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Teaching with Special Collections

Materiality and the Early American Book: An Edition Description Activity

Author: John D. Miles, LSU Department of English and Professional in Residence, LSU Libraries


The following is adapted from an assignment given in a junior-level survey of American Literature (ENGL 3070) by John Miles in the fall of 2015. The class first met in Hill Memorial Library and received a short introduction to working in Special Collections before doing a few activities that introduced them to handling rare books. After spending some time looking at materials relevant to the semester’s reading list, students were given this assignment and two weeks to complete it, allowing them plenty of time to visit the library. Students produced a variety of projects, some which looked at art-book versions of famous authors, others which tracked down famous figures’ obscure works, while a few delved into the library’s manuscript collections.

The assignment is designed to introduce students to the interplay between material form and artistic content, help them to practice their descriptive writing skills, as well as to use the library’s collections to develop a physical link to a period that sometimes feels distant or inaccessible. The following assignment has been revised slightly, but its detailed description of what to do on a visit to the archives might be freely adapted to other classes and assignments.


Now that we have visited Hill Memorial Library as a class you are ready to return to do some research in the collections on your own. For this assignment you need to go to Hill Memorial Library and choose an edition of a book from an author that we are reading this semester, a text whose form you will look at and describe in detail. You will then write a short description of that physical form, explain what its material nature indicates about the book’s use and reception, and then link this physical form to its literary content. The majority of the labor of this assignment is in finding your object of study and carefully considering its physical form. Your final product will be a short 1-2 page description of that work, accompanied by a series of photographs. Though somewhat different than a traditional paper of literary criticism, this assignment does ask you to use the tools of careful analysis and detailed description. In addition to serving as an introduction to doing research in the special collections library, this assignment should also impart to you a greater appreciation of the physical form of books and a better understanding of how that materiality relates to artistic intent and literary reception.

Begin your work by choosing an author that we have studied and about whom you would like to know a bit more. (Additionally, if you would like to research an author who we are not reading, but who falls within our period of study, simply discuss this matter with me.) You may want to have a couple of authors in mind, as the library’s collections are not equally good in all areas. In addition, you will find that the collections are (unsurprisingly) less complete the further back you go; you will probably have the best luck with materials from the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. Feel free to be creative as to what subjects you choose to study; please contact me if you have any questions about a subject’s acceptability or relevance.

Library Logistics

Having chosen an area of study, you are almost ready to begin searching the catalog, but you will first want to take a few minutes to make an account with Special Collections:

  • Register for the Special Collections Request System (SCRS), by clicking the ‘Sign in/Register’ link in the yellow box on Special Collections’ homepage: Once you have done so you will be able to request materials, set up viewing times, and have the materials brought to you upon your visit to Hill.

When that step is out of the way you are ready to search the catalog in earnest:

  • Go the library’s homepage:
  • Click on ‘Catalog,’ and then click on ‘Advanced Search.’ (You should find yourself here.)
  • Type in the author (or the work) that you are looking for in the ‘keywords anywhere’ box.
  • Limit your results to Special Collections by selecting ‘Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library’ on the ‘library’ drop-down menu. (You may also want to limit the years of your search, or ask that it be sorted from old to new for ease of browsing.)
  • Look through the results, taking the time to look at both the ‘Item Information’ and ‘Catalog Record’ tabs for more information about the text. These will often give you an idea as to any unique or particularly interesting features of the text.
  • Once you have found three or four items that interest you, click the ‘Request Material’ link to have those materials paged for you from the closed stacks at Hill Library. If you have already set up your SCRS account, clicking this link will take you to a request form populated with the text’s information. Be certain to choose a date on the ‘Anticipated Date of Initial Use’ calendar. You don’t need to fill out anything else on the form.

After you have chosen your items and requested them through the catalog, you are ready to visit Hill and see your materials. Keep the reading room’s hours in mind (, and be certain to plan your visit so that you will not be rushed as you look at the materials. Remember as well that you will be limited as to the items that you can bring with you to the reading room: a pencil and a notebook will be vital; a laptop and a camera might also be quite useful. Take your ID with you as well so that your SCRS account can be verified quickly before you begin your research.

Describing Your Book

Be certain to choose a few pieces to look at first so that you can identify the piece that will be most interesting to study. The most fascinating material might not come from the most famous author; sometimes the most compelling materials are texts that might be minor or overlooked by the editors of the Norton Anthology. Page through each and decide which single item is the most interesting, unusual, or otherwise compelling, and then begin describing that item in detail. Note:

  • Interesting publishing dates, places, or printer names.
  • The size of the book. (You may want to bring a ruler.)
  • The quality of the printing and the feel of the paper.
  • Any illustrations, and the quality of those illustrations.
  • The type of binding, its condition, and whether or not it is original to the work.
  • Any writing in the text, inscriptions on the flyleaf, or other indications of previous use or wear.

As you are doing this, use your camera (or your phone) to take a few pictures of interesting aspects of the text. You should also read a few pages of the text to see how it compares with modern versions, particularly what you may have read in the Norton Anthology. Consider as well the presence of prefaces, introductions, footnotes, as well as any other additions to the text that might affect its use or meaning. As you will have only limited access to the material in the reading room, be certain to take ample notes and pictures so as to make only one visit necessary. If you have any questions about something that you’ve found don’t hesitate to ask the librarians working the research desk: they’ll be happy to help you in whatever way they can.

After you have taken your notes and finished your visit you will need to write a brief report about what you learned about the text in your investigation of its physical form. Begin by describing the item in detail, noting any unusual aspects, including notes, illustrations, or odd quirks of printing. You may also want to do some research about anything surprising that you find, such as odd publisher names or locations, preface’s authors, and the like. (If you do any research please be certain to cite it appropriately and include it on your works cited list.) Next, consider what this material form implies about the content of the book, such as who would be interested in the book, how widely it might circulate, or what its intended audience might be. Finally, reflect upon how the text’s physical form and the literary content work together – or apart – in the impact that they have upon the audience. The best work will be one that has found an interesting object to consider, has described that text in detail, and which has developed a compelling narrative about how form and content are intertwined.

Your final product should be from one to two pages in length. Please use MLA style, and include a bibliographic entry for the item at the end of your essay. In addition to a standard entry, please also include the library’s call number for the work. Finally, attach two to four photos of the text to your paper, highlighting any points that you find particularly important.

The visit to Hill Library will take some time, so please plan accordingly. Feel free to ask me any questions that you have, or set up a meeting in which we can do some searching together. Your final product is due in class on Thursday, November 5th (note that this is later than indicated in the syllabus), and represents ten percent of your semester grade. Good luck and happy searching!


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