Harvard College Library Offers Workshops for English Grad Students

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Nikki Skillman, '10, a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, left, and Christine Barrett, '11, fold paper to make pamphlets during a workshop offered last month for English grad students.

November 19, 2008 - For some students, teasing meaning from a work of literature has primarily involved opening a book and studying the text inside. A new group of workshops offered by HCL librarians, however, is designed to introduce interested grad students to literary reference sources and strategies for the study of texts, as well as additional forms of research, from analytical bibliography to studying the book itself as an object.

The new series was developed by Laura Farwell Blake, interim head of Widener Research Services. The library Liaison to the Department of English, Blake created the program at the request of faculty. Though the department had recently added a graduate-level course on the same topics, faculty members felt students should also have the option of learning about literary sources and strategies without the demands of a credit-bearing course.

"I lead course-related sessions and offer workshops on literary sources and strategies for grad students, but the faculty came to the library and said they really would appreciate it if we could help give their students a foothold on skills like descriptive bibliography and more understanding of the history of the book," Blake said. "This program is a prototype, the idea is to pull together the pieces of what I hope will become a richer, year-long series of talks and workshops by librarians."

For now, the series includes just four workshops, beginning in October with an in-depth look at the HOLLIS catalog led by Daryl Boone, English Bibliographer for the Humanities and Blake. The second session, held last month, included hands-on work in pamphlet-making, was led by Heather Caldwell, Head of Conservation Services. The final two workshops, on analytical bibliography, led by Alison Scott, the Charles Warren Bibliographer for American History and Senior Collection Development Librarian, and citation management tools for dissertation writers, led by Blake, will be held in February and March.

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Alison Scott, the Charles Warren Bibliographer for American History and Senior Collection Development Librarian, threads a needle during a workshop on pamphlet-making before stitching pamphlet pages together.

In the workshop held last month, Heather Caldwell, Head of Conservation Services, introduced students to pamphlet-making techniques through a hands-on approach. As part of the workshop, students folded paper and gathered it into bundles called signatures, which formed the pages of their pamphlets. They then used awls to create holes for the thread used to bind the pamphlets. Each student constructed two pamphlets, one using a three-hole stitch and a sewn-on wrapper, and a second using a five-hole stitch and a loose cover.

While the signature-forming technique is often used in book construction, pamphlets and books must be viewed very differently. As a rule, pamphlets tended to be cheaper and quicker to produce, suggesting they were more ephemeral and less formal than a published book. By comparison, book binding had, until comparatively recently, been something of a privilege for the wealthy.

Such insight, Kaufman said, can give students a more layered understanding of a text before they've read even a single word.

"The physical object teaches us about the intent behind it," she said. "There's so much that's fun about examining things from that standpoint. I hope that the students, when they're delving for information in books, will look at the carrier of the texts they study, and be able to glean insights from that. You can draw some very insightful conclusions about what the intended use of a book or pamphlet was, and who the intended audience may have been by types of materials used to create the item. I think these students are interested in discovering all kinds of fine points in these texts, so analyzing the object is one more tool in their toolkit."

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Kelly Haigh, '12, folds paper into a signature, the first step in creating a pamphlet. Other topics in the workshop series include analytical bibliography, citation management tools and an in-depth look at the HOLLIS catalog.

"I think anytime you make something with your hands, it's very exciting, and it helps you understand an object in a way you never could from just examining it," Caldwell said. "Plus they get to walk away with two good-looking pamphlets."

"The experience was a fascinating introduction to the artistic dimensions of pamphlet and book-making," said Nikki Skillman, ‘10, a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. "Heather was wonderfully knowledgeable, and the hands-on pamphlet making was tremendous fun. I found the experience particularly illuminating with respect to my own research in American avant-garde poetry; the workshop sparked my interest in the pamphlet as an independent and even subversive medium of distribution."

For library staff, Blake added, there are fringe benefits as well. Besides the opportunity to illuminate some of the behind-the-scenes work done by HCL staff, the workshop series has given professional staff the chance to share their expertise with each other in ways they don't often get.

"There's a lot about the library that's invisible to students," Blake said. "These seminars build a much better understanding among grad students of what's available here for them; they build new ways of thinking about books and libraries and opens new doors in their research. So running alongside our original goals are all these other benefits we hadn't anticipated."

Following the last workshop, Blake said, the program will be evaluated in March 2009, and could be expanded to include more workshops and more students.

"We will ask the students who participated to tell us what gaps they see, and if there's anything else they want offered," she said. "These workshops have a very unpressured, but intellectually stimulating environment, it's just a delightful other kind of learning that goes on, so it's not about maximizing the number of attendees, it's about finding really deep learning opportunities for the students who are there."