The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Undergrads in the Library

Forty-five years ago, Folger Director Louis Wright used his annual report to describe the Library as a haven for student-weary faculty:

The time has come when someone should give a word of commendation to long-suffering faculties, and provide them with a refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous students. We are glad that the Folger Library can qualify as a mind-saving station for scholars weary with the task of trying to stir the undergraduate mind to rational understanding.  1

If that was true in 1966, it’s certainly not today, when the stirring of undergraduate minds is something that happens inside the Library, in seminars and cheek-by-jowl with their professors in the Reading Rooms.

This fall is the fifth anniversary of the Folger Undergraduate Program and it brings eleven students from The George Washington University, American University, and University of Maryland to the Library for a weekly, semester-length seminar on “Books and Early Modern Culture.” Students in the course are also Readers in the Library, with the same ability to access rare and modern materials as senior faculty. (Like all program participants at the Library, their Reader’s cards are good for twelve months, and students do come back after their course is over to continue their research or to explore new topics.)

former GW student Chris Pugh working in the Reading Room

The primary purpose of the Undergraduate Program is to give students a hands-on research experience using rare materials through the exploration of book history and early modern culture. Students choose their own books to research, focusing on a single item that they will investigate from a range of copy-specific and broader angles—who printed it, the source of the text, who its audience was, the afterlife of the text in other editions and translations, what collections it was part of—culminating in a biography of that book. In class discussions and in their research, each student looks at dozens of early modern printed works as well as reads scores of modern scholarship.

The idea in planning the Program, and in how I’ve designed the syllabus for classes, is to highlight the rich holdings of the Library. What does the Folger have that their home libraries do not? Rare early modern books. Lots and lots of rare books. The course showcases the collections very well. Students look at famous books and unknown books, at things that aren’t books and that call into question what makes a book a book, at objects that makes us wonder what makes a rare book rare and what makes any book interesting. (I always tell my students that they needn’t worry about finding an interesting book to work with: any book will be interesting if you ask the right questions and listen for unexpected answers. They haven’t proven me wrong yet. The slideshow below shows a small selection of the books students have worked with over the past five years; click on “go to source” to open in a new tab to see details of the images and on the information “i” icon to see information about the item.)

But it’s not only the extraordinarily rich collections of materials that make the students’ experience of the Library mind-opening. It’s the extraordinarily rich collection of people at the Library. First and foremost are the staff, experts in bindings, cataloging, manuscripts, and art. Then there are the Fellows and Readers who come through the Library and who converse in class and over tea. It’s hard to think of many other places that bring together such a wide-ranging expertise in the early modern period combined with a collegiality that welcomes students into the mix.

But the most exciting collection of people are the students themselves, who, over the course of the semester, transform into colleagues working together on an exploration of new ideas and skills. As any teacher knows, you can think of a course as aiming to teach a set of books or ideas. A Shakespeare course, for instance, might be based on the five plays that the teacher feels are the most important for students to know: King Lear, As You Like It, Henry V, Measure for Measure, and Titus Andronicus. A course on book history might focus on five key works from writers who exemplify the field: Elizabeth Eisenstein, Robert Darnton, D. F. McKenzie, Roger Chartier, and Ann Blair, perhaps. Or maybe you could organize it around five key early modern texts: Canterbury Tales, the Bible, Lily’s Grammar, Mucedorus, and, um, a fifth text. Those lists illustrate precisely the problem in this sort of strategy. They’re quirky, to say the least. (I would include Titus in my Shakespeare list, since I find it an incredibly useful and powerful text to teach, but I wouldn’t assume that many others would put it in their list of five musts.) How do you choose five texts? What are the most important things to read? How do we decide?

Marissa Rohrbach presents her research

In thinking about teaching this way—these are the key things you need to know—the teacher is set up as the expert. She tells students what to know, they prove that they know it, they go on to new classes, and she continues with new students. That’s not always inappropriate. But for this class, it isn’t a good fit. Since my students come from a wide range of disciplines—English, French, History, Religion, Drama, Art History, American Studies, Philosophy, Classics—I cannot assume that one perspective will make sense to or work effectively for all those students. And because every student is working on a different book, despite the body of modern readings that we have in common, each member of the seminar has some insights into the intersection of books and early modern culture that will be different from that of other seminar members. Given that our class has, at most, twelve students, we can operate as a true seminar, with active discussion among a body of peers. The course is organized not around a set of texts, or even a set of ideas, but a series of questions and interrelated approaches. We move from thinking about books as physical objects, to exploring the interrelationship between books and economic and cultural forces, and finally to considering books as vehicles for text. By the end of the semester, not only is each student an expert on their chosen book, they have tried out and evaluated a set of intellectual frameworks that they can use in other courses and throughout their lives, whether they become professional readers or people who enjoy reading and libraries for the pure pleasure of it. And at the end of each seminar, I have learned new things and have once again been thrilled by what students can do when given the right resources.

Rather than a refuge for scholars that divides faculty from students, the Folger Shakespeare Library has become a place for all levels of scholarship, a collation of readers and books and discovery. As one of last semester’s Georgetown University students says, it’s a place where you can straddle the past and the present, where you can “walk away with the seventeenth century on your fingers.” The Undergraduate Program looks forward to teaching, collaborating, and being invigorated by students for many years to come.

Georgetown Seminar: Books and Early Modern Culture


For more information about the Undergraduate Program, see also this feature in the Research and Alumni magazines of The George Washington University and a recent course syllabus.  (Update: This program is currently on hiatus.) The seminar is open by application to students at universities that are members of the Folger Institute consortium, with priority given to our two partners, GW and Georgetown. Undergraduates who wish to conduct research at the Library who are not in the seminar may apply for access as a Special Permissions Reader.

  1. “Mind-Saving Stations,” Report from the Folger Library, February 1966

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