Experiential Education and Exceptional Books, or the Pedagogical Benefits of Using the Archives

Please Note: As Fash explains in her essay, she created a related exhibit and accompanying booklet. The exhibit will be open from February 1- 12, 2016, and more information can be found here.

By Lydia G. Fash, Boston University

Two years ago, as I was learning more about print history, I took a group of students to a replica of the Edes & Gill print-shop located next to the Old North Church in Boston. As I learned, printing is physical labor: you have to pull hard on the bar that brings down the platen—a plate that creates enough pressure to lift the ink off the letters and impress it on the paper. If one doesn’t ink well enough or pull hard enough, the impression is bad. Words might be missing, and letters partially printed. For more than three hundred years, roughly from the 1450s, the decade that Gutenberg invented moveable type, to the 1820s, when steam-powered presses and wood-pulp paper herald a host of technological changes, all printed material was made in this laborious way. Yet few undergraduates know anything about the history of print. Not many graduate students even know much since bibliography, the study of the physical book, has fallen out of favor in the literature programs that would seem its logical home. Despite the fact that I am pushing against the dominant current, I argue that the value of learning about this complicated process and interacting with rare materials cannot be overstated. Examining rare books has a host of benefits. It invites students into the historical moment, introduces them to the past conditions that help form a piece of writing, encourages them to make interdisciplinary connections, corrects some of the faulty assumptions of our digitally-saturated world, and pushes students to create rather than report or summarize others’ research. To illustrate my point, I will relate what has happened when I brought my students to the archives, and I will describe an exhibition that I put together to introduce print history to more undergraduates at Boston University.1

Let me start with a short illustration of how a rare book demonstrates the historical conditions in which it was written. Denis Diderot’s eighteenth-century Encyclopédie, a twenty-eight volume monument of the Enlightenment which helped spur the French Revolution, suffered both suppression and censorship during its printing. Despite these political realities, the book’s creamy paper, huge format, detailed engravings, beautiful font, rich smell, and articulate essays advocate for a new rational and scientific mode of thinking—one that challenged ancient hierarchies of power. Diderot did not know it would do so, but his remarkable and immense encyclopedia helped bring about the French Revolution and the end of the French monarchy. As I told students from Boston University’s College of General Studies (CGS), the Encyclopédie wanted to create knowledge and social change. It did so with clever rhetoric and beautiful images printed by someone with political intuition and connections. In other words, the Encyclopédie and its creation story tie together ideas from the Rhetoric, Humanities, and Social Science classes that first year students take at CGS. When they flipped through engravings at the Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC), my students considered, for the first time, that a work of literature or history can be more than just its words—it can be the physical object and how it came to be too.

Of course, digital archives, like this one of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, have great utility. They allow for the preservation of rare originals by assuring that initial research is done before one consults the physical object. Furthermore, most digital platforms allow for easy searching across databases of materials that live at different institutions in different states and even different countries. But digital archives are deceptive—particularly so to a first year undergraduate—in a way that physical archives are not. While databases present themselves as complete and infallible, they do not and cannot contain everything. And their search capabilities are only as good as their metadata, textual encoding, and site armature. You may not find something you search for because of an invisible-to-the-user coding mistake on the backend. Similarly, the bibliographic information can be wrong or incomplete. GoogleBooks, for example, has any number of volumes that are labeled without a volume number even though they are part of a multi-volume set. If I did not know better, I would think that a single volume comprises the whole work.2 So too in something like the American Periodicals Series or JStor, it is easy to presume an article exists on its own when actually that piece was in conversation with that which was located before and after it in the magazine, newspaper, or journal. As it would have for a historic reader, these collocations shift and shade the meaning of a piece. Digital images also vary in quality and often obscure chain lines, watermarks, and proper color—all things that can be meaningful in research since they provide information about who printed a work, how he printed it, and for whom he printed it. In GoogleBooks, large chunks of pages can even be occluded by hands or fingers.3

More than that, digital archives offer a representation of an object and in so doing change what that object is and what it means. Reading an article or seeing a book through flashing pixels on a screen hides the original’s size and erases the sensation of handling the book—a critical feature of understanding how a piece of the past fits in the past.4 Last August, I was lucky enough to examine a number of mid-eighteenth century American almanacs. Jammed with information about tides, ferries, weather, and moons, these small pamphlets were inexpensive to print and to buy. And after consulting it all year, colonists usually took it off the hearth hook where it hung and tossed it into the fire. For that type of document Benjamin Franklin penned “The Way to Wealth,” which only later became part of the collection of sayings called Poor Richard’s Almanack.5 When given the opportunity to compare the items, students immediately understand the huge difference between a contemporary Dover Thrift edition of Poor Richard and an eighteenth-century almanac from Franklin’s print shop. Despite many lamentations about this generation’s illiteracy, my experience shows that students are drawn to rare and wonderful objects. In fact, in a visit to the archive, many of my students gravitated towards the Kelmscott Chaucer. Although they had never previously heard of William Morris or the Arts and Crafts Movement, and although no one admitted a partiality for Middle English poetry, these students admired the volume’s uncontested elegance. They derived pleasure in feeling the heavy paper and perfect impressions and detailed engravings of the folio-size book. (Indeed, in letterpress printing, reading a book becomes a tactile experience because each piece of type has bitten into the paper, a phenomenon that disappears with off-set printing.)

How to search and find is another lesson of the physical archive. The search function on most digital databases gives the impression that there is a single solution to each query. When students get a hit to their query, they skim it and then use it. Because physical archives are more up front about their curation and idiosyncrasies, they encourage better research—not founded upon the “I’m feeling lucky” single solution, but on many possible solutions. Eminent scholar of American literature, Cathy Davidson has called “sitting in the American Antiquarian Society gazing in wonder at every edition of Charlotte Temple” contained in that archive “one of the greatest moments of my academic life.”6 These copies of one of the earliest American blockbuster novels came “in different sizes, spanning well over a hundred years in the life of [a single] bestseller” and “provided a visceral, visual history of printing in America.” As Davidson knows well, bibliography can tell a scholar many things, including, if there is marginalia present, how a piece of writing was received or considered. These marginal notes are the primary interest of examining the books of prominent historical figures, like John Adams.7

As the bibliographer’s credo holds, every copy of a book from the hand-press era is different because it was printed and assembled by hand, and when scholars are lucky, because it retains exciting signs of how it was read and used. Hence, looking at duplicate copies of the same edition can be worthwhile. As G. Thomas Tanselle has pointed out, “sometimes the differences [between two copies] do not appear to have any significance, but at other times they are important, and in order to discover which situation exists in any instance one must examine copies that seem at first to be duplicates.”8 Bibliographers, following Falconer Madan, warn of the “duplicity of duplicates” and urge scholars to pay attention to the small changes that happen between different volumes.9 Such study is relevant to all fields of study—not just literary criticism. For careful examination of books tells us how knowledge was circulated, controlled, and received.

Physical archives can have another benefit over digital databases: living, breathing, helpful, and knowledgeable archivists. The provenance of an item, so often invisible in digital databases, can frequently be uncovered in a physical archive where real people can tell stories of item acquisitions or item life. (An archivist once told me that the rare first edition copy of Washington Irving’s Sketch Book which I was examining was bought by an avid fisherman who liked that Irving’s collection contains a sketch called “The Angler.” Never mind that the collection was the first transatlantic bestseller written by a native-born American!) Origin stories elucidate the logic behind an object’s inclusion within an archive and can tell us much about what is valued and why. Houghton Library, the rare book library at Harvard, for example, holds the first edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837) but Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Tales and Sketches (1835) remains in Widener, Harvard’s general library. Responsible for introducing Nathaniel Hawthorne to Herman Melville at her Berkshire home, Sedgwick was so famous and respected that members of Queen Victoria’s court trekked to Western Massachusetts to meet her, and Edgar Allan Poe eulogized Sedgwick as “one of our most celebrated and most meritorious writers.”10 Still, while early twentieth century scholars canonized Hawthorne, they eschewed Sedgwick and her female contemporaries—a fact reflected in the books transferred from Widener to Houghton when the latter opened in 1941.

After our trip to HGARC last year, a young woman in my rhetoric course got quite interested in why and how things end up in an archive. Pursuing this line of thought and with the use of a vintage magazine from 1931, she wrote a wonderful paper on our collective visual memory of the Great Depression. Although her magazine, The Delineator, offered happy images of fashionable dresses and domestic arrangements for middle-class American women, the widening Depression was forcing many into severe poverty. As twenty-first-century Americans, we can clearly see how The Delineator represents the consumerist desires rather than the economic realities of most 1930s Americans. Hence, as the student pointed out, to us the hardships of the Great Depression seem much better captured by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, the two Farm Security Administration photographers whose work constitutes the standard visual archive of the period. Yet while these images seem to represent, accurately and fully, the terrible conditions of the 1930s, Lange and Walker composed and posed their subjects.11 Moreover, she noted, there have been multiple selection processes that inform what we visually remember of the Great Depression or any other event. The photographer favors certain images over others, so too do subsequent editors, archivists, curators, and viewers. We see these photographs so much because they reside in and are circulated by the Library of Congress. As the thesis of this student paper begins to show, archives and rare materials also provide a path for another pedagogically useful lesson: how to participate in a scholarly conversation as an equal. Students come into college—and even graduate school—knowing how to synthesize and parrot information. Even when they cannot distinguish a reliable source from an unreliable source, they have reverence for what they perceive as authority (or at least proficiency), often to the extreme of not recognizing their own ability to contribute new ideas and information. When we give students primary materials, we put them in an original relationship with the past. If it is an unusual object, chances are that no one will have written specifically about it. The student must then decide what to think and how to act.12

I am not the only one to discover this truth. For many years, Richard Rouse, Medievalist and Professor Emeritus at UCLA, taught paleography (the study of old handwriting) to his graduate students through photographic plates and manuals. When UCLA finally had enough materials, he started taking his classes into the archives. All of his students reported appreciating the time with medieval manuscripts, but one student was able to articulate why the class was so intellectually significant: “All my graduate career,” she said, “everything that I have learned about medieval manuscripts has been mediated by someone else, such as the author of the textbook about manuscripts of the teacher of the course on manuscript evidence, the compiler of a manual, an exhibit label in a library, or a guide at a museum exhibition. This is the first time that I have been required to formulate my own opinion, independent of others, directly on the basis of what I can touch and see before me.”13 Empowering a student to create knowledge is the obligation of university educators, especially those who wish to make their students informed and thoughtful citizens. Archives help in that aim.

Because of my belief in the pedagogical utility of the archive, I curated a small exhibition on the transition from manuscript to print for students at Boston University. The exhibition, “From Manuscript to Moveable Type: The Information Shift that Created Modern Learning,” is on display from February 1 to 12, 2016 on the first floor of the Boston University Mugar Memorial Library and contains materials held in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. As Kathleen Vandenberg has written in Impact, the Rhetoric course in January Boston-London Program at CGS teaches students about the monumental shift from orality to literacy.14 Even though that class does not have time to discuss it directly, there is a corresponding shift from writing books with a quill and ink to printing them on a printing press. “From Manuscript to Moveable Type” traces this shift through four rare objects: a vellum leaf of a hymnal manuscript (c. 9th or 10th century), a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1454, the first book printed with moveable type in Europe), a leaf of a Book of Hours (15th or 16th century, with printed images and hand-written words), and Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1623, from the First Folio, the first collected printing of Shakespeare’s plays.)15 These items are on display accompanied by an informational booklet (which I authored) that points out various physical features of the objects, explains how such items would have been made, and poses questions designed to make the students draw their own conclusions.

So how do the four objects that I’ve chosen show any of the ideas I have discussed? On the 9th or 10th century hymnal, students will be able to see parchment (specially prepared leather for writing), rubrication (the act of drawing in red letters or section marks), and the scribal hand. They will receive explanations for how this style of writing is dictated by the flow of ink in a quill (a pen made from a feather), how laborious it is to transform an animal hide into a writeable surface. The accompanying booklet will also explain how printers originally left space for hand-rubrication (the creation of larger, decorative, often red letters that became a sort of navigational tool). As printing became more and more common, books would go into circulation without this additional embellishment. What remained was a space before a section—what we now call a paragraph indentation. With the Gutenberg leaf, students will see how print long tried to mimic the scribal hand even as the technology would fundamentally alter human thinking and learning.16 Indeed, there are stories that people believed the Bible to be manuscript until they saw many identical copies, and then, some scholars have asserted, laypersons thought the Bibles must have been made with the help of the Devil.17 Elizabeth Eisenstein describes how many others, in contrast, associated “printing with divine rather than diabolical powers.”18 Either way, it is clear that the book was seen as magical.

Students will also notice that this Bible has no verse numbering, and they will understand how the codex (i.e. the book format) is itself an ingenious technology developed through many years and hugely influenced by printing.19 The Gutenberg Bible has no signature marks (i.e. the marks that tell a binder how to assemble the folded, printed pages), no page numbers, no index, no table of contents, and no title page. All such features that help us understand and navigate a book come later. This Gutenberg leaf also shows razor marks—and exists as a single leaf—reflecting the fraught history of selling and collecting rare books. Someone clearly sliced out a handsome initial from the preceding page, and then in 1921 Edward A. Newton and others dismembered an incomplete Bible so as to sell each leaf and make a large profit.20 (Newton, a New York bookseller, entitled his book—the leaf paired with Newton’s “Bibliographical Essay”—The Noble Fragment. Archivists and bibliographers quip that the project is actually The Ignoble Fragment.)

The fifteenth or sixteenth-century manuscript, the third object, dispels the tempting myth that the sea-change from manuscript to print happens overnight. Instead, the piece, a page that has two psalms and some other prayers, shows how printing—and printing technologies like woodcuts—can and did co-exist with manuscript, particularly in religious texts where manuscript retained its cachet for quite some time. Finally, the First Folio, of which Boston University holds a single play rather than the full volume, tells us about page size and folding—a Folio refers to a printed page that is folded a single time to make two leaves and four pages. And it shows us that in 1623, when most English printers had abandoned the Gothic Black Letter for the clear Roman typefaces, printers are still using ligatures, characters that mimic script abbreviations by combining two letters into one (like those seen here: check your fast facts on Fiji Island for “check your fast facts on Fiji Island”), thereby saving a little paper but infinitely complicating the setting, replacing, and maintaining of type. (Ligatures are essentially skeuomorphs, something that retains what originally served a useful function—speeding up manuscript copying—as a merely decorative feature. Most house shutters, which no longer shut, are similarly skeuomorphs.)

The First Folio also reflects a history of editorial interventions in our Shakespeare. In 1623 there are no line numbers, stage notes, footnotes, or dramatis personae, features which start to arrive in the eighteenth century. But unlike in the Gutenberg Bible, there is a title page and there are page numbers (sometimes wrong—page 88 is marked as page 85). The dirty fore-edge and corners show that this piece was read and used by many, and close inspection reveals how the dividing line between the two columns of text is made up of a number of individual pieces of type, each with a vertical line the height of one row of characters, that leave an indentation in the rag-linen paper (which has water marks and chain lines). Moreover, the First Folio invites questions about the point of publishing Shakespeare’s play. Was this copy ever used to stage a production? Is that why the edges are dirty? Was this Folio read as High Literature in the seventeenth century as it is now? The exhibition does not seek to answer all these questions. With luck, some number of students will then wander to the archives at Boston University, the Boston Public Library, or elsewhere and touch the rare manuscripts and books waiting there.

While I have enumerated the limits of digital archives, I have provided a number of links to digital repositories. And I would not have a reader think that I eschew any use of what can be rich and exciting resources. Teaching students how responsibly to use the many digital resources available to them is, and should be, a standard part of first year writing courses. Clearly, college students need to learn that Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, and they need to practice searching for reliable, peer-reviewed articles in whatever databases their school subscribes to. What I am saying here, though, is that archives and rare materials provide a pedagogically useful corrective to our steeped-in-the-digital students. Pulling them away from their computer screens and smartphones helps them understand the limitations of the digital as much as it helps them appreciate the pre-digital. Most “Generation Z” students operate as if Google can and does serve as the access point to all knowledge. In contrast, the fact that a physical archive like HGARC does not contain anything is obvious—and works as an analogy for the digital resources at the Boston University Mugar Memorial library.

After a trip to HGARC where Martin Luther King’s school notebooks and blue-book exams were out, my students reported feeling an inspiring kinship with a remarkable figure who once attended their school and doodled in the paper margins during class. (And did extremely well on the exams that he chose to archive.) As one student later wrote: looking at this material “reminded me that before he was a civil right activist, he was just a student like us who took notes and blue book exams. It made me wonder whether I could do something or write something worth being preserved in an archive.”21 I think that she can.

  1. Despite the ease of getting students excited about rare materials, opportunities to work with them are infrequent or non-existent even at schools like BU and in cities like Boston where access to archives is easy. It doesn’t have to be so. As Jean Lee Cole has shown, one can put together an archive of materials “on the fly and on the cheap” to transport students into the past and appoint them creators of knowledge even when they attend a school without any special collections. See “History of the Book in the American Literature Classroom: On the Fly and On the Cheap.” In Teaching Bibliography, Textual Criticism, and Book History, edited by Ann R. Hawkins (Brookfield, VT: Pickering & Chatto, 2006), 58–64.
  2. On GoogleBooks I have also found a volume two mislabeled as a volume one and an 1876 copy of Hawthorne’s Marble Faun entitled “Hawthorne’s Works: The marble ble faun”—fantastically inconsistent capitalization accompanied by an egregious typo.
  3. See Krissy Wilson’s blog of images of hands and other goofs (and some unexpected treasures) in GoogleBooks scans here: http://theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com/ Other sites also exist that catalogue hands in GoogleBooks.
  4. For example the scandalous Boston publication Fruits of Philosophy (1832), a sex and contraception manual, was a mere 8 centimeters high because it was meant to be hidden in pockets or drawers. In contrast, John Audubon’s The Birds of America (1824-1837), an impressive 100 centimeters tall series of volumes, displayed all of the featured birds at life-size.
  5. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin started, has some wonderful on-line images of Franklin’s almanacs. See http://www.librarycompany.org/BFWriter/poor.htm
  6. Cathy N. Davidson, “Tales from the Vault: From Movable Type to Searchable Text.” Common-Place 3.3 (April 2003). http://www.common-place.org/vol-03/no-03/tales/tales-1.shtml.
  7. The John Adams library is owned, and has been digitized, by the Boston Public Library. See http://www.johnadamslibrary.org/
  8. G. Thomas Tanselle, Literature and Artifacts (Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1998), 52.
  9. Quoted in Tanselle, 52-53.
  10. Quoted in Carolyn Karcher, “Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Literary History.” In Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives, edited by Lucinda L. Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003) 9.
  11. Many thanks to Annie Umer for permission to summarize her essay.
  12. A notable scholarly example is Arthur Hobson Quinn, who in looking at the original letters Edgar Allan Poe wrote, discovered that Poe’s literary executer (some joke executor) Rufus Griswold had fabricated quotations and re-dated letters in his concerted and successful campaign to smear Poe as a mentally unstable braggart, liar, and drug addict. Our contemporary ideas of Poe are still influenced by Griswold’s biased portrait.
  13. Quoted in Richard Rouse, Why Teach with Medieval Manuscripts. Los Angeles: UCLA Library, 2012.
  14. See Kathleen Vandenberg, “Lessons for Creating an Interdisciplinary Program: Rhetoric Course Design.” IMPACT, Summer 2015. http://sites.bu.edu/impact/previous-issues/impact-summer-2015/lessons-for-creating-an-interdisciplinary-program-rhetoric-course-design-by-kathleen-vandenberg-boston-university/.
  15. A leaf refers to a single page, both front (recto) and back (verso). For a partially digitized First Folio held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, click on the image of the First Folio here: http://www.folger.edu/publishing-shakespeare
  16. Elizabeth Eisenstein has famously argued that, while manuscript writing co-exists with printing technologies for many years, the advent of moveable type fundamentally shifts human thinking and learning. Whereas medieval monastic scribes could spend years copying a single text and found in that work a form of devotion, printers could produce many copies of a single book from each type-setting. The result was an explosion of reading materials, an expansion of the university system, and more educated laypeople. Spelling became increasingly standardized. Memorization and memorizing strategies were de-emphasized as the notion of an autodidact, someone who taught himself through reading, came into being. Correspondingly, there was a move from intensive reading, that long, slow study of a single book, to extensive and comparative reading, the study of many books, their interrelations, and their contradictions. These changes reinforced each other: as the university system grew, the community of scholars grew, and both groups—the universities and the scholars—influenced and were influenced by what the printers were printing. Moreover, printing challenged established class structures because printers, who climbed up the class ladder as the centuries progressed, forged alliances between rich merchant-backers (in many ways the first real venture capitalists since they would fund a nascent project to make a later profit on the sales) and learned scholars. For example, funded by wealthy investors, Aldus Manutius, a late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Venetian printer, worked with Erasmus to produce many of the classical texts that we now have, including first editions of Euripides, Aristotle, and Aristophanes. Had printers like Manutius not found, translated, and printed these classical manuscripts, much learning from antiquity would now be lost. And the Renaissance could not have happened. See Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. 1 vol. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  17. Eisenstein quotes E.P. Goldschmidt’s telling of this tale, but points out that the story may be unfounded. See Eisenstein, 49-50.
  18. Eisenstein, 50.
  19. The codex, with its pagination, index, and portability, is a highly developed technology that, as Jerome McGann has pointed out, these digital repositories must strive to mimic in usability and elegance. McGann, Jerome. “A Note on the Current State of Humanities Scholarship.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (January 1, 2004): 409–13.
  20. That we can and do use bodily language to describe the codex—it has a spine and a head and a foot, and it can be dismembered—shows our profound identification with the technology of the book.
  21. Many thanks to Chelsea Perez for permission to quote her.