James Granger: Spiritual Father of Wikipedia and the Maker Movement?

I follow Stephen Fry on Twitter (@stephenfry, natch). Among the many things he does, he also hosts a wonderful quiz show in the UK called QI. Lately, he’s been getting the audience of the show to shout out a word in unison, posting the recording on Audioboo, and having his Twitter followers guess what the word is. No prizes, just a bit of fun.

Recently, the word was “grangerise” (or “grangerize” for us colonials). This was a bit of a headscratcher for me, I’d never heard it before. After a little searching, I discovered the word comes from the Rev. James Granger (1723-1776). The UK’s National Portrait Gallery has a couple of pictures of the man here.

He’s known in particular for a biographical history of England. Wikipedia has the full title of the work as:

A Biographical History of England, from Egbert the Great to the Revolution: consisting of characters disposed in different classes, and adapted to a methodical catalogue of engraved British Heads: intended as an essay towards reducing our biography to system, and to a help to the knowledge of portraits: interspersed with a variety of anecdotes, and memoirs of a great number of persons, not to be found in any other biographical work. With a preface, shewing the utility of a collection of engraved portraits to supply the defect, and answer the various purposes, of medals, by the Rev. J. Granger, vicar of Shiplake in Oxfordshire. (Fifth edition, six volumes, London, 1824).

James Granger – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (17 May 2009)

And that’s just the title, mind you.

What’s really remarkable about the book, however, is that Granger deliberately left blank pages in the book. He wanted people to be able add to his work, by putting in their own clippings from other books and sources. It started a whole hobby movement, apparently, which is where the word “grangerise” came from.

Granger’s entry in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica has a bit more information, and the National Library of Australia has a collection of Granger’s works, including a grangerized copy of his Biographical History of England. There are references to other grangerized copies elsewhere as well. (It would be wonderful to find scans of these copies somewhere, but so far no luck.) Other than that, there doesn’t appear to be much more about the Rev. Granger online. Anyone else have more info? Please post it in the comments.

Perhaps Granger sought and encouraged public contribution to his work, because he knew that many people would have more access to information he didn’t, and would be able to supplement his work in ways he couldn’t. He may have also wanted to give people the freedom to take his work as a theme and create their own variations on it.

Interesting how these ideas have manifested themselves over time, not only in the publicly editable Wikipedia, but also in the maker, hacker and DJ aesthetics of creating derivative works. Meanwhile, people are still riffing on the idea of the modification of a physical book. One in particular comes to mind – Humument – and I’ve seen other examples of artists modifying books.

Good on ya, Rev.