Early modern book history: it’s not just for English majors

Every seminar I teach on early modern book history, I like to start with a class asking what is book history? We read Robert Darnton’s essay, of course, along with pieces from D. F. McKenzie and Roger Chartier, along with some supplemental readings (this year, those included a piece on medieval books and some work from a pair of economic historians). One of the reasons I like to start the term this way is it warms up students and gets them thinking about methodological issues while they’re learning about book history and material texts so that they can be informed explorers of the field. The question is not simply “what is book history?” but “what are the disciplinary biases in studying books and where do I fit in?”1 In my classroom, these are especially important questions to address as a group, since students in the seminar come from a range of majors.

Out of curiosity, after that first session, I decided to take a look back to see exactly what sort of range of majors had been in the class. I was pleased to see that it was a fairly diverse crowd. English majors do dominate, unsurprisingly, not because the course is more appropriate for that discipline (it’s not), but because that’s a well-populated major. And since students need to have had some exposure to early modern studies prior to taking the seminar, that also tends to encourage English students, since many programs require exposure to pre-1800 literature, not to mention the evergreen popularity of Shakespeare courses. But the class is not only English majors, or even literature majors. History is well represented, along with Art History and Theology. There are students from American Studies and from Early Modern Studies. Most unusual, perhaps, was the student I had majoring in Physics (unusual, perhaps, but one of the best students I’ve taught).

click to embiggen

Students’ minor fields are even more wide-ranging. English is popular, but only as popular as Art History and Spanish. You can tell from a quick glance at the pie chart that there’s a lot of different disciplinary perspectives being brought to our classroom.

click to embiggen

What does this mean for the range of books students work with? Even accounting for the inevitable selection biases—not all types of early modern texts survive in print, some portions of the Folger’s collections are more thoroughly cataloged than others, students are encouraged to choose works of a length that they are willing to read through multiple times—there’s a nice variety to the works students choose. Literature, of course, is partly a result of that selection bias, especially given the number of English majors, but theology figures prominently in their selections (more so than the ratio of Relgion students would suggest). Some of the categories of books are not ones that are directly related to the students’ disciplines, including courtesy books and medicine. (You can browse the full list of books that students have worked on over the last five years, if you’re curious for more details.)

click to enlarge

What I came away from in looking at these numbers is a sense of the possibilities for students in engaging with a hands-on study of early modern books. Students discover new works and a range of publications that can alter their sense of the early modern world. This semester’s students are just beginning the process of discovering what’s in store for them and I’m looking forward to seeing what surprises they have for me in their choices!

  1. My approach to this topic has been greatly influenced by Leslie Howsam’s Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture (Toronto: U Toronto P, 2006). []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation, and formerly the Library's Undergraduate Program Director. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.

5 Comments

  1. Interesting! I wonder how these charts compare with statistics for Folger reference questions and reader research topics as a whole? I love learning who uses the collection and how (and which disciplines aren’t using the collection, but should be, so that they can be enticed).

  2. Great and interesting post! It sounds like the diversity of fields represented would provide excellent discussions.

  3. Disappointed not to see library science included in this disciplinary breakdown. Aren’t librarians, particularly special collections librarians, looking for instruction at the Folger Library? If not, it seems they should be.

    • You’re absolutely right that library science is a key field for study at the Folger. But this course is offered by the Undergraduate Program; hence the focus on what majors and minors students are in. As far as I know, none of the local schools offer undergraduate programs in library science. But there are other opportunities for study at the Folger, and librarians have certainly participated in seminars, workshops, and conferences offered by the Folger Institute. Indeed, the Undergraduate Program and the Institute are jointly offering a workshop on Teaching Book History this December, and a number of librarians have been accepted into that program. I’ll be writing more about that event as we get closer to it!

  4. Thanks very much for your reply. I’m glad to hear that librarians are participating in seminars and workshops at the Folger. This makes sense. After thinking about it, I realized that this particular course is offered in an undergraduate program. Library Science is a graduate course of study — and probably should remain that way. Thanks again for clarifying the issue.

%d bloggers like this: