More about the special collaboration between ENG337 and the Manuscript and Rare Book Collecion 0

At the Masters level, students studying English literature are required to take a number of ‘Special Topics’ courses, which delve into a particular time period, genre, or theoretical background in the field. These courses are designed by the individual instructors and the topic varies from year to year. In Spring 2021, the assigned instructor for the course, PhD stipendiat Julia King, decided to base the course around one of her areas of expertise: book history. Book history is the study of the history of the creation, dissemination, and reception of handwritten, printed, and sometimes even digitally published material – in other words, the study of everything about a book that isn’t usually studied. Rather than focusing on the text of works of English literature like The Canterbury Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Persuasion, and A Christmas Carol, students learned about what a medieval manuscript looked like, how printing worked in Shakespeare’s time, and how a woman author might be able to publish her written work. By studying the “materiality”, or the physical features and construction of a book, students learned how to find readers’ responses to literature in scribbles in the margins of books, or to think about how editors change and manipulate the order and shape of a book after the author has finished the final draft of the text.

Although the class was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and was forced to hold all but one lecture in an online format, King felt it was important to expose the students to more than just traditional lectures. In collaboration with Manuscript and Rare Book Collection's Scientific Director Alexandros Tsakos, she arranged an expert guest lecturer for every class meeting to talk about the reality of working in a special collection: guests included conservator Ekaterina Pasnak and Gina Dahl, one of the foremost Norwegian book historians, both of whom work at the University of Bergen Library.

As restrictions eased, King and digital archivist Marianne Paasche invited students to visit the library one by one to digitize an object from the Dickens collection that had been assigned to them. Students were able to handle rare material relating to one of the authors on their syllabus, use the specialized scanners in the library to take high resolution photos of the bindings and pages of their objects, and then worked with their own object to create the metadata that is in the exhibit.

The class was lucky enough to be able to meet once in person, here MA student Sunniva Eirin Sandvik describes her experience:
Throughout the semester, the class had a single opportunity to hold the lecture the way it was originally intended to be held, which was in the library itself. There, the students got a more hands-on experience where they could see what they learned in the lectures up close, looking at authentic documents and manuscripts for evidence of what they had learned. This included material components such as how text and illustrations were printed, how books were bound, and what kind of materials were used. This provided the opportunity to not just learn through the lectures themselves, but to connect what they learned to the physical examples shown in the library, with the help of the wonderful employees of the Special Collections and their expertise. The value and potential for this type of lecturing is a deeper understanding of how books have evolved from scribes copying one manuscript into another, into the publishing industry we know today. The students have gotten the opportunity to view history up close, as expressed by individuals who show a passion for the history they are tasked to preserve, connecting theory with practice and physical, historical evidence. (This student, for one, finds this connection between theory and experience immensely valuable, granting a deeper understanding and increased appreciation for the history that led us to where books are today.)

Below you can see the students from Eng337, and Julia King teaching each student individually at the digitization room. The last image is a section of the letter from Dickens to Stanfield (ubb-dickens-h-06-3). The person digitizing, in this case the student, carefully holds the document with this flat instrument with soft edges, while simultaneously trying not to appear on the digitized image.