The cover story on this week's?, month's, quarter's? (what the hell is the publishing schedule of these things anyway?) issue of UMass Amherst Magazine is "The Secret Life of Books." In it, writer Eric Goldscheider ('93), takes a look at the job being done by Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Mr. Robert Cox. Right now, Cox is responsible for "the largest print-to-digital conversion project in the history of the campus, managing the transfer of the 100,000 piece W.E.B. Du Bois Library collection to electronic media." (Snooze.) However, that is not what interested me and what will be, I think, of interest to the 6 of you reading Survival of the Book is that Cox also decided to launch a project called The History of the Book Teaching Collection. It will be:
"...a teaching collection to illuminate book design, production, and distribution in support of curricula in history, literature, and art. Students could smell and touch 500-year-old paper, smack in the midst of the library's ever growing cache of electronic texts."
Pretty cool. The message of the collection is that notions of what a book is may be changing but that "students need to understand that those mythical objects called books were far more diverse than the museum pieces and limited editions found in most book-history collections," said Robert Cox. Indeed,
"Nowadays, when most people hear the word "book," they still tend to think of a printed, bound set of (usually) paper pages. But the notion of a "book" is now a jumping-off point for an evolving repertoire of modern reading tools, from e-textbooks to "vooks"--electronic books with embedded video. Though paper is a 2,000-year-old technology, (a highly portable revelation that followed cumbersome clay tablets), books can now be read on touch screens and e-readers, such as Kindles (God help us - Ed.)"
In a quick conversation I had with Mr. Cox, he said that part of the impetus for assembling this collection is that young people, in particular, are becoming "more and more distanced" from the book as a object and vehicle for information with all the concomitant ramifications that will have for our society and our culture. Additionally, the electronic/printed divide (as well as how young people utilize information) has become a site for study by the academy in and of itself:
"Academics," writes Goldscheider, "actively question the impact of electronic texts--on brains, on learning, on pedagogy. This year, an Amazon-supported trial of Kindles in classrooms at seven universities showed that many students and teachers still prefer old-fashioned bound-paper books because they can write in the margins, bend pages, add stickies, and locate passages more easily. E-readers are an emerging technology, so these shortfalls will likely be addressed in subsequent versions. Especially in education, electronic texts, which offer endless opportunities for layered reading and self-directed learning through instant cross-referencing, can trump old-fashioned books. Printed books stand as more or less finished statements and sentiments; they ask for reflection and response more so than interaction. In contrast, readers of electronic texts actively navigate a complex web, often writing or changing texts themselves along the way."
The collection, which is still being cataloged, is growing. Cox received a early donation of approximately 75 books from UMass librarian Barbara Parker which "illustrates the history of printing, binding, and book design dating from 1493 through 1900." The library has a small budget to buy more materials as they come along but this isn't going to be a dry history that follows a simple time line. "First, we wrote on stones; then we created movable type; then someone invented ink, blah, blah, blah." The focus of the collection is more on what people thought of when they thought of books. What did people of different times, economic situations, and cultural experiences across time think about when presented with a "book?"
"Humble, everyday texts play an important role in book history, which is why, explains cox the the libraries have a particular interest in collection books printed in rural and small-town New England. "They're what average people of the time thought of when they heard the word book.""
So what is stopping you from going by? I mean, how cool is this?:
"On the 25th floor of the library you can hold in your hands a rare 1676 edition of Thomas Hobbes's translation of the work of the Greek historian Thucydides. Handsomely bound in leather...the paper, made from pulped rags, still feels like cloth, dimpled and almost ready for ironing; these pages cannot be riffled, but must be lovingly turned. The ink, with lampblack as a key component, is remarkably dense. Run your finger over a page and you can feel the impression left by metal type."
"The current exhibition is not quite up and running just yet," says Cox, "but the materials are open to the public and, even though things aren't completely cataloged yet, we won't turn anyone away." Now, Cox said that it would be difficult to accommodate groups of more than 20 but anyone who comes up to the 25th floor will get to see, smell, touch, and yes, read the materials that make up the beginnings of this incredibly cool project.
The special collections hours are as follows:
Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., except major holidays. SCUA will be closed when the W.E.B. Du Bois Library is closed. If you are planning a visit from a distance, please contact us in advance to verify that the department will be open. A small number of collections are stored off site and advance notice will expedite service.
Directions to the UMass campus can be found here. If you go, tell Mr. Cox that you heard about this on Survival of the Book...just for larfs. I think I write for Brian as well when I write that we editors of SotB can't wait to get out there and see this for ourselves.