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[BKARTS] Page Turners: Giving students greater access to rare books and manuscripts, incl. artist's books

Interesting article on something we do extensively here at Syracuse University Library?


Page Turners

Institutions are giving students greater access to rare books and manuscripts, opening a new chapter in higher education

The pages of ancient books and manuscripts can reveal all manner of surprising or obscure information, from long-forgotten practices and secrets to the mundane details of everyday life in the 14th century. Some scholars have likened leafing through such treasures to exploring an Egyptian tomb.

Due to their fragility, rare books and documents have generally been reserved for use by scholars and researchers. But according to John Pollack, public services specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that attitude is giving way to a desire to make knowledge more accessible. "The zeitgeist has changed about what these materials are for. Libraries are working to get undergraduates in the door."

It's not simply a matter of letting first-year students gaze at a Renaissance book from a safe distance. There's a new appreciation for the value of hands-on learning, with educators using books, manuscripts, and other documents from as far back as the 12th century.

For example, working with Penn professor David Barnes on a course in the history of medicine, Pollack introduced students to medical books from the 17th and 18th centuries. Students kept track of their sore throats, headaches, and queasy stomachs. Then, they looked up their symptoms in the old texts to determine what a 17th-century doctor might have prescribed. It was an era when prevailing medical theory focused on imbalances of the "humors" ? bile, blood, and phlegm ? as the cause of disease. The experience put students in touch with the practices of the period in a way that no modern textbook could.

Of course, there's some risk in giving a class of 100 undergraduates access to such valuable antiquities, but the library staff trains students in the proper care of the books and closely supervises their use. "Our responsibility is to ensure they can be used not only now, but 50 years from now," says Pollack. Students are allowed to bring pencils into the reading room, but little else. "We like clean hands. Not right from the potato chip bag to the rare book, please."

Some of the library's ancient books are in surprisingly good shape ? better than many cheaply produced books printed just decades ago. While handling can dislodge gold leaf from fragile bindings, not all older books are so delicate. "Medieval manuscripts that date back to the 1400s, if they're written on parchment or vellum, a very sturdy animal skin, can be handled by many people," Pollack says.

An Undergrad's Discovery
On the second day of a sophomore class in the history of the book, University of South Carolina student Elizabeth Nyikos, now 21, held illustrated works from the 13th and 14th centuries in her hands. The experience changed her life.

"I'd never held anything that old before," she says. "I couldn't believe we were actually handling the originals." She was struck by the beauty of the artwork and, as a piano performance major, intrigued by the archaic music notation on one of the manuscripts. After the course ended, Nyikos asked to work with another professor who was researching rare manuscripts from collections across the state. He set her to work on a fragment of medieval music found in the archives of another South Carolina school. Searching through transcriptions of the music of the period, Nyikos discovered that a second fragment, which had been found earlier in Madrid, was part of the same work.
An Oxford professor who'd been advising Nyikos then located a third matching section ? this one found a few years earlier in an Italian collection. For the first time in centuries, thanks to Nyikos' research, the different parts of the composition were once again combined. And Nyikos' work with the rare documents helped earn her a coveted Marshall Scholarship, which she will use to study at Oxford for the next two years.

Pop Icon to Literary Lion
At Lawrence University, a small private college in Appleton, Wis., English literature professor Timothy Spurgin introduces his students to Charles Dickens as readers of the Victorian era would have read him: through chapters published in magazine installments, wedged between advertisements for ointments, buggy whips, and funeral supply emporiums. Spurgin says reading Dickens in the serialized format, ads and all, helps students understand these stories in the context of the times.

That might not be the most important lesson his students take away, though. "They have a sense they picked up in high school, and from the culture generally, that there's great art over here and popular culture over there." But Dickens, revered today as a literary master, started out as a pop culture figure, something Spurgin's students immediately understand when reading commentaries on his life and work in publications of the time.

"Readers followed him as we now follow celebrities," says Spurgin. "All that Entertainment Weekly-type stuff began with authors like Dickens and Byron."

Coffee-Stained First Drafts
When Emory University English professor Ronald Schuchard first introduced a class to rare manuscripts, about 30 years ago, it was by accident. He'd brought a group of students to the University of Nottingham in England for a course called Literature and a Sense of Place, hoping they'd have a chance to peek at a few pages of D. H. Lawrence's papers ? which he expected to find protected in glass cases. Instead, a librarian laid out reams of Lawrence's letters, manuscripts, and other papers for the 19- and 20-year-olds to touch, feel, and read. Even students who'd shown more enthusiasm for British lager than British literature whooped and hollered with delight, says Schuchard. They called across the room to each other with quotes from early drafts of novels such as Sons and Lovers, and marveled at Lawrence's scribbled corrections on what would eventually be counted among the 20th century's great literary works.

"I realized then that my life as an educator was going to change," recalls Schuchard, "that I had to provide students more experiences like these because their excitement was so genuine." Today, Schuchard is a leading proponent of giving undergraduates such opportunities. "They see on pages that are coffee stained and in different? colored inks, partially written and partially typed, all the stages through which the artist struggled. And that makes them better readers."
? Anita Bartholomew

Book Learning
Several years ago, you could have counted on your fingers the number of colleges that allowed undergraduates to access their special collections. Now, schools of every size are eager to get their rare books into what Emory professor Ronald Schuchard, with tongue in cheek, calls "the dangerous hands of undergraduates." Below is a snapshot of what a few schools are doing:

? Students at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, get to explore rare works in British and American literature and the history of science and medicine.
? Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, holds a number of classes that utilize its rare books collections, which range from medieval manuscripts to 17th-century French literature.
? At the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, students have access to archives of significant 20th-century manuscripts, first editions, and periodicals.
? The rare books archive at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, hosts over a dozen classes each year, introducing undergraduates to rare works related to history, literature, and graphic arts.
? West Virginia University in Morgantown offers students training in the use of its rare books - how to handle them and how to interpret the sometimes-obscure contents.
? Students at the University of Texas at Austin are introduced to rare books and manuscripts as part of the art history curriculum.
- A.B.


Peter D. Verheyen
Bookbinder & Conservator, PA - AIC
The Book Arts Web & Book_Arts-L Listserv
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