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“Watching the Detectives”: A Field Trip to the Boston Public Library Rare Book and MS Room

By March 14, 2014 No Comments

Kristen Abbott Bennett, PhD.

Stonehill College

“Sure, the book smelled musty and putrid, but that musty smell was the scent of hundreds of years of history; in a way, the airless odor you smell when you open one of these old books takes you back to the historical moment when it was first created.”

– Deirdra Chapman, ’17, Stonehill College (of the 1605 Tamburlaine quarto)

Photo credit: Alyssa Hayes

Photo credit: Alyssa Hayes

Since taking the students in my class, “Subversion and Scandal in Early Modern Print Culture,” to the Boston Public Library’s Rare Book and MS Room in February, I’ve enjoyed witnessing their metamorphoses from undergraduates who enjoy literature into motivated literary detectives. After beginning the semester by teaching the class how to perform archival document analysis using Early English Books Online facsimiles as samples, they were skeptical about making inconvenient, snowy trips from Stonehill’s Easton, MA campus to the Copley Square branch of the BPL. Deirdre Clifford ’16 summarizes a shared sentiment: “it was confusing to me to see the use of traveling all the way into Boston to see books that were just as accessible online from the comfort of my room.” Yet once Deirdre and her classmates engaged in hands-on study of rare texts including William Shakespeare’s 1600 quarto, Much Adoe About Nothing, the 1604 quarto of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Thomas Nashe’s 1600 quarto, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, and what appears to have been George Sandys’ personal copy of his 1623 translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, their skepticism was transformed into enthusiasm.

I was not surprised that many commented on the awe-inspiring journey from the Dartmouth Street entrance to the Rare Book and MS room on the third floor. Upon entry we find ourselves walking under a fresco depicting “Genius.” Two large, protective brass lions guard a turn at the marble steps that takes one to the Bates reading room, a space that recalls the great hall at Oxford’s Christ College. Next, we tuck into an alcove to find a concrete stairwell that goes to the third floor. The sense that we are participating in some sort of divine ritual is confirmed by the awesome frescoes above our heads and the art surrounding us on the walls. We then passed through two small, dark, square rooms with empty glass cases before reaching the foyer of the rare books room. “I was intimidated by the dark and quiet room I had entered, I felt like it was some sort of super-secret room that performed covert operations