The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Book History, Manuscript Studies, and Navigating Special Collections During COVID-19

A guest post by Breanne Weber and Tamara Mahadin

In the midst of a pandemic, participants of the Folger Institute’s “Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas” gathered in a virtual seminar space this summer.

The co-directors and some of the two dozen participants who attended the June 2021 Folger Institute skills course.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic halted access to the archives in institutional libraries, this year’s seminar, in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University, was a different, yet eye-opening, experience. Instead of meeting in person and doing hands-on work in Penn State’s collections and archives, we found ourselves navigating research libraries online and talking about manuscripts and rare books in a digital space. Despite this shift, this seminar showed us how significantly digital archives can benefit our research projects in ways that might not have been possible in person.

Led by Professors Marcy North and Claire M.L. Bourne of Pennsylvania State University, Whitney Trettien of the University of Pennsylvania, and joined by Associate Director for Scholarly Programming of the Folger Institute, Owen Williams, the five-day intensive skills course gave us an overview of book history, paleography, and manuscript studies while introducing us to several digital archives, databases, and platforms with an inside look at items in PSU Libraries’ Special Collections.These virtual sessions included group activities, breakout sessions, one-on-one office hours with the directors, and conversations about fellowships and research opportunities.

Prior to the seminar, each participant received a mailed package containing a seventeenth- to nineteenth-century book, all of which were generously donated by bookseller Garrett Scott. On day 1, we individually examined the book that we received and recorded our observations in a shared Google Doc, describing the books as physical objects and asking questions that would eventually help us learn about their histories and journeys to our hands.

Title-page of Demosthenes Orationes de Republica (London, 1755), an example of the copies sent to the participants for hands-on training.

In our first afternoon session of the week, “Reading Early Modern Handwriting,” Marcy North introduced us to early modern English paleography through reading letters written by women from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Via the Folger’s LUNA image database, we each took part in deciphering and contextualizing the letters as we read. On day two, Marcy taught us how to find and contextualize poems in manuscripts. With her activity “The Great Manuscript Poem Chase,” Marcy gave us a list of poems’ first lines and then asked us to identify their shelfmarks and use the Union First line Index of English Verse hosted by the Folger to find the author and the poem’s foliation.

Example search using of the Union First Line Index of English Verse

We also referred to The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450–1700 (CELM), since it extensively indexes works from various institutions worldwide. Chasing down these manuscript poems was a fun activity as we learned how to navigate digital platforms through decoding and finding them online.

During Marcy’s breakout session on “Women in the Archives,” we learned about the significance of researching women’s writing and the challenges of studying their works. Due to increased interest in early modern women writers over the years, Marcy highlighted the importance of staying up-to-date, since digital projects are featuring new authors; yet she also mentioned how it has historically been fairly difficult for a woman to be added to the English literary canon. One of the most important questions that we discussed was “what counts as literary?” Women were active members of their households and they wrote household accounts, diaries, personal letters (such as Bess of Hardwick’s Letters), commonplace books, recipe books, and so much more. If those are not considered as literary texts then we miss their contribution. Thus, Marcy encouraged us to examine and acknowledge women’s various contributions to literary culture. She ended her session by showing us the Wellcome Library’s vast medical collections in London, focusing on digital images of Jane Baber’s manuscript A Booke of Receipts (1625) that contains cooking as well as medicinal recipes. While some may perceive these recipe books as anything but literary, they can be read as literary nonfiction works that we should consider as historical documents and resources that contribute to literary culture and their histories. Additional digital platforms and databases dedicated for women in the archives include Perdita Manuscripts, 1500-1700, Early Modern Women Research Network, and The Women Writers Project from Northeastern University.

During Claire Bourne’s day three session, “The Lives and Afterlives of Early Printed Books,” we received a brief history of the field of bibliography for context before building upon the foundation we established during the first half of the week. We talked through the particulars of publication and circulation of printed texts in early modern England, including format, typesetting processes, paratextual information, and bibliographical terminology important for the study of printed books. Claire’s breakout session on “Reading Plays” was formed around an important question for the study of printed drama in the period: How does printed drama make itself legible as the thing it is—that is, as drama? She encouraged us to work in pursuit of plausibility and start asking questions of our material objects with what we know for certain. To practice this process, we examined the damaged title page of the Folger’s copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1623); our observations included a small drawing of a mask (or is it?) and the title of the play written in reverse, as “Juliet and Romeo,” which prompted us to question the play’s reception, given the fact that the title page transcription echoes the last line of the play.

Damaged and annotated title page of Romeo and Juliet (1623). STC 22325a, Folger Shakespeare Library
A drawing of a mask(?), alluding to Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. STC 22325a, Folger Shakespeare Library
Title of the play reversed: “Juliet and Romeo.” STC 22325a, Folger Shakespeare Library

Claire encouraged us to read books as physical objects by examining all of their contents, listing any observations we have, beginning to analyze how these observations relate to book history, and afterwards, trying to conclude how these might influence our individual research projects. In one of the later breakout sessions, Claire also presented our small group with one of her own projects-in-progress, illustrating in real-time what the process of meticulous bibliographical research looks like. We had the chance to put our new knowledge and skills into practice with her as we brainstormed plausible conclusions about the series of texts she’s working with: an invaluable experience for researchers new to the field and early in our careers!

Whitney Trettien rounded out the week’s arc by asking us to consider digital archives and objects as inherently material in themselves, snapshots in time of dynamic objects that require treatment as such. In her morning session on “Using and Abusing EEBO,” she summarized the history of the repository, taught us how to utilize it alongside the Short-Title Catalogue (STC), and highlighted the many layers of remediation that occurs in such digital projects. In our breakout session Whitney showed us the digital images of Archaionomia (1568) and guided us as we workshopped how we might approach a digitized text such as this to uncover the process by which it was digitally captured.

Title page of Archaionomia. STC 15142 (Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.230)

While archival digitization efforts might attempt to replicate a book’s physical materiality, a book-object takes on a new, complex identity in its digital form; thus, it is crucial that book historians learn not just how to access and use digital image platforms like LUNA or Mirador, but also understand how the behind-the-scenes work—the coding and design, the photography processes, and more—mediates the images we then use. Doing so ensures that we know what is being obscured and distorted by the process of digitization and what kinds of questions we can—and should—ask of the text in question. We concluded Whitney’s session by practicing comparing texts from various international libraries using IIIF, a method especially useful in pandemic-era research given the difficulty and relative inaccessibility of archival travel.

Despite the inevitable losses that come from transferring a book history-focused seminar to a virtual space, there were some major benefits to the format. Had the seminar been in person as initially planned, we would have spent most of the course in an archive doing hands-on bibliographical work—thereby reducing the amount of time for discussions about a book’s digital forms (which is in fact a critical part of the history of the book and of our own methodology-formation). An in person seminar would also have prevented us from more widespread networking, perhaps even altering the program’s final morning session: a conversation with librarians Rachel B. Dankert (Learning and Engagement Librarian, Folger Shakespeare Library) and Aaron Pratt (Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin). Rachel and Aaron walked us through how to find and apply to research grants and fellowships and gave us information on how to prepare for and navigate archival visits: how to take notes, where to locate finding aids, the process of making connections with library professionals, and how to read catalogue data, among many other things. As early career book history professionals, we found the chance to connect with Rachel and Aaron and demystify what is often an obscure process invaluable.

We concluded the week by returning to the books we received before the start of the course to reexamine them with fresh perspective and newfound knowledge, having been advised early on to keep a record of everything that “sticks to us” in our research and find the connections among them based on what “sparks.” This return to the material text, alongside frequent and clear modeling of the process and methods of book-historical research throughout the week, was a critical reminder that book history and bibliographical work is embodied, filled with emotion and affect that the field often seems to strip away.

Bibliography is sensory, requiring meticulous attention to detail beyond reading the words printed or inscribed upon its pages; it is tracking smells, tracing hands and annotations, noting ink blots and burn marks and bookworm holes. It requires acknowledging the privileges that afford us access to those embodied interactions with archives and collections, both in their digital and material forms (though we agree that the digital is, too, material in many ways). And it is ultimately collaborative, relying upon the networks of librarians and archivists, researchers, coders, students, and community members to complete the painstaking work of navigating collections, transcribing unfamiliar handwriting, combing through EEBO images, creating and emending catalogue data, photographing archival objects, building databases, and sharing information.

We are finding that, in the weeks since “An Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas,” both of us have been actively utilizing our new knowledge in preparation for exams, prospectus-writing, and dissertation-writing as well as taking advantage of the many incredible networking opportunities with our directors, classmates, and librarians that the course has facilitated. We feel prepared, confident, and excited to put our skills to use as we visit newly-reopened archives and progress through our careers.


Breanne Weber is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of California, Davis, with a Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies. Her dissertation traces the metaphorical and material entanglements of books, bodies, and the environment in literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Her work has been featured in The Recipes Project and Contingent Magazine, and she is co-editor of the volume Playbook Wills, 1529-1690, forthcoming from Manchester University Press.

Tamara Mahadin is a PhD Student in English at The Ohio State University. Her research examines the intersection of Manuscript Studies and the History of the Book Studies. She is particularly interested in early modern women writers and readers and how their scientific references engage with scientific knowledge in the early modern period. Tamara is currently serving as the president of the Medieval and Renaissance Graduate Student Association at OSU.

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