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The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach:
Barbara Halporn's Decade-long Labor of Love

In 1975, when Barbara Halporn, Head of Collection Development in Widener Library, was asked a reference question about the 15th-century Swiss printer Johann Amerbach, she never dreamed that she would publish her own book on the subject. But this past November, the University of Michigan Press published Halporn's The Correspondence of Johann Amerbach: Early Printing in its Social Context. Halporn recently recounted the 25-year path that led to her new book.

Her first foray into the history of Amerbach introduced her to a fascinating array of letters written by authors, library curators, scholars, and customers of Amerbach. "It is a lot of very tedious and often cranky correspondence," Halporn says, "and it really came to life for me in its idiosyncrasies and quirkiness." Intrigued, she looked into other letters—notably Amerbach's correspondence with his 10-year-old daughter, who had been sent away from home during an epidemic, and an extensive exchange of letters with his teenage sons, who were studying at the University of Paris.

Struck by the powerful sense of 15th-century life, Halporn published several articles about Amerbach. Eventually, this research became the basis for her dissertation. "Somewhere between the articles and the dissertation," Halporn recalls, "it dawned on me that there was more, and I was finally bold enough to say, 'I'm working on a book.'"

During her research, Halporn absorbed a great deal about the history of printing—how it worked and how it spread to other places. She read about the people who corresponded with Amerbach, about Amerbach himself, as well as about printers of the time in general. She saw powerful parallels between the communications revolution brought about by the dissemination of printing and that of our own time. "I was experiencing the same kind of radical change, and it made me more sensitive to the changes printing brought to the scholarly world in Amerbach's time."

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