In my experience as a librarian and as devout book and manuscript packrat, it is my observation that collectors of rare books and manuscripts often find themselves trying to defend the relevance and utility of such collections. This is in large part due to the long-held myth that collecting rare books and manuscripts is superfluous, sweet, and a nice little harmless hobby for rich people to dabble in (but not really important to world events as they unfold today, implication being so why would you want to do it?).
Luckily, there is one online exhibition currently on the web that speaks volumes against such arguments. “Old Books, New Pedagogy: Special Collections in the Curriculum/An electronic version of an exhibition in Olin Library, Wesleyan University, March 22-May 19, 2002” ( www.wesleyan.edu/libr/schome/exhibit/index.htm) provides ample ammunition for Americana collectors who wish to advance the position that collecting rare books and manuscripts is not a luxury but an intellectual necessity and in fact a historical imperative.
The exhibition consists of examples of academic assignments from faculty at Wesleyan University that require the examination of rare books and manuscripts as a central part of the assignment, together with digital images of some of the rare materials used and a statement from the contributing faculty member about the intent of their assignment. There are eight parts to the exhibit: a home page that prints an introductory statement about the exhibition’s purpose, and seven actual examples of different student assignments at Wesleyan that have used rare books and manuscripts to accomplish their pedagogical goals. These seven assignments make up different “parts” of the exhibition, as follows: “Poetry Broadsides;” “History of Middletown;” “The Mystery Book Exercise;” “History of Gender, Health, and Medicine;” “Historiography;” “Queer Periodicals;” and “Othello.” Of these parts or assignments, only two do not deal directly with Americana --- namely, the two literary assignments (“Poetry Broadsides,” and Othello.”) Thus this review will focus on the other five assignments, which do deal in whole or in part, with Americana.
The aims of the exhibition are laid out squarely and eloquently by curator Suzy Taraba, who also serves as the Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Wesleyan. (Interesting sidenote: Taraba is also an active leader in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Society, a Division of the American Library Association, as is Jeffrey Makala, Assistant University Archivist/Reference Librarian, who prepared the online exhibition.) According to Taraba:
Not all innovative teaching exploits cutting-edge technology. While many scholars and librarians feared that the electronic revolution would sound the death knell for the printed book, in fact, the physical book is thriving. Surprisingly to some, the availability of large numbers of electronic texts has helped foster a new interest in the book as artifact. Set against the flat, ahistorical, disembodied character of the electronic text, books of the past acquire an additional cachet when compared with the alternative.