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Laureation address - Professor Robert Darnton

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Professor Robert Darnton with Professor Andrew Pettegree

Professor Robert Darnton with Professor Andrew Pettegree

Robert Darnton
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws

Laureation by Professor Andrew Pettegree
School of History
Tuesday 22 June 2010


Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Robert Darnton for the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

It did not require the introduction of Apple’s iPad last month to remind us that we are living through an era of extraordinary technological change.

The internet, the iPhone, Kindle and now iPad add up to a veritable communications revolution. And noone knows where it will take us.

At a presentation at my children’s school recently we were told that future school children will have done 75% of their lifetime’s hand writing before they are 16. It is not that they will be illiterate – they will still read. It is just that writing will become a redundant skill, rather like long division. All they will use will be a keyboard or touchpad – never a pen.

No-one knows what these new technologies will do to the old, and what it means for universities. But if we want a wise guide in these turbulent waters, we can do no better than to be guided by today’s honorand, Professor Robert Darnton. Professor Darnton is one of those rare scholars who straddles the world of the librarian and the scholar. A lifetime of learning and writing led him in 2007 to accept the position of librarian at Harvard University, undoubtedly the world’s greatest university library. He knows about books from every angle: from his scholarly work, which has substantially reshaped the field of book history, from his work at Harvard, and as a public commentator on the challenges of the new media age.

Robert Darnton made his name as a historian of culture. His collection of tales of Parisian low life, The Great Cat Massacre, introduced the world to a remarkable talent. In this book Darnton explained how nursery tales, processions, and yes, the murder of cats, all played their part in a highly stratified and ritualised society. The society in question was France in the years before the French revolution, the period when the Enlightenment co-existed uneasily with an entrenched aristocratic political system. In The Great Cat Massacre Darnton showed us how all levels of society, the workmen and the leisured classes, dealt with these contradictions in their work and recreation.

This was the prelude to what was Darnton’s most remarkable book, The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. This was the age of Rousseau and Voltaire, two of the most powerfully influential minds in shaping the modern age. But as Darnton discovered through trawling the archives, theirs were not the books readers preferred. Rather they read works of fiction delicately described in the trade as ‘philosophical’, but in fact raunchy, bawdy and sometimes downright pornographic.

If discovered these bawdy bodice-rippers were meant to be handed to the public executioner to be ritually burned. But in fact huge quantities circulated in France, mostly published in Switzerland and imported through a well organised trade network. It took Darnton twenty-five years of archival work to reconstruct this lost world, since many of these books are now very rare: these are precisely the sort of books respectable libraries did not keep. The effort was surely worth it. For this book, beautifully written as well as profoundly insightful, poses the question of what our tastes tell us about society. How often are historians missing the essence of the thing when we concentrate only on the best minds, the most important events, and the most enduring works of art? Perhaps we learn more when we consider the ephemeral, the transient, and the disreputable.

Robert Darnton had begun his career as a young reporter on the New York Times, on the crime desk. The young Darnton had to work out which murders were likely to make the paper before bothering his hard bitten veteran colleagues: otherwise he risked being chewed out for disturbing their poker game. It taught him how the modern media worked, and how much the darker side of society reveals its real character. From journalism he progressed to Harvard, to Princeton and then back to Harvard and the Widener Library. Here he has to grapple with some of the most potent questions of the information age. Is Google a benign leviathan, or a potentially dangerous monopoly? How are we to continue to capture knowledge when so much is disseminated through transient media, such as email, Twitter and Facebook? And if so much information can be exchanged electronically, what is the point of gathering together scholars and students in one place – which, as I hardly need to remind a gathering of newly impoverished parents – is very expensive.

Merely to pose such a question is to remind ourselves that no-one really knows where technology will take us. For years now people have been predicting the death of the book. Yet the book survives even as new technologies vastly expand our range of possibilities. If universities and society are to make the best of these opportunities, we will do well to listen to wise guides like today’s honorand. Robert Darnton, historian and commentator on public affairs, has helped shape and guide that debate. Let us hope he long continues to do so.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to scholarship and public affairs, I invite you to confer on Professor Robert Darnton of Harvard University the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.