Students Discover Radical Books

 

Students share the books they’ve researched and their findings with the GW community at a pop-up exhibit in Gelman Library. (Logan Werlinger/the George Washington University)

Students share the books they’ve researched and their findings with the GW community at a pop-up exhibit in Gelman Library. (Logan Werlinger/the George Washington University)

Walking into one of the many instructional sessions held last year in GW Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), you would have seen blindfolded students holding books and attempting to determine the genre of each based on smell, size, binding materials, and other factors. This exercise, a part of Professor Holly Dugan’s course, Radical Books in the English Renaissance, is designed to help students realize their already deep understanding of the varied materiality of books. “It is amazing how much you already know about books and printing once sight is no longer a factor,” she explained.

Dugan was initially referred to the SCRC by a colleague, and when she began developing a course based on the history and culture of print, she knew that SCRC would be able to provide a wealth of great resources her students would love. She connected with Leah Richardson, research and instruction librarian for Special Collections, and together, they began developing plans for incorporating rare books into the course.

“The librarians in Special Collections have been absolutely wonderful,” Dugan said. “Their knowledge and care regarding the collections have been astounding, and I think the students gravitated to their materials very well.” The class worked with many of the early modern books from the SCRC, including Roger Marbecke’s Defense of Tobacco (1602), Isaac Newton’s Method of Fluxions (1737), and a 1634 bible printed by Robert Barker, a well-known English printer.

Not only were students able to learn about the general history of the books, but they also delved into the details of specific copies of these books, looking at them as pieces of material culture with stories to tell about cultural norms and technological innovations. Who owned it, who read it, how much it cost, and who ultimately donated it to the SCRC were all questions that were a part of their book biography research.

To highlight these research projects, the SCRC and Dugan’s class hosted a pop-up exhibit in Gelman Library. Students shared their findings—and the books themselves—with the GW community and members of the public, answering questions and providing a wealth of detailed information about printing and book production. “I think the fact that students responded so well to the collections and to Holly’s class demonstrates the many opportunities for classes to work with our incredible collections,” said Richardson. “I’m excited to see what possibilities are next for students.”