Events & exhibitions
event • Conferences & Symposia

Why Books?

  • Friday, October 29, 2010
  • Radcliffe Gymnasium
    10 Garden Street
    Cambridge, MA 02138
An audience gathers in front of a screen that says "Why Books?"—the title of the event.
Photo by Tony Rinaldo

“Why Books?” brought together speakers from a variety of disciplines—from literature and history to sociology and computer science—to probe the form and function of the book in a rapidly changing media ecology. Although cultural commentators today speak of “the book” as if it were a well-defined term, its boundaries have been and remain shifting and porous; therefore, one aim of this conference was to expose the complexities and internal contradictions of the “before” against which the digital-era “after” is defined.

In order to look forward to the future(s) of the book, the conference opened with a dialogue on the public-policy implications of new media forms, looking in particular at Harvard’s own response to current technological, legal, and commercial developments. The three panels that followed explored some of the major functions that we identify with books today: production and diffusion (of texts and images, of knowledge and information); storage and retrieval (of widely varying content in different media and genres); and reception and use (including, but by no means limited to, reading).

A woman and two men sit at a panel table in conversation.

Welcome Remarks and Opening Conversation


Barbara J. Grosz (Dean, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study)

Ann Blair '84, BI '99 (Harvard University)

Leah Price '91, RI '07 (Senior Advisor to the Humanities Program, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Harvard University);


"Future Formats of Texts: E--books and Old Books" with Robert Darnton (Harvard University) and Stuart Shieber RI '07 (Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)

Moderated by Nancy F. Cott (Director, Schlesinger Library)

Two men sitting at a panel table.

Session 1: Storage and Retrieval

Adrian Johns (University of Chicago) and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland), moderated by John Palfrey (Harvard Law School)

An audience gathers in front of a screen that says

Session 2: Circulation and Transmission

Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand) and Meredith L. McGill (State University of New Jersey)

Moderated by David D. Hall (Harvard Divinity School)

A full audience sit in an event space, listening to the speakers.

Session 3: Reception and Use and Closing Remarks

Paul Duguid (University of California at Berkeley School of Information) and Elizabeth Long (Rice University)

Moderated by Homi K. Bhabha RI '05 (Harvard University)


Peter Stallybrass (University of Pennsylvania), discussant Charles E. Rosenberg (Harvard University)

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