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[BKARTS] Page Turners: Giving students greater access to rare books and manuscripts, incl. artist's books
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- Subject: [BKARTS] Page Turners: Giving students greater access to rare books and manuscripts, incl. artist's books
- From: Peter Verheyen <verheyen@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 8 May 2009 11:07:51 -0400
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Interesting article on something we do extensively here at Syracuse
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
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
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.
Peter D. Verheyen
Bookbinder & Conservator, PA - AIC
The Book Arts Web & Book_Arts-L Listserv
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