An Intellectually Curious Trip to the UK

Program poster for the Book Index conference

The conference program

During late June and early July, I had a fruitful and refreshing trip to the UK, where I shared my research with the scholarly community, visited a lot of library exhibitions, and read primary source materials for my research project.  First, I was privileged to take part in The Book Index, a two-day conference organized by the Centre for the Study of the Book at Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.  The book index is, admittedly, not something that immediately draws the attention of many researchers.  But when this small but robust group of index-loving researchers gathered together, something wonderful happened.  The conference’s stellar program covered a broad range of topics illuminating the historical and intellectual significance of the index, an information management tool developed before the modern age and later practiced and used in diverse ways.  In their highly erudite yet engaging presentations, the two keynote speakers, Ann Blair (Carl H Pforzheimer University Professor, Harvard University) and Emily Steiner (Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania), discussed the technical and human aspects of indexing practices in early modern Europe and medieval England respectively.  

As a researcher of book history from an intercultural perspective, I am always fascinated by the creativity to be found in a translated book’s paratext (including its index!).  So I contributed to the comparative perspective of this conference by examining the back-of-the-book indices of science and medical translations in 19th-century China.  I attempted to answer the question: what strategies did translators develop to reconcile the “untranslatable” with a book culture that did not traditionally include the index.  Professor Florence Hsia (University of Wisconsin-Madison) delivered another China-related talk, on the four-corner method 四角號碼檢字法 (sijiao haoma jianzi fa), a system of indexing Chinese characters invented by Wang Yunwu (1888-1979) 王雲五 in the 1920s.  Moreover, I appreciated the practical aspect of the conference: it also included a roundtable session of professional indexers from the Society of Indexers.  They shed light on the changes in the profession in recent decades and revealed hidden stories behind the index, which we all take for granted in present-day books.  Interestingly, one of the Society’s members even put together a Storify account, pulling together many lively tweets posted by the conference participants.  Take a look at these tweets and see how the phenomenon known as the index fascinated every one of us!  My favorite tweet was “There’s not one paper on indexing I wouldn’t want to hear.”  Which is yours?

The conference coincided with the grand opening of the Bodleian Library’s Which Jane Austen? exhibition, commemorating the 200th anniversary of her death.  I learned facts about Jane Austen from beyond the margins of her enormously popular novels; for example, that the foreign travels of her relatives contributed greatly to her development of a global mindset. This also marked the beginning of my library exhibition visiting journey in the UK.  Also at the Bodleian, I joined a tour of the exhibition Book Index, A Short History of the, led by its curator and the conference organizer Dr. Dennis Duncan.  Later I went on to London and Cambridge and viewed all the exhibitions at the British Library, Wellcome Collection, Royal College of Physicians, and Cambridge University Library.  This time I tried to experience the exhibitions not only as an interested viewer, but also from a curator’s perspective.  Since my own experience of curation and execution of the Chinese dance exhibit last year, attending library exhibitions, while remaining a matter of intellectual enjoyment, has also become a work-related hobby of mine.  

It may look like I was physically active throughout my trip, transporting myself from one exhibit to the next.  But actually, I was rather immobile most of the time, stationing myself in libraries and archives (with an active mind of course!) to research the complexities of “useful knowledge” and its production and dissemination in late-Qing China during the 19th century.  Before flying home, I had the chance to return to the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge, a renowned center for the study of the history of East Asian science, technology, and medicine where I was a Mellon research fellow in 2009.  There I presented my preliminary research on the materiality of “useful knowledge” by focusing on wall charts, a distinct type of printed matter that was introduced to China in the 19th century.