The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

One way of looking at many books

Last week I wrote about two students who worked on (two different copies of) the same book. But looking over the 64 texts that the 66 students I’ve taught over the last five years (in eight different seminars), I’m struck by the wide range of works that students have been drawn to. 1 In general, I require students to work on a book printed before 1700 (though I sometimes make exceptions to that rule depending on their research interests) and written in a language that they can read. And given that they have to read the entire work, students tend to shy away from very long works, unless they have read them before. Those parameters explain why the bulk of the books they choose are published in England and in English, and why there aren’t so many epics and epic-length works. But even within those confines, there’s a great range of books that they explore. 

To give a sense of that range, here are some of the things that jump out at me when looking over these books:

There are only a few authors that appear multiple times—multiple, in this instance, meaning two: Edmund Spenser (two different editions of The Faerie Queene), Homer (two different translations of The Iliad), Thomas More (two copies of one edition of Utopia), John Milton (Poems and Paradise Lost), Ovid (Metamorphoses and Heroides), and John Smith (A History of Virginia and A Sea-Man’s Grammar). But some of the other standard authors that you might expect to appear frequently don’t: Marlowe, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Sidney, Molière, and Donne appear only once. Other canonical writers don’t appear at all: Jonson and Aristotle, for instance. (The biggest canonical writer of them all doesn’t appear for a very specific reason: I tell students that they shouldn’t write on Shakespeare, both because his early printed works are usually restricted, given the high demand that they’re in, and because they are so thoroughly researched that it can be too much to wade through in doing this sort of research.)

There are some categories of works that are popular: 12 works of poetry, 6 plays (in both English and French), 5 works of travel literature, 4 prose romances, 4 histories of England, and 4 advice books. I wouldn’t have predicted that so much travel lit would show up, but that’s partly a reflection of the growing number of American studies majors taking the course.

Eighteen of the works are translations (usually into English, though one is a translation from Hebrew into Latin). The general emphasis in book history on national narratives (The History of the Book in Britain, The French Book Trade in the Ancien Regime, to name two examples) belies the larger story of transnational circulation, both of texts and of books themselves. That circulation is visible in the places of publication as well. The books they’ve chosen to research have included one French work published in Amsterdam; one English work published in Rouen; one English work published in Frankfurt; and one English work published in Geneva.

One of the lessons that I draw from this is that this type of research does not depend on students having access to the depth of early modern materials that the Folger represents. Sure, if they want to be able to study early editions of Sidney or Wroth or More, they might need access to a big special collections. But those aren’t necessarily the most rewarding projects. Some of the most exciting projects that students have done in my class have been on books that they stumbled across: the anonymous plague pamphlet, the history of Ceylon, the book of psalms, the advice books on being a good son. These might not be books that students read in their literature and history courses, but they are books that provide rich insight into the histories of how books are made and how they are used.

You can browse the full list of works that my students have researched and draw your own conclusions. You can also look over the syllabus and the course assignments to learn more about what students do in the course with these books. Perhaps later some of this semester’s students will blog about how they have chosen the books they are studying. In the meantime, a small slideshow of some of the books past students have worked with is below.


  1. In addition to the two students who worked on different copies of the same edition of More’s Utopia, there were two students who, in different years, both worked on the same copy of the same book: John Ogilby’s 1651 edition of Aesop’s Fables. I really can’t explain quite how that happened, since I steer students away from working on the same book that someone else has studied before, both to avoid overuse and possible stress to the physical book and to encourage the process of discovery that’s central to their research.

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