously provided the initial years of an annual book prize. The Society also recognized strong book history research by creating a travel fund to our annual conference.

The politics of language, and of varying ways of defining and interpreting the history of the book, posed difficulties but also offered opportunities for collaboration. In 2014, SHARP initiated a program for translation into English of key articles previously available only in their original language. In 2017, this program developed into Lingua Franca, an annual online publication of scholarship on the global history of the book translated for English-language readers.

In 2014, the SHARP Board of Directors decided to give the SHARP archives to the Department of Special Collections and University Archives of the University Libraries at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The archives contain material relating to the foundation and history of SHARP, including publications, awards, and conferences. Past issues of SHARP News have already been made available digitally in the ScholarWorks database of the library.

In 2017 SHARP celebrated its 25th anniversary with creation of an annual contestable fund of US$3,000 to support book history research anywhere in the world.  Lightning grants in support of small local book history initiatives have likewise enabled projects to proceed in many countries as part of SHARP’s increasing focus on a transnational role for the Society. In 2020 SHARP created five annual Research Development Grants for BIPOC Scholars of US$1,000 to support diversity in the field.  2021 saw SHARP respond to the global pandemic with the Society’s first online annual conference, and we began to contemplate whether the Society needs a paid Executive Director.

SHARP remains an entirely member-driven organization that prides itself on crossing disciplinary, geographical, and linguistic boundaries in its explorations of the riches of book history. We hope you will join us in this work by becoming a member and by volunteering for the Executive Council, Board of Trustees, and our ad hoc committees.

Researchers interested in working with the SHARP archives can consult the finding aid online; if you need assistance, please contact SHARP’s Recording Secretary (secretary@sharpweb.org) for further information.