Early editions in scholarship and pedagogy

Thus far I haven’t really discussed my other work. Yes, I am happily a new instructor of British Lit at Queens College, but I’m also a research fellow in a private collection of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century materials housed in the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center. One of my duties in the collection is to connect the items there with scholars who could make use of them, either in their own work or in their classes. In doing so, I’ve found that many of those I’ve contacted think using early editions and resources sounds like a really great idea, but they’re not exactly sure why one would take the time to do so.

In response to my invitations, scholars seem to express one or more of the following attitudes toward special collections:

1. Special collections are for book-fetishists. Let’s not get bogged down in the ooh-ahh materiality of the book when we want to talk about the ideas in the text.

2. Special collections are only useful if you’re putting together an edition. Textual presentation and variations are really only of interest to scholars of textual history.

3. Special collections are like zoos for books. We’re glad someone is preserving all those old pamphlets, maps, and out-of-print books in case someone, maybe a grad student, decides to study them.

4. Special collections are giving way to online resources that preserve older books’ images and texts. Who would go to a special collection when they can simply click around online and get the same experience?

5. Special collections librarians are probably totally swamped with appointments. Why bother them when I can get most of what I need from new editions and the scholarship of my predecessors?

These are attitudes that I think I held, to some extent, before I began working in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room. I went to lectures held in the Reading Room and admired all the lovely bindings, wondered what was in them, and then went home. I never took the time to ask what was there and how it could be of use to me. During the only experiences I’d had in special collections, I’d oohed and ahhed over the bookness of a particularly exciting first edition, but I had only occasionally used them for research. I didn’t fully understand that one could read the things.

When I began working in the Reading Room, I spent a solid month or so getting giddy over pulling out a 1623 edition of Bacon or a beautiful little vellum-bound Sentimental Journey. I thrilled over the maps, the slips of early American money, and the letters in secretary hand, which were, at the time, unreadable to me in a magical way. When I opened the 1651 Leviathan for the first time, I think my heart stopped. That is to say, I had a big crush on the collection for a long time. Like a crush, it was both hyper-emotional and superficial, and it yielded little in the way of useful knowledge.

As time went by and I explored the collection further, I found that one could very easily find and read around on almost any topic of historical interest in the period. Because the collection is mostly non-fiction, it contains things you rarely find in new editions, like descriptions of prisons, recipes, theatrical reviews, travel journals, colonization accounts, legal documents, and descriptions of foreign lands for the curious people back home. All of these things appear in the fiction of the era and are important for our understanding of the period, yet English scholars mostly know about them from the fiction itself, or from the descriptions given us by other scholars. After spending time surrounded by piles of these books, I find they have become a cornerstone for the breadth of knowledge I’d like to gain about the era. They aren’t merely fetishes anymore.

I wonder if the fetishism of old books isn’t a product of the digital revolution. Just as, when the printing press made texts cheaper and more abundant, the idea of the manuscript text gained a certain magical, noble power, the book itself may be gaining a kind of distant, reverential regard as digital texts become the more common source of information and entertainment. As graduate students more easily find primary sources and scanned texts online, we find it less necessary to learn how to use special collections for research, and we therefore develop a silly kind of awe for old books that keeps us from using them.

I have been trying, in my small way, to bring friends in the field down to the Reading Room so they can see how easy it is to find materials of great interest and usefulness. It’s true that digital collections are amazingly wonderful and useful, and I am a great advocate for digitizing everything to make it even more searchable and universally accessible, but until we do, I hope we still find these rare items, learn from them, and keep them alive in our work.

Of those of us here, in our different disciplines, I wonder what attitudes we have toward using special collections in research and pedagogy. Do you take your students to special collections? Do they find uses for the materials? Do you use special collections for your own research? If not, why not? If so, what do you get out of the experience?

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