Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts

By: Lucas Corcoran

I spent each Friday last semester commuting to D.C. and back. I was fortunate enough to have taken part in the Folger Institute’s Introduction to Bibliography course, in which we covered everything from chain lines to the division of labor within early modern print shops. Perhaps, at the time, the fatigue from the bus ride tinged my view of bibliography, for the course began to feel at times more like library science than literary criticism or intellectual history. Indeed, many times during the discussion sessions for the Folger course, I wondered out loud what work analytical bibliography could do for literary study. Who cares where the watermark is in the 1623 folio? Why do I need to schlep to a rare books room when I can get a good facsimile on EEBO?

Now freed from the cramped seats of Megabus and the traffic on I95, I cleary see the importance of analytical bibliography for my research. I account for this shift by positing two main causes for it: i) My research interests have tacked away from early modern books written in English, and ii) I have come to appreciate the fact that a large number of early modern books are moldering in libraries, with no scholarly editions ever produced for them. Scholars such as Jonathan Hope have brought point (ii) to the fore. With continued use of text mining directing many new advances in literary study, we are beginning to reckon with data sets that include editions of texts far outside the cannon. Who were the people who wrote these books? Who printed them? One of the advantages of the macro-analysis that Hope advocates is that it directs our attention to hitherto uncharted territory of rare book collections.

All this was in my mind as I made my way up to the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library. I had already visited Columbia’s library, when I took Professor Carroll’s Introduction to Renaissance Studies course, last spring. Then, we had the pleasure of looking of editions of Erasmus, Jonson and, much to my delight, a 1623 folio. So, by now, I am well versed in the procedures of entering and exiting a rare books room. When I got to the desk, I dutifully divested myself of pens, removed my laptop from its sleeve, waited patiently for the librarian, and spoke with a hushed politeness.

I requested my book; I have learned from experience to moderate my appetite in the rare book room. In the past, it feels as if my eyes were bigger than my stomach: peeling off paper request slips in furies of excitement. The book that I asked for was 16th century Greek grammar textbook. I find the volume keenly interesting, for few Greek grammars were printed in London in the 16th century, and scholars have renewed their attention to the status of Greek reception in the English Renaissance. I, too, was excited to see how students tackled the often-befuddling intricacies of Greek, having just spent my summer suffering through an intensive course.

Every time that I am lucky enough to handle an early modern book, the book as artifact still astounds. It still astounds me that I am allowed to thumb through pages that are nearly half a millennia old. The shock of the historical object forces me to consider the reality of history: the Renaissance is not an abstract category, but existed in the same way that we exist—full of bodies, objects, relationships, failures and aspirations. The book itself, it seems, is due for a renaissance. In the era of big data, and with renewed emphasis on the materiality of history, the return to the archive appears to be the logical next step; simply getting the extant historical recorded digitized feels like the work of a generation.