With the support of an anonymous donor, Ohio State students were empowered to select $50,000 in rare manuscripts for University Libraries’ Rare Books & Manuscripts Library.
This past summer, Dr. Eric Johnson, curator of the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library (RBML), was approached by a donor who wanted the opportunity “to impact teaching and research within the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library for years to come.” That idea, and the $50,000 donation supporting it, came as Johnson wrestled with the constraints of teaching in a virtual environment and redesigning the Medieval Manuscript Studies course he co-instructs with Leslie Lockett, associate professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, for the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
“Much of what we are teaching is the same, but I wanted to think about what we could do in a virtual environment that the internet would not just facilitate, but actually make better,” Johnson said.
Johnson is committed to using the RBML collection to build meaningful learning experiences for students. “We aren’t just collecting to collect. My goal is to put these materials into students’ hands. I want them to understand these collections are here for them.”
For years, Medieval Manuscripts Studies students have gathered in the Reading Room in Thompson Library to methodically examine manuscripts, looking for the kinds of hidden clues found only by physically touching the pages, examining the bindings, noting a creased page, a damaged cover or maybe a note carefully written in the margins as it passed from one owner to the next. Recreating that experience through Zoom was nearly impossible. With the donor’s intent in mind, Johnson proposed a unique assignment.
Students have often expressed curiosity about how RBML acquires materials, the criteria for selection and how the mechanics of the book trade work. Johnson asked the donor to support a project that would allow students to evaluate a selection of manuscripts and rate them based on several criteria: textual and artistic content, historical importance, research and teaching utility and how they fit within RBML’s collection. They would then confer in small groups to rank each of the pieces.
The project would culminate in the students determining which pieces would be purchased for the collection using the $50,000 gift. The donor was intrigued by the idea, and with the start of Autumn semester, a group of graduate and undergraduate students discovered what it means to curate a collection.
“I really wanted them to experience the exhilaration of the process,” Johnson said, “the chase, the hunt, the negotiation, getting it here. But I also want them to understand what it means to be a responsible steward of the collection. Funding is limited. We have to look at each piece and evaluate how it fits with the rest of the collection and how it might be used for research and scholarship.”
Johnson worked with Sandra Hindman and Laura Light of Les Enluminures, one of the few book dealers with enough inventory to assign a separate codex to each student. They sent detailed descriptions of each manuscript with images when available and made themselves available to answer questions from students throughout the project. During a Zoom session with the class, Hindman asked the group about their impressions of the assignment.
“For me, this is such a big opportunity. I’ve only been in the Reading Room a few times,” said Renna Pappalardo, a history major in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Every time I go in there and I get to touch a manuscript, I still freak out just a bit. I’m still amazed by it all. This project, and the amount of trust placed in us, felt both exhilarating and a little bit anxiety-inducing. Spending $50,000 is a lot of pressure,” she said with a laugh.
“Eric was determined the hybrid format of the course would not diminish students’ opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and research,” Leslie Lockett said. “This project - developed in response to our anonymous donor's incredibly generous gift - has given this cohort of Manuscript Studies students a rare look at what Eric does as Curator of Thompson Library Rare Books and Manuscripts and what Dr. Light and Dr. Hindman do at Les Enluminures,” she said.
As the midpoint of the semester arrived and the assignment wound to a close, Johnson received good news. The grant proposal he’d submitted to the B.H. Breslauer Foundation in New York City requesting additional support for the project was approved. Combining that with the anonymous donation, RBML was able to acquire 3 of the 5 codices recommended by the students.
“My hope was to give them some agency in their own education during this time when so much seems outside of our control and to let them experience manuscripts they might never see in any other way” Johnson said.
As Tamara Mahadin, a second-year PhD student in the English Department, shared on social media, the assignment was “The coolest project that I’ve ever worked on!”