“I might say that it’s impossible to separate the act of reading from the physical object itself,” said Joe McLaughlin, associate professor of English, just before laying five different copies of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” on his desk.
Inspired by a colleague’s rare book collection, McLaughlin highlighted his own personal interest in unique books as he discussed the project that he assigns each fall to a class of freshmen. McLaughlin, director of the Department of English for the Honors Tutorial College (HTC), collaborates with Miriam Intrator, special collections librarian, on the “Biography of a Book.”
The project allows HTC students to explore rare and historic books from the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at Alden Library.
“We’ve got remarkable collections here,” McLaughlin said.
The students taking McLaughlin’s ENG 2970T class choose and research a book, often over a century old, before spending a semester finding out every detail they can gather of its elaborate history.
McLaughlin reached out to Intrator in 2015 just before the first round of projects started to come to fruition.
“When he raised the idea of having his students do a biography of a book project, I was 100 percent in support and eager to do whatever I could do to make it successful,” Intrator enthused.
“Since a big part of having more faculty and students use special collections comes from word-of-mouth, it is really important to me for students to see how rare books and special collections can provide an enormous contribution to their educational experience.”
McLaughlin discussed the greater goals of the project, which in many ways, encapsulate the mission of the Mahn Center.
“Our discipline [English] is not just about criticism. [… ] We have a role in preserving and keeping alive a kind of cultural heritage,” he said. Intrator and McLaughlin work with the students to bring these projects and values to life.
Casey Macenheimer, a senior studying English and Art History, participated in the first iteration of the project in 2015. She plans to pursue a career in library science, finding the work with rare books invaluable.
“I learned how to use the resources provided by Special Collections effectively, which was really handy,” she said.
After fifteen weeks of hard work, the final product is added to the website dedicated to archiving these projects, created and managed by HTC alumnus Marc Blanc. For Blanc, this sparked an interest in the Mahn Center.
“I went on to spend a year as a research apprentice to Miriam Intrator in the Archives and Special Collections,” he said. Although he is currently still serving as the webmaster and designer of the site, it will soon be passed on to a current HTC student.
“The Rare Books Gallery will continue, and I’m very excited to see how it takes shape in new hands,” Blanc said.
Originally, there were no plans to document the projects on a website.
“A few months after Dr. McLaughlin’s class, he approached me with the idea of building a website for the ‘Biography of a Book’ projects because I had prior experience with web design,” Blanc continued.
Intrator pointed out the many benefits of creating and digitizing these student projects: “The fact that these projects are online helps to bring attention to Alden as a place where students can have unique experiences working hands-on with rare materials, and discovering the history revealed by the physical books themselves. It gives students a product to add to their resume or portfolio, something to show to friends, family, and potential employers,” Intrator said.
Visit the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, located on the fifth floor of Alden Library, to view the books featured in the HTC Gallery and other materials and collections in person. The hours are on Alden’s website. For more information or to discuss planning your own student project, contact Miriam Intrator.
All photos by Delia Palmisano/Ohio University Libraries