Environmental book history

Environmental book history

My research is situated at the intersection of environmental history and book history. For the past twenty-five years, I have researched and written about the history of print culture. My earlier work focused on the history of American public libraries as institutions operating within what book historian Robert Darnton has described as a communications circuit of authors, publishers, printers, and readers engaged in the production, collection, distribution, and reception of printed texts. American public libraries emerged in the late nineteenth century, distinguishing themselves from earlier fee-based and private libraries with the motto “free to all.” What my research uncovered, however, was the systematic exclusion of African Americans from many public libraries. My book on the history of segregated public libraries, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), has received two awards.

While working on that project, I became aware of environmental justice issues, particularly in connection with the Houston (Texas) black library branch, which was located near some downtown horse stables on an unpaved street that became almost impassable on rainy days. This led me to the book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Westview Press, 2000) by the pioneering Houston-based scholar Robert D. Bullard and an ongoing interest in social justice in the context not only of libraries but also of the physical environment.

At the same time, my focus on public libraries as institutions of book acquisition and distribution shifted to the books themselves. As a faculty member at the University of Arizona, I became interested in Stewart Udall, an Arizonan who served as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout the 1960s. Udall’s papers are in the University of Arizona library, and I used them to research the production and reception of his book The Quiet Crisis, issued a year after Silent Spring. Knowing of my growing interest in environmental book history, Fernando Elichirigoity, the author of Planet Management: Limits to Growth, Computer Simulation, and the Emergence of Global Spaces (Northwestern University Press, 1999), encouraged me to turn my attention to The Limits to Growth books.

Since then, I have given several papers focusing on the 1972 edition of Limits at national and international environmental and book history conferences. One paper considered the consequences of the research team’s decision to publish The Limits to Growth as an accessible report aimed at an audience of policy makers before publishing the technical report documenting the research for an audience of scholars. Another paper evaluated the significant differences between The Limits to Growth and its French translation.

At the Third World Conference on Environmental History in Brazil in 2019, I presented a paper about an Argentinian critique of the first Limits to Growth book that included a proposal for a social-justice-oriented alternative, the “Latin American World Model.” At the end of the session, an environmental historian in the audience applauded our panel and asked why there aren’t more book history panels at environmental history conferences. I hope my work will contribute to the small but growing literature at the intersection of environmental and book history. Edit

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