Our Story

In 2018, our project began with a question: What makes a book a book? What relations, people, and things produce this fascinating artefact and carrier of knowledge? Our new project, Hidden Stories: New Approaches to the Local and Global History of the Book (2022-2026), connects a network of more than 130 collaborators and 60 institutions around the world gathered to answer these questions.  We work to listen to, care for, and share stories that books hold – stories that reveal both local histories and global connections.

With generous funding from the Mellon Foundation, and co-located at the University of Toronto and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Hidden Stories searches for the history of books in 9 different locations around the world: 

Dunhuang • Ethiopia and Coastal East Africa • Global Judaica • Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands of North America • The Himalayas • Kairouan • Kashmir and the Indus Valley • Mesoamerica and Mexico • Northumbria

ln our project, we learn alongside Indigenous community members about the knowledge conveyed by wampum belts; we work with biophysicists and forensic chemists to detect damage to – and forgeries of – old books; we talk to dendrochronologists about the grains of wood that become visible when ancient books are microCT scanned; and we spend time with Ge’ez liturgical books alongside members of the Ethiopian diaspora. 

Our Path

In our approach to the history of the book, we rely on cutting-edge technologies ranging from reflectography to micro-CT and computer vision. We also depend on the expertise and traditional practices of communities of origin for whom these books are irreplaceable cultural heritage. Combining different modes of knowledge offers us a unique insight into books and their place in human history.

Hidden Stories is an ever-expanding network of librarians, craftspeople, conservators, traditional knowledge keepers, and faculty across scholarly disciplines — from history, literature, and religion to genomics, dentistry, and engineering. We come together to find commonalities, explore differences, share knowledge, and gain new perspectives on our own areas of expertise.

Our Vision

Since the conception of the project, we have committed to a set of goals and practices that define our innovative approach to humanities research. 

  • Community outreach: We develop lasting, meaningful relationships with the institutions, researchers, and community members who share our passion for books.
  • Foreground lived knowledge of books: We come together with communities of origin to discuss traditional care practices of books. We have learned from their knowledge of how to use and care for materials such as birchbark, pigments, paper, and the place of the book in their histories. These experiential modes of knowing provide a clearer picture of how books were produced, used, and kept over time.
  • Sustainable conservation and equitable access: We seek to preserve books and their contents within their communities of origin and develop sustainable research practices. We work to ensure equitable access to heritage materials and maintain the data rights of communities of origin. At the same time, we strive to make the global history of the book widely available (where appropriate) through open-source code and open data repositories, academic publications, and public-facing videos and exhibits.