The Core and Burns Library: A Pedagogical Adventure

"As we ask ourselves what we can really tell about a book by its cover, we are really asking how the book, as an artifact of its time and cultural context, can lend us insight into the period itself." So one student in my Core course (HS035, "Europe and the Modern World I") trenchantly observed as she began her response paper detailing a visit to the Burns Library last semester. This visit constituted one of several adventures in experiential learning, including self-guided trips to the MFA, film viewings and attending on-campus academic presentations, that I asked students to undertake in conjunction with the more traditional course components of lectures, readings and discussion sections. This young scholar, like the majority of the other students in this course, approached work outside the classroom with enthusiasm. Given that many Boston College undergraduates inhabit a primarily if not exclusively digital world — indeed, some seldom interact with books printed in the last year, let alone incunabula — the positive responses to the journey through rare books in particular may seem surprising. I attribute this outcome to the Burns Library's exceedingly generous and knowledgeable staff, who did not quail at my request to send 200 students trooping through the repository last semester and who also worked extra hours to ensure that their visitors would be able to think productively (and in many cases for the first time) about the printed book as material evidence of attitudes toward knowledge production and circulation.

Bridget Burke, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, and Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Specialist, deserve particular praise for their cheerful willingness to try this pedagogical experiment and for the clever way in which they arranged the special exhibition for this class (of which more anon). I have a sneaking suspicion that their efforts may in time prove to have been the genesis of some future archivists, librarians and historians of the book — or at least a good number of honors projects that involve research time at Burns. In any case, they have my eternal gratitude for making a professor's crazy summer brainstorm a reality and a success.

A bit of backstory on that summer brainstorm: the History Department, under the fearless leadership of our chair, Prof. Robin Fleming, and Core Director, Prof. Julian Bourg, had just inaugurated a new approach to all of our Core history courses. Dubbed "The New History Core: Inside and Outside the Classroom," this initiative stresses diversification of learning modalities, varying the semester's traditional weekly rhythm of lectures and discussion to accommodate at least six weeks in which students engage in work related to the course but outside the lecture hall or seminar room. I was very enthusiastic about the initiative, but wanted to ensure that the activities I asked students to undertake would integrate optimally with the course content. Some of my colleagues' inspired choices (musical performances and walking tours of local cemeteries, for instance), which work beautifully within their courses' larger interpretive frameworks, would not have worked very well for my course, which tackles the problem of Europe and its interactions with other parts of the world largely through the history of ideas, print culture, books and readers. Most of students' reading assignments, in fact, are works of literature that I ask them to analyze as historical artifacts that embody not just abstract "ideas," but politics, economics, social tensions, categories of race and gender. This focus made some form of activity at Burns Library ideal. But how best to structure the excursion? "What if the students actually had to search out an early modern book, put in a call slip and study it in a reading room?" I wondered sometime in late July. As an intellectual and cultural historian of Renaissance Italy, I am by trade a lurker in archives and rare book rooms; I should add that this is both business and pleasure. To be absolutely honest, in fact, I am a rare book and manuscript junkie. And the big idea I had last summer was to give the students some sense of the intense difficulties and equally intense joys of interacting with old paper, old typefaces, old scribbles, old languages.

And so I emailed Bridget Burke, who responded immediately and with great excitement about the prospect of getting hundreds of young people into Burns who might not otherwise have had occasion to go there. She did, however, quite reasonably defend the priceless tomes from excessive mauling and the reading room from excessive disruption by rethinking the structure of the exercise. After a happy meeting with her and Kathleen Williams, we settled on a more practical but no less exciting alternative: Bridget, Kathleen and their colleagues would set up a special display case for my course, in which there would be a rotating roster of texts for students to view and analyze that were relevant to the century and essential developments we were studying at any given time.

The Burns Dream Team did an outstanding job of choosing books that meshed perfectly, moment to moment, with the narrative arc of the syllabus. While the Galileo volume had perhaps the most crowd appeal, I was struck each time the response papers came in at their thoughtful and detailed analysis — clear evidence that the exercise worked with our course content. Students really got the idea that, even centuries after the printing press, the book was often still a luxury good either priced beyond the means of or linguistically unavailable to many people. As one student remarked, "Books were hard to come by, even with the advent of the printing press, so people took pride in their books and book makers took time to create a piece worth owning." In addition to "our" display, I also asked students to view the recent exhibition, "Fine Specimens of the Bibliopegistic Art: Bookbindings from the Burns Library Collections," which helped them to think about materials and logistics of book production. Beyond the essential point of the exercise, however, students also took up the challenge of finding out more about one text they viewed (its authorship, importance at the time, likely readership and ownership history) — a task that the helpful glossary of terms and other finding aids that Kathleen Williams provided made feasible.

One of my fears about the adventure, I must admit, was that students might feel bewildered once they got to the library. I could not physically be present for 230 individual bibliographic journeys! Fortunately, both Bridget and Kathleen took time early in the semester to come to lecture, introduce themselves and welcome students' questions. I have had reports from both of them that students regularly took them up on the kind offer, seeking out help and further information from them personally or from other staff members. Thus, luckily, my fear proved groundless.

I was especially delighted to see that several students incorporated material gleaned from their visit to the Burns in their final exam essays. So, too, a number of students' narrative course evaluations stressed that this course (to quote one respondent) "made history interesting," and cited the Burns visit as one of the reasons for this happy event. Another student noted that the Burns excursion was particularly valuable because it gave them access to historical material "that we had available right on campus." Yes, Burns Library is one of BC's great treasures!

Naturally, I plan to incorporate visits to Burns in subsequent iterations of the course — indeed, as long as the patience of the staff holds out, as it promises to do. Taking into consideration some students who had some difficulty (despite all our best efforts) in connecting their "field trip" to other aspects of the course, I plan to emphasize the history of the book, as such, even more than I have done to date. To judge by the strikingly positive responses of last semester's students, these iPhone wielding denizens of Facebook found the early-modern "information explosion" riveting. More importantly, those students came to appreciate the enduring but still fragile literary artifacts of the past, and the painfully long story of the democratization of knowledge that they help to tell. I find it most heartening that Core students' experience at Burns, instead of being a mere academic task, actually provoked some to think about their instantaneous access to knowledge — a membership in the republic of letters that they sometimes take for granted.

I can't wait for the next adventure. In the meantime, I have been singing the praises of the Burns experience to colleagues, and I believe that several are planning to make this repository a central part of their Core courses as well. I do worry that the library staff may in time wonder what possessed them to turn their building into a pedagogical Grand Central Station ... actually, on second thought, there's no cause for worry. They will no doubt remain as generous as ever and find ways to make everything work, as usual.

Sarah Gwyneth Ross
Associate Professor, History Department