Musty books? We’re all over that: Folger Seminar featured in GW Research Magazine

From the latest edition of Research & Discovery:

In an extraordinary seminar that started last fall, The George Washington University and the Folger Shakespeare Library, one of the world’s premier independent research institutions, are offering a book history course exclusively for GW undergraduates. The semester-long class is an unprecedented opportunity for senior humanities majors interested in early modern or medieval studies to work with the library’s centuries-old texts—a right normally reserved only for graduate or post-doctoral researchers.

During weekly, three-hour classes, students study with a Folger scholar to learn how early books were made, the role they played in shaping culture, and how the medium of print and its reproduction shape a text’s meaning. Part of the course focuses on properly handling the fragile books; unlike other undergraduate book history classes that must use photos or digital reproductions, this course allows GW students to get up-close and personal with texts. They can touch the holes left by bookworms, finger the leaves of faded paper, and study the fonts and illustrations that make the books unique. The seminar, say students and professors alike, is an unparalleled opportunity for scholarship and discovery.

“It’s really one of a kind. There is no other university in the United States or anywhere in the world that can offer this because no other university has that connection to the Folger,” says professor Jeffrey Cohen, chairman of GW’s English department and the seminar’s University coordinator. “We want the students to be challenged, we want them to grow, and we want them to appreciate that they have something very few people have the chance to experience.”

Outside of the organized class, the students have readership rights at the Folger for the full academic year. With their own library cards, they can access the vast collection of more than 256,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts, and 250,000 playbills at the building on Capitol Hill. For some, such as Rohrbach and seniors Chris Pugh and Phil Getz, the privilege allowed them to pursue original research, which they presented to Folger staff and GW’s Board of Trustees last spring.

GW and the Folger have had a long, thriving relationship. The University was a charter member in the library’s advanced study center, the Folger Institute, when it started in 1970, and GW today is one of more than 40 colleges and universities in the world involved in the consortium. For the past decade, the University also has helped finance the Folger publication and scholarly journal Shakespeare Quarterly. Many of the University’s professors have tapped into the library’s wealth of materials while creating connections: Gail Kern Paster, an English professor at GW for nearly 30 years, became the Folger Shakespeare Library’s director in 2002.

To help celebrate the Folger’s 75th anniversary in fall 2007, Dr. Paster says library staff wanted to focus on more educational outreach. The Folger had programs for elementary, middle, and high school students, teachers, and graduate researchers—but nothing for undergraduate college students.

“We could see what was obviously missing,” she says. Dr. Paster turned to the university and the students she knew best. She coordinated the seminar with then-Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean William Frawley and today continues to work with Dean PegLink Barratt. GW and the Folger have agreed to continue funding the seminar through 2013. Dr. Paster, who taught Shakespeare and the history of drama at GW, says the course’s emphasis on original texts has made it particularly meaningful to students of an online era.

“I think it’s a greater challenge in the humanities to introduce students to the excitement of archival research,” Dr. Paster says. But the seminar “has fostered love of the book as a historical object. That’s part and parcel of our mission as a library, especially in the technology age.”

Read the article in its entirety here.

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