Author: Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, LSU Libraries
What can we learn by studying books as physical objects and/or unique artifacts? What does a book’s “packaging” tell us about its history or the experiences of previous readers? What is lost when we rely solely on modern editions or digital surrogates? This exercise introduces students to the study of texts, contexts, and paratexts, and demonstrates how the materiality of books enriches our understanding of their textual content.
Class Time Needed: This activity works best if you have at least 90 minutes.
Begin with a brief discussion of digital resources such as Early English Books Online, Early American Imprints, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Google Books, and the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Point out the advantages of e-books over printed books (they are full-text searchable, from home or office, 24/7; less costly to acquire, catalog, store, preserve, conserve, keep secure; etc.). Transition by asking a rhetorical question such as: What are some reasons you might still want to come to the library, or “What do books offer us beyond their texts?” (quote from David Pearson, Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts, 2011).
Next, show a few modern, mass-market books. Hold up each one and have your students focus on elements of its design. Ask them to tell you as quickly as possible what kind of book you are holding, based solely on its physical appearance. Suggestions for books to use:
Dead on the Delta (2011), murder mystery, gothic fiction, teen novel.
Creole Fires (1992), romance novel.
Alex Alligator and His Fearsome Jaws (1997), children’s book.
Thunder Agents (teaching kit), or any other comic book from the Bowlus Comic Book Collection
The main point to emphasize is that people in the past could just as easily categorize books from their own time periods and cultures. We can do it, too, by training ourselves to look for "clues" such as those outlined in Part 2 of this activity.
Addition or alternative:
Blindfold game! Ask two students to volunteer to be blindfolded. Give each of them a book and ask them to guess what kind of a book it is based on how it feels. Suggestions (all from the Special Collections teaching kit):
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition
Gideons New Testament
Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”
The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Longmeadow Press edition)
The first two are easy to guess – the dictionary because of the indentations on the fore-edges; the Gideons Bible because of its size and the thinness of the paper. The second two are harder to identify by the sense of touch alone. Students often guess that the Little Red Book is a pocket Bible because of its size and thin paper. The Works of Stevenson is a modern "deluxe" edition with faux leather covers and a ribbon bookmark that also makes it easy to mistake for a Bible.
As Harvard professor Leah Price, from whom this blindfold exercise was adapted, observes in her EdX module Book Sleuthing: "Words are only one of the channels through which a book conveys information. Some of that information instructs us, perhaps even subconsciously, in how or even where and when to use a book." Follow-up questions for discussion: What are the limitations of this approach? Does the blindfold, paradoxically, help us see the importance of the visual cues that books contain? For example, what do the books’ colors tell us? (Red signifies Communism; Gideons Bibles are color-coded, green volumes being for distribution on college campuses). Why were the Works of Stevenson and the Little Red Book – which bear a strong physical resemblance to standard editions of the Bible – designed like this? Were their texts and authors, in a sense, treated in a similar way to the Bible (reverence, portability, etc.)?
Place examples of books with notable physical characteristics in front of your students (individually or in groups). Allow them to spend 1-2 minutes familiarizing themselves with the books. Discuss the topics below by moving from book to book and asking questions to elicit student responses.
Begin by showing a slide of a modern-day word or phrase (e.g., “Special Collections”) in several different fonts, including serious and humorous ones. Ask the students to pick which font seems most appropriate for a given purpose, then discuss how that is an illustration of the meaning fonts have in our society. Transition to historical examples, such as:
Frontispiece / Title Page Design
Discuss how visual elements at the beginning of a book were historically used to catch readers’ attention, shape their interpretation of the text, make literary connections, and so on. Examples:
Show digital images of Matthew Prior’s Poems on Several Occasions (1718) and Michael Drayton’s Poems (1637). Scale the volumes to the same size, place them side by side on screen, and have the students to pretend they are viewing the books in a digital library. Ask them to tell you which of the books they think is bigger. (Drayton is 14 cm. tall, Prior is 50 cm.). Then show the real books to demonstrate how digital resources sometimes deprive us of the sense of books’ size, then discuss why size is important (indication of cost, intended use, etc.). Prior’s book was intended to flatter a patron, whereas Drayton’s was for intimate reading (LSU’s copy was owned by a seventeenth-century woman).
Ownership / Provenance
Can knowing who owned a book in the past inform our understanding of the book’s (or author’s) importance and impact? Can it tell us about the cultural values of the time and place where it was read? Examples:
Text vs. Context
What was it like to read a particular text in a different time period? Did readers or publishers in the past emphasize different things about a text? Examples:
Illustrations can be a quick way to get students thinking about historical information networks. For example, how did stories about foreign lands and people get passed on? How do errors and misunderstandings arise when information is copied and recopied? If a book’s images are inaccurate, how accurate is the text? Suggested items to show:
Duarte Lopes, Relatione del reame di Congo (1591). Locate the image of the zebra. Note how unusual the stripes look. Was the image drawn from a verbal description? Compare it to the colored, mirror-image version of the same zebra from a later German book (see printout in the teaching collection). The reversed image resulted from the engraving process; also note that the stripes are colored black, white, and gold, suggesting that the artist had inaccurate information.
How do unique books change our view of an author, text, or edition? If a text has been personalized in some way by an individual reader, cant that tell us something about what the book meant to him or her? Examples:
David Pearson, Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts (2008). Middleton Library, Z4. P43
Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (2009). Middleton Library, Z116 .A2 D37
Free Online Courses
Book Sleuthing: What 19th-Century Books Can Tell Us About the Rise of the Reading Public. Harvard University / EdX.
Teaching Historical Inquiry with Objects. Smithsonian / EdX.