In December, Robert Darnton presented on how analysis of 17th- and 18th-century writing provides insight into present-day media culture.
January 8, 2013—Though at first it seemed in his lecture “Blogging Now and Then (250 Years Ago)” as if Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, were going to argue that contemporary media outlets such as the Huffington Post were exactly the same as 17th- and 18th-century aggregations of salacious and often libelous “news”—Darnton surprised much of his audience by claiming that the two have important differences that help trace the history of orally disseminated print and ultimately manuscripts.
“We are living through a revolution as great—even greater perhaps—than that of Gutenberg’s time,” Darnton said. “We are constantly bombarded by information: sound bites, snippets, tweets…but the problem is how to make sense of it all.”
In his widely attended lecture in the Barker Center on December 12, Darnton described how anecdotes (or pieces of information intended for public consumption) exist in time and place—“depending on whichever niches are available.”
Darnton’s field is European history; his specialty, the history of the book. His latest book, Slander: The Art and Politics of Libel in Eighteenth-Century France, was published in 2009.
In “Blogging Now and Then (250 Years Ago),” Darnton described how in 17th-century England, “paragraph men” would sit in coffeehouses waiting for fragments of information, which they would transcribe into paragraphs and submit for publication for a nominal fee. Similarly, in France, men sat in cafes listening for fragments—also short tidbits of somewhat-truthful information—to submit.
While the 17th- and 18th-century newspapers were “seas of print,” he said, modern media is a barrage of photographs and videos. Although Darnton illustrated how the captions accompanying modern-day tabloid images can be scandalous, those of the past were often even more audacious “than that written by Murdoch and others.”
Darnton earned his AB from Harvard and went on to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. After working briefly for The New York Times, he became a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard, served as a professor at Princeton University and re-joined Harvard as the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian. Darnton has written and edited two dozen books, including The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History and Berlin Journal, 1989–1990.
“Bob Darnton represents the intellect, the passion, and the commitment to knowledge that makes the Harvard Library unique,” said Mary Lee Kennedy, senior associate provost for the Harvard Library. “His talk spanned centuries, drawing together an audience from across Harvard and beyond, using information available in our collections and other great libraries of our time.”
"Blogging Now and Then": A Study of How Early News Media Gave Rise to Contemporary Blogging