Scene: The grand staircase at Chicago’s Newberry Library one winter afternoon in 2019. After a visit to look at sources testifying to 450 years of printing Shakespeare’s plays and poems, three students linger to chat with their professor (that’s me, Megan Heffernan—I’m a literary historian who specializes in early modern poetry and print, and I teach English at DePaul University). The students have just finished posing for photos with the Newberry’s 1623 copy of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, aka the First Folio).
Student 1: “I’m sweating” [laughs].
MH: “Oh yeah, it is warm in here. Sorry about that.”
Student 1: “No! It’s because I love old books so much, and I’m so excited.”
Student 2: “I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, and never knew the Newberry was here for anyone to use. Maybe I’ll come back on my own to get a library card.”
MH: “You can do that now, if you have your ID.”
Student 2: “Wow! Bye, gotta go get that!!!”
Student 3: “All my Renaissance Faire friends are going to be so jealous when I tell them I’ve just been doing primary source research for our spring season. We’re starting up soon, and I have ideas about how to work what we just saw into my performance.”
MH: “All right—preach to the public! Take history and literature out into the world with you!”
Scenes like this one play out regularly when I take my undergraduates to the Newberry. I have the good fortune to work just two L stops from the library, and the curators, librarians, and staff at the Center for Renaissance Studies welcome several of my classes into their rare book room every year. My students—many of whom are the first in their families to attend college—have the chance to see early editions of the texts we read together in general education courses, in research seminars on Shakespeare’s Roman sources, and in studies of John Donne’s religious and erotic poetry. They get to experience what early modern printed books and manuscripts looked like, how they were made and used, and how the physical design of these texts has contributed to the versions of history available to us today.
During class, students are often stunned by the size of the collection, the variety of items on display, and the way these books have been carefully preserved for centuries. They frequently exclaim with surprise and delight, sharing observations like “I can’t believe people wrote in these books,” and “Oh my god, I’m learning!” In reflections after their visits, students remark on a new appreciation for, say, the centuries of intellectual labor that went into their modern editions of Romeo and Juliet, and, above all, on their newfound sense of pride in having seen these resources firsthand. How many other college students have the opportunity to touch—and interpret—an object that’s been around since 1563?
More than just a visceral encounter with old books, I approach every trip to the Newberry as a chance for me and my students to learn something new about past cultures of reading and writing. My own research on the history of printing English poetry directly informs the items I select, from miscellaneous editions of Shakespeare’s poems to heavily worn and annotated copies of Donne’s sermons. Working closely with Jill Gage, the Newberry’s Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation and Bibliographer of British Literature and History, we put together collections of books that will help students recognize the contingency of histories that might otherwise seem natural or given, like Shakespeare’s authorship or the development of the sonnet. Above all, each time I take students to the Newberry, I try to cultivate the practices of reading and inquiry they need to interpret the past through these objects, that is habits of mind and a set of skills that they can share with their family and friends when they post their selfies with the First Folio on Instagram or Snapchat. For me, these photos—and the excitement of encountering rare books for the first time—are the beginnings of a life-long appreciation of, and possible future advocacy for, the humanities.