In a couple of weeks I’m going to take a group of students from Deidre Lynch’s Romantic Poetry and Prose course to the E.J. Pratt Library to show them some rare material in the Library’s collection. Pratt has a particularly strong Romanticism collection, including such gems as the holograph of Christabel, many of Coleridge’s notebooks, numerous Blake prints, and a diverse collection of color prints by George Baxter. Indeed, there is so much interesting material that it is proving difficult for me to select what to show students. Yet in considering what specific items I will show the class, a more fundamental issue has arisen. In the end it may matter much more how I show them things rather than what I show them.
I think it is fair to say that the majority of students in the class have not worked with, handled, or even seen rare books and manuscripts, and I hope that their first experience will be an exciting and memorable one. I realize that there is a danger of making a trip to the rare book library seem like a demonstration about neat curiosities rather than a scholarly exercise. However, it would be silly to deny the fact that rare materials do have a certain “wow” factor. I remember fondly my own first experience working with manuscripts while researching Lady Caroline Lamb’s correspondence. Sitting in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Office just north of London, I could not believe that the librarian gave me a box (an entire box!) of letters (her letters!) to read. It was a good half hour before I could actually compose myself enough to do any real work. I do not think my experience is unique, and one of the exciting things about our field is the chance to work with materials that sometimes take our breath away.
As Walter Benjamin’s work reminds us, certain objects, whether they are works of art, letters, or rare 200-year-old books, have a powerful aura. It seems only sensible, then, to acknowledge to our students that, at a very basic level, a lot of the manuscripts, letters, and books that we study are not only of scholarly interest but are also downright cool. Indeed, the curiosity so central to bibliophilic impulses has been the foundation of countless libraries and collections that are now valued for their scholarly import but were once privately collected. I think that to downplay these aspects of research would be doing students a disservice. Acknowledging the thrill of certain rare materials can be helpful in making both us as scholars and the material we study more accessible to students.
My own research is book historical in its approach and focus, so to me it seems self-evident that one may wish to consult the actual edition readers may have been reading. Similarly, it seems obviously useful to trace a reader’s engagement with a book through his or her marginalia or to compare two different editions of the same work that were sold at different price points. I think the key to making the library excursion interesting and valuable for my students will be to get them to infer the scholarly ways the materials I will show them could be used. Rather than show them Coleridge’s marginal notes and tell them how and why I find them useful, it seems best to let them tell me. A letter or a book is not a single purpose academic tool. Like the modern edited texts of the Romantic works that we teach, there is more than one reading and more than one way of using primary resources. Getting students interested in and engaging with rare materials through early exposure is the first step towards getting students to recognize them as valuable resources rather than simply cool old things.