Book Sleuthing at the BPL

We will be spending nearly every Wednesday this semester in archives and special collections: there is no better way to learn the history of books than working, hands on, with books. We are fortunate to be a few blocks away from one of the great special collections in the country, housed at the Boston Public Library on Copley Square. Unfortunately the logistics of traveling during a class period mean we will only be able to visit as a class a few times this semester, and not even scratch the surface of all we would like you to see from their archive. In addition, we want you to gain proficiency using special collections and rare books as a researcher. We want you to leave our class with all the tools necessary to come back, find other collections, and begin making your own book historical discoveries.

Starting in week 4 (after our first full class visit to the BPL), there will be 3 independent study units you will complete with a small group at the BPL Rare Books Room. Here’s how the assignment will work:

  1. For each of the three Book Sleuthing Units, we have created a signup sheet with 2-hour blocks spread over approximately 3-4 weeks:

    You should find a block that works with your schedule and sign up: find a day and time when you able to arrive at the BPL at the beginning of the block and stay, if necessary, until the end. We don’t want anyone working absolutely alone on these, so you should make every effort to sign up with others. If we see too many isolates we reserve the right to help you reorganize. However, for your sake and that of the conservators at the BPL, the groups cannot be larger than 4. Again, if we see larger groups than 4 we will help you reorganize.

  2. When you arrive at the Rare Books Room you will find the books we have reserved for the unit on our class’ shelf. We will show you where this shelf is when we visit together in week 3. These are your research materials and you should feel free to interact with them as a researcher. We will go over proper handling of rare materials in the weeks prior to the first assignment, and we will ensure that any special handling instructions are easy to identify.
  3. You will no doubt find many connections between the books in each unit’s selected set—we have tried to group them so that they will be mutually illuminating and spark your intellect. However, we have also chosen so there is at least one central book historical feature shared by all the books across the set. Your central task in these assignments will be to identify and describe this connecting feature.
  4. In order to suss out the book historical connections among each set’s books, you should not focus on literary details such as plot, character, or setting, but instead on material-cultural details such as format, modes of production, or printing details.The content of these books may well also be interesting (in most cases it very much is!) but this exercise asks you to attend to the material specifics of the books and other artifacts before you in the reading room.
  5. Once you have spent time investigating the books, you will write a brief report. It should in 1-2 sentences identify the central connection you identified among the books in the set. From there, you should compare and contrast the books, beginning with your central feature and expanding to other points of similarity or difference you found remarkable. In total, your Book Sleuthing reports should be thorough in description but concise in their writing. We do not expect you to craft one coherent argument, and indeed you may need to describe many features which do not necessarily contribute to one idea about the set. Bullet points are acceptable in this assignment. You are, in short, gathering book historical evidence: some of which you might later investigate further in service of an argument, and some of which you will not return to.
  6. You should not share your responses with anyone who has not yet completed the current unit in the Book Sleuthing assignment. These assignments will rely to a great extent on your “live” reactions to the materials in the BPL. In short, NO SPOILERS!!!