Visiting PhD student Anna Gielas from the University of St Andrews joined our second Science in Print seminar on Book Production in the 19th and 20th centuries during her stay in the Department in the Lent Term 2017. Here she reflects on what she learned…

They say one should not judge a book by its cover. But after attending the Whipple’s ‘Science in Print’ seminar, I have to say: do judge it by its cover, by all means.


Front cover of Wood’s Common Objects of the Microscope. Bright colours and illustrations are used to attract audiences.

The seminar leaders Dr Sarah Bull and Dr James Poskett showed that well-informed and careful judgments about the physical appearance of historical scientific books can enrich our understanding of their reading and their reception.


The ‘Science in Print’ two-term seminar continued in the Lent Term with a series of sessions on the mechanisation of book production in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Each of the classes began with a concise lecture on a topic delivered by Dr Bull and Dr Poskett. In the second part of the session, students were invited to take a closer look at the topic discussed by viewing several historical science books, carefully selected from the Whipple Library collections.


As students were wandering from one book to another, examining each at their own pace, they were able to discuss individual queries with the seminar leaders. The hands-on approach as well as the dialogue with Drs Bull and Poskett maximised the take-away from each session.

Like most of the other students, I already had some knowledge of nineteenth century natural historical books—but my knowledge mainly pertained to the content of these works as opposed to the physical make-up and the processes which went into producing such a publication. Each week, ‘Science in Print’ showed a new way of approaching the medium of print, such as evaluating format and paper size, setting type and making engravings.

Interested in the history of art, I very much enjoyed the session on different illustration techniques, including Intaglio (etching, engraving) and planographic (lithograph) printmaking processes—and learning which of the processes was preferred in which context, for example, when the author’s emphasis rested with fine details. Available since the late eighteenth century, lithography, for example, was notably cheaper than engravings and used in books on geology, allowing the author to demonstrate the succession of strata and the fossils in fine images rather than through long-winded descriptions in words.

Lithographic prints of shells in Lyell’s Principles of Geology. 

Working on a doctoral dissertation devoted to the editorship of historical scientific journals, the seminar series has reminded me of the importance of a periodical’s physical appearance. Not only did it have an impact on thus readers and thus their reception of the contents, but it can also provide valuable insights into editorial goals and strategies and how they change throughout the years. Additionally, ‘Science in Print’ has alerted me to the multitude of print-related considerations and decisions that editors and their publishers had to make before finally holding the journal in their hands.

Unfortunately, the seminar focused solely on books and left aside other forms of publishing. But Dr Bull and Dr Poskett made me think about the periodical in different ways, for example, about its fluent nature and a journal’s altered, book-like status when bound into volumes.

I deeply enjoyed the haptic experience of working with the wonderful books from Whipple’s Special Collections: science felt very differently—depending on which audience the books addressed. Decorative leather or cheap cloth bindings communicated a book’s status as, for example, the educated elite’s reading material or accessible science writing, cheap enough that skilled working-class people could buy it.

Seeing the books through the eyes of the printer, the type setter, engraver and others helped animate t

he history of print and made me appreciate the book as an object of knowledge even more. I wish to thank Dr Sarah Bull, Dr James Poskett and Anna Jones for enabling me to find this novel access to the historical scientific book.

Anna Gielas