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Teaching with Special Collections

Books Beyond Texts: Finding Material Culture in the Library

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.


  • Upper-level undergraduates in a course on literature or history.
  • Introductions to graduate studies in literature or bibliography.
  • Museum studies courses.
  • Any group with an interest in book history.




Class Time NeededThis activity works best if you have at least 90 minutes.

Part 1:

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.)?


Part 2:

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:

  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Amorum Troili et Creseidae (1635). English-Latin edition printed in Gothic, Roman, and Italic typefaces in a single volume. Use to discuss medieval versus humanist fonts.
  • Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum (1579). Roman square capitals give this book a sense of importance and majesty. Signifies Renaissance rebirth of knowledge.
  • Mary Shelley, Lodore (1835). Tiny font indicates cheapness of publication and middle-class audience.
  • The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1895). Kelmscott Press edition. Larger font and spacious layout indicates more refined, affluent audience; overall design reflects Shelley’s high posthumous reputation.

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:

  • Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1603), and Sir Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1638). Point out the similarities in title page design and ask students to consider how publishers might have done this to signal to readers that Sidney was importing Italian Renaissance culture to England.
  • William Dampier, A Voyage to New Holland (1703), and Gulliver’s Travels, in The Works of Jonathan Swift (1754). Discuss the similarities between the maps (incomplete coastlines) and the overall layout, i.e., Swift was trying to lure readers into his fictional tale by mimicking a travelogue.
  • Aphra Behn, The Rover (1677). Title page does not show her name, possibly a sign that in seventeenth-century England, it was considered improper for a woman to publish plays because the theater’s association with bawdiness.


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:

  • Fanny Burney, Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth (1796). Explain what a subscriber list is. The subscribers to this book (the first London edition) were mostly aristocrats and other wealthy people. What impression does that give us of Burney’s audience?
  • Fanny Burney, Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth (1797). According to an inscription, this 1797 American reprint of the London edition was owned in Ohio in 1809 by Esther Browne, who brought the book with her the following year to Baton Rouge, then in the colony of Spanish West Florida. How does this information change our perception of Burney’s audience?

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:

  • Dante [Divine Comedy] (1578). Sixteenth-century edition with extensive commentary by Francesco Landino and Alessandro Vellutello. Turn to Canto Seven and ask a student to find the lines from Dante’s poem that appear on the two first pages (only three lines appear; the rest of the text is commentary, suggesting that readers of this edition were more interested in the historical context and religious philosophy of the poem than its entertainment value). Were the pictures for entertainment or didactic purposes?
  • Dante, The Vision of Hell (1903). Turn to page 128 and ask the students to explain how this edition is different from the 1578 edition. Note that the poem and image now take up entire pages; the commentary has been reduced to a tiny footnote.
  • Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1855). Original issue of the novel, in 20 parts. Explain how Dickens issued the book in parts to increase its audience and affordability. Does the Victorian invention of serial novels survive today (Downton Abbey)? How was reading commercialized in the Victorian period (note advertisements on wrappers)?
  • Gentleman’s Magazine (1776). The August issue was one of the first places the Declaration of American Independence was published in England. Ask a student to locate it and consider how its context might indicate how important (or unimportant) it was to readers of this magazine. (It is located at the back of the issue after articles on frivolous topics like "Circumspection Necessary in Licensing Ale Houses," "Two Very Extraordinary Remedies for the Head-Ache," and "Qualifications of a Siberian Hair-Dresser."


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:

  • Battista Guarini, Il pastor fido (1728). This pastoral play, printed in Italian in London, is bound with a French-Italian grammar, Nouvelle methode pour apprendre la langue italienne (1724), also published in London. Did the English owner of the volume use it as an improvised reader to learn Italian?
  • The Poetical Works of John Keats (1853). Keats’s early editors deliberately packaged his works in sober bindings to convey the idea that he was a serious poet. Some readers nevertheless associated him with sensuality. A previous owner of this copy added an erotic double fore-edge painting. What might Keats’s poetry have meant to that reader?


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