American Contact: Intercultural Encounter and the History of the Book


April 23-25, 2020

Princeton University

University of Pennsylvania

Project organizers

Rhae Lynn Barnes (Princeton University, History)

Glenda Goodman (University of Pennsylvania, Music)

Aaron M. Hyman (Johns Hopkins University, History of Art) 


CFP: American Contact is a multi-disciplinary symposium that invites scholars to discuss the use of material texts in cross-cultural encounters in the Americas. We seek to explore how texts—broadly defined to include not only books but textual artifacts and material culture including visual art, musical scores, and various kinds of handwork—have facilitated (1) communication across cultural divides, (2) the creation and transmission of knowledge, (3) the performance of both colonization and resistance, and (4) the creation of alphabetic and alternative literacies from the eras of contact, conquest, and colonization through the twentieth century in both North and South America.

American Contact proceeds from the fact that “text” was put under particular pressure in the Americas, where we find rich histories of negotiation between cultures defined by widely divergent linguistic and notational traditions. It is for this reason, we suggest, that the manifold ways that texts operate come into focus precisely at such moments of intercultural encounter. Although they have often remained marginal to studies of “the book,” historically centered on Europe, material texts from the Americas emerge as central to their material, geographic, and conceptual reorientation.

The symposium will take place at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania on April 23-25, 2020. Support for travel and lodging will be offered to participants in need.

The symposium is part of a broader multiyear Humanities Council Global Initiative that will result in three products: the symposium, a published volume of short, single object-focused essays (to be submitted for consideration at the University of Pennsylvania Press’s Material Texts series in August 2021), and an accompanying digital humanities website focused on how to teach with those objects.

As the first step in that process, the symposium will take an unconventional form. We invite abstracts of 250 words for 10-12 minute papers that respond to the American Contact’s prompt, advocating for the capacity of one particular object and its biography to yield insight into the function of material texts in intercultural encounters and challenge or expand normative definitions of text, textuality, “the book,” and/or reading and writing practices. Presenters will be asked to focus on only ONE textual material object (using a maximum of THREE images, including details and comparisons) to address these themes. These short, focused presentations are meant to incite both depth of analysis and methodological provocation.  Our intention is that range and diversity will come through the assemblage of otherwise highly focused presentations from across the Americas and the centuries.

Abstracts, CVs, and questions can be sent to by August 1, 2019. Please indicate whether your object is housed at one of the hosting institutions.

This symposium has been generously funded by the Humanities Council Global Initiative; Humanities Council Magic Grant; Center for Collaborative History; American Studies; English Department (Princeton University); University Research Foundation and School of Arts and Sciences (University of Pennsylvania); Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography (Rare Book School at the University of Virginia).

Johnathan Edwards Colection
Jonathan Edwards Collection, Rare Books Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; Photograph: Ricardo Barros


Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).