Rare Books as Tangible History

Selections from Tufts Special Collections venture into the classroom to illustrate the creative endeavor of book printing through the ages

Chris Barbour, head of Tisch Library’s Special Collections, has a natural appreciation for rare books that comes with the job. But he also values how these books consistently excite student curiosity.

“When we start to show them what we have, they always light up,” says Barbour. “Students want to touch and see history, and they find that deeper connection in these books. It's history that they can hold in their hands.”

That observation inspired Barbour last year to partner with humanities faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA) to create a new one-credit course, Global Book Cultures, an exploration of the history of the book from the early Middle Ages into modernity.

Faculty selections from Special Collections, as well as artist books at the SMFA, provided a focus for four Friday afternoon lectures, each followed by opportunities for students to see and touch actual manuscripts, books, and fragments that represent pivotal moments in the making of books.

The course opens scholarly access to a collection of treasured books that has gained visibility over the past two years through new staffing, programming, and open houses (Parents and Family Weekend is “standing room only,” says Barbour). 

Two hands hold an old, rare book.

Illustrated pages of “The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri published by the Aldine Press, which was founded by famed Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius.

Today, working out of a dedicated first-floor exhibition space in Tisch Library, the collection spans medieval manuscripts and early printed books from some of the most influential figures in printing history--including famed Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius.

In the more relaxed academic setting of a “mini-course,” such rarified tomes are more accessible to time-pressed students, regardless of their major, says Barbour. As such, the course buttresses his philosophy about a collection where “the emphasis is on building a community of students, professors, and library staff who investigate the timeless ideas of the curriculum in many different disciplines.”

One longstanding fan of the collection is Alisha Rankin, professor of history, who has incorporated selections in her teaching since 2011. She readily signed on to support the class, and credits Barbour’s efforts to strengthen the collection’s relevance.

“Most special collections at universities are just there for researchers or other professors to use,” she says. “But ours is really student centered, which I love. It's meant to be used by students, and that makes it a fantastic resource.”

Wistia Video URL

Watch as SMFA Professor Chantal Zakari describes stylistic similarities between “I Wonder” by Marian Bantjes (2010) and “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” published in 1400.

Another faculty participant was Alice Sullivan, assistant professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture (the department that houses the course), who creatively capitalizes on student engagement for her four-credit courses; most recently she tapped the collection’s materials related to the evolving representations of Dracula. She and her students studied 15th and 16th century woodcut illustrations and also printed their own copies of historic images (including one of Dracula), from woodcuts created from scans of Special Collections books.

For Global Book Culture, she gave a lecture on the production and decoration techniques that are seen in lavishly illustrated and brilliantly colored medieval books, bringing forward manuscripts that included a 15th century Book of Hours, portable prayerbooks that demonstrate masterful techniques by which images were carefully designed in relation to the text, and in some cases, richly decorated with gold leaf. 

She then encouraged students to investigate on their own by asking probing questions, among them: What defines a medieval manuscript? Look not only at the cover, but also at what it is written on—paper or parchment. Consider, too, decorations, inscriptions, and function: What can we infer about ownership and function based on the formal, textual, and decorative features of the manuscript? 

Professors and students stand around a table looking at a rare book.

Chantal Zakari, Professor of the Practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, Maddy Beck, A27, Diana Gateño, A25 (BFA), and Brian Hatcher, Packard Professor of Theology, look at a text.

Sullivan found students enthralled to be in the presence of books some 500 years old. “It was an unparalleled hands-on experience,” she says, “for any student who wants to broaden their purviews and study actual manuscripts and printed books from our collection.”

For Rankin, the course was an opportunity to explore major ideas that shaped the printing industry in early modern Europe. One selection she used previously in teaching a class on medieval medicine,  A Collection of Very Valuable and Scarce Pieces Relating to the last Plague in the Year 1665, was printed in 1721, some 56 years after the Great Plague of London wiped out 15 percent of the city's population.

Coming in the aftermath of disease, it is what Rankin calls a “transitional” book directed not solely at physicians, but at a wider, public readership coping with the lingering and vivid memory of devastation. “What’s interesting is that authors were compiling all of this data to create a compendium of mortality numbers,” she says. “It’s fascinating to see where death hit the hardest, and to see them growing and growing and growing over time.”

Even the title’s claim—“Very valuable and scarce”— opens up a window on the “cutthroat” print marketplace in London at the time. “Printers are competing against each other for readers,” she says. “So by calling something valuable or scarce or interesting or wonderful, you might appeal to a reader who not only remembers the plague, but who also wants to be prepared for the next one.”

Brian Hatcher, Packard Professor of Theology in the Department of Religion, has an interest in bringing along a wider appreciation for the Tufts collection of South Asian rare books, whose growth he helped germinate. When packing up his office to move out of Eaton Hall in 2022 for renovations, he came across a book he picked up at a Calcutta bookseller back in the 1990s. 

A novelized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of ErrorsBhrantivilasa—was printed in 1869 by celebrated humanist Ishvar Chandra Vidyasagar, credited with modernizing Benali prose by simplifying the Bengali alphabet and type.

“Though relatively recent, in the context of South Asia it qualifies as a significantly rare Bengali printed book,” he says. ”What has always interested me is thinking beyond the Europeans, and the ways South Asian intellectuals and entrepreneurs began taking advantage of opportunities in that global moment when colonization is beginning. Even if you don’t read Bengali or Sanskrit, the manuscripts and books reflect a historic moment in printing history in South Asia.”

Chantal Zakari, Professor of the Practice and chair of the Department of Graphic Arts, Print, Paper, and Photography at the SMFA, has found Special Collections an invaluable resource for her students, including those in a typography class where students can trace the history of letter forms such as Baskerville and Bodoni, still very much in use today. 

A medieval illustration of Mary and an angel in a small book.

Illustration of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary in “The Book of Hours,” a 15th century text on display in Global Book Cultures.

“There’s also a great authentic quality to typography as an object when it is in an old book because the font is actually making an imprint on the paper,” giving it form and depth, she says. “That impression sometimes surprises students who are not accustomed to thinking of fonts as having dimensionality.”

For Global Book Cultures, she found it useful to review the evolution of fonts by comparing older books with contemporary artist books, for example, by juxtaposing a sheet from the Gutenberg Bible with a book by Judith Schalansky Fraktur Mon Amour, 2008, in which the Berlin-based graphic designer offered her perspective on the Blackletter fonts, also known as Fraktur, commonly used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and adopted as the German nationalist movement surged in the early 20th century.

“I wanted students to begin to recognize the differences in letter structures and to appreciate their ongoing evolution,” she says. “Fonts get used, they change, they transform.” 

Looking forward, Sullivan is hopeful that the one-credit course proves just the first chapter in a longer narrative. “We can envision involving other colleagues to expand its scope to a year-long series and run it each academic year,” she says. “This would be a great complement to the courses on offer already at the university, and to the programming of Special Collections in general.”

For now, course evaluations affirm that the course may indeed be onto something. 

“It’s awesome to have a chance to touch history and think about how long these books have endured,” says Maya Land, A24, a community health major. “It’s this idea of tangible history that makes these lectures and stories so rich. And having the course structured around experts who can describe what you're looking at—that has really brought them to life.”

Four students looking at two large rare books.

Madeline Huh, A24, Special Collections Assistant Olivia Olafsson, A23, Sara Walters, A26, and Anna Zhang, A25, look over rare texts.

Madeline Huh, A24, a classics major, agrees. With her prior experience with rare books—she has brought her knowledge of Latin and Greek to paid position within Special Collections—she has an abiding love of rare books as visual objects, especially those made beautiful by timeless craftsmanship.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, a favorite book of the class was a text by William Morris’ inventive Kelmscott Press, which produced finely crafted—and highly prized—volumes in the late 1890s. 

“I love how they were made in the 19th century, but look very much like medieval books,” she says. ‘Still, Morris also introduced his own stylistic details. Because of his vision [for what a book can be], he also expressed his ethos of making books that last. Every time I look at them, it's a good day.”

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