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

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

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,” writes Chapman about her arrival. Emily Hastings ’15 adds, “It seemed as though we were looking at things that were in some ways secretive.” The physical architecture certainly contributes to a sense of the library-as-secret-keeper.

We tacitly accept that knowledge would be restricted at the turn of the seventeenth century, but the Internet alone seems to defy such limitations in the twenty-first. “Just being in the BPL was a great experience in itself. It represents this physical mecca for knowledge and history which society seems to sometimes forget about due to the move towards digital archives. We forget as a people that actual places that house the physical copies of this intellectual production exist in the world and not just in some intangible cyber space,” comments Dan Cormier ’15. The association of the acquisition of knowledge with privilege and ritual was underscored by the administrative hoops students navigated to gain access to the Rare Books and MS Room. The first step is getting a Boston Public Library card and only then may one register at the Rare Book and MS room. This process is relatively simple, but does involve providing personal information, a valid driver’s license, or state ID. The last step before one enters the room involves the stripping away of all of your personal belongings, excepting loose sheets of paper (no staples or paper clips), pencils, and electronic devices. Extra clothing, bags, wallets, and whatnot must either be stowed in hard to come by lockers or entrusted to the librarian on faith. Although most scholars are accustomed to these slight nuisances when working in an archive, the process can be as intimidating as it is exciting for neophytes.

When we settled in around a table I had prepared in advance with texts on foam cushions, my students sat politely, expectantly, some likely still wondering what we were doing there. After a brief review of bookmaking and a lesson about how to retrieve books in the archive, it was time to open the books before us. Their responses speak for themselves:

…This experience played with my imagination in more ways than one. The books were works of art, some of which had paint-splattered covers, rainbow pages, gold lettering, and more. They had character; personality and handcrafted touches that have been replaced, nowadays, with uniformity and commercialized designs. Being among these rare texts made me realize why I fell in love with books in the first place. It also taught me why digital archiving is important and how our class is contributing to the literary world. Every text in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department had a story to tell. I, for one, am excited to unravel the mysteries. (Kathryn Joy, ‘17)

Photo credit: Kathryn Joy

…It was so interesting to see margin notes from previous readers/editors/printers, and trying to decode why certain elements of the documents seemed to be altered or missing altogether. For example, I looked at Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great” on EEBO and at the archive. When looking online at EEBO’s copy of the document, we noticed that there was no attribution to Marlowe anywhere to be found. The online version of the document was very difficult to read, so it was hard for us to come up with an educated guess as to why this was the case. However, when we worked with the original document at the archive, we were able to really dig into the dedication by the printer and discovered that he chose to omit Marlowe’s name from the document as well as alter parts of the play to make it his own and to appeal to a more sophisticated and upper-class part of society. We also noticed that the original document had the name “C. Marlowe” lightly written in pencil on the title page what seemed like a long time after the document was printed. I found it so fascinating to really see the dynamic between printer, author, and the society that was receiving the document, which was something that I never would have picked up on by only looking at the EEBO version of the document. (Alison Sumski, ’16)

… That’s what I found to be most surprising from this trip—the feel of the pages was heavy and thick, but delicate and brittle at the same time. The thick leather covers looked indestructible, but also like pieces of wet cardboard ready to bend or break at any minute. Prior to the trip to the BPL, we had only looked at documents on a computer screen and were able to successfully and completely get all of the information we needed in order to perform an accurate document analysis; similarly, we were all able to do this at the library seeing the books in person. What really makes the process different is actually touching the books. When flipping the pages you can feel the history in each piece of paper as you move it—something impossible to do when clicking the “next” button on EEBO. (Katherine Stiles, ‘14)

Photo credit: Michaela Lake ’16

…Things like the physical size of the book affected my perceptions of what I was reading. Some manuscripts were much smaller than I was used to and made the text feel more intimate. Some manuscripts were [collected] in large books; this made me engage what I know about one text with the other texts it was combined with. The illustrations in the books were easier to observe and analyze in person than on an online file. Also, sometimes digitalized copies miss some information. For instance, Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament had in the text that it was published in 1600, but on the spine of the book it said 1610. This important information was not provided on the Early English Books Online database. Also, many of the manuscripts contained marginalia not visible in online copies. Some of this marginalia can offer important insight, such as dates. I thought it was exciting to be holding texts possibly held by the authors themselves and to know that so many people have read the same book that I was holding. I really enjoyed seeing some of the marginalia that included notes like “very rare” and rhyme schemes, showing that perhaps someone like me had been analyzing this text and taking notes in the last 400 years. It was amazing to be able to engage so immediately with literature and history which often feels much removed from present day. I understood what many professors have suggested, that studying English is like being a detective. I was excited that the more I looked at a text the more things I discovered in it. This trip was a great experience that offered so many new ways to engage with texts. (Caroline Martell, ‘16)

Our field trip to the Boston Public Library sparked an enthusiasm among my students for discovering textual evidence in primary sources that continues to grow. After our return, the date discrepancy between the title page and spine of Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will initiated independent research into the history of book binding in the eighteenth century. Later, when we read Shakespeare’s Much Ado, they were deeply attuned to the accrual of editorial emendation in our paperback edition. Lisa Maccioli ’15 reflected on how it felt to have read eighteenth-century editor George Steevens’ marginalia in the quarto and generated insight into our own processes of annotation:

…I think it’s a bit funny how, nowadays, we often look upon marginalia as if it’s this gook on the work. We usually try to buy new books or with light- to no markings. It’s like we don’t think our contemporary scholars and readers have interesting thoughts to note, yet we find any marginalia as absolutely fascinating and analyzable from past centuries, time periods, and cultures. I guess we shouldn’t marginalize our own marginalia because, in the future, it might be fascinating to scholars and readers attending their library archives.

Photo credit: Michaela Lake ’16

 Participating in the rituals of archival scholarship has given my students a sense of their places in the continuum of literary history. Their initial skepticism about visiting the archive and working with material texts has been redirected toward their own reception of early modern literature.


Kristen A. Bennett is currently a post-doctoral Teaching Fellow at Stonehill College whose research interests include negotiating the gap between digital and material *print* cultures, Elizabethan protest literature, and early modern conversation. She’s published articles recently on Thomas Nashe, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. Presently, she’s editing Conversational Exchanges in Early Modern England and working on her post-dissertation book project, Subversion & Subtext: Thomas Nashe in Conversation.

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