Touching Old Books, Relieving Stress

For the past two semesters, I’ve been very lucky to work with Michelle Taransky’s two Critical Writing Program (CWP) classes, “The Poem that Changed America” and “Writing by the Numb3rs.”  Not only do I have a personal interest in these literary topics, but working with Michelle and her students has also been a highlight of my time as a librarian at Penn so far. When Michelle and I got to talking about the fantastic rare and special copies of various Beat and Oulipian materials that the Penn Libraries hold, we thought it would be a great idea to bring her students to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) to actually touch and feel the materials that inspired their research this past semester. So, during reading days and after students submitted their final class assignments, we did just that!

David McKnight, Director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, presenting materials to the “Writing by the Numb3rs” classes

RBML1 David McKnight, the Director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, put together an eclectic set of materials for both class sessions in the historic Lea Library on the 6th Floor of Van Pelt Library.  Materials for the “Howl” class included varied editions of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as works from those who influenced Ginsberg and other Beats, including William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. All of us got a kick out of some special paraphernalia, including a Beat-inspired cookbook (think recipes with magical mushrooms) and a bumper sticker that says, “HOWL if you ❤ City Lights Books,” the independent bookstore in San Francisco where Ginsberg’s “Howl” was first published in 1956.


Students explore primary materials, including postcards and correspondence, in the Oulipo session
Students explore primary materials, including postcards and correspondence, in the Oulipo session

For the Oulipo group, David gathered many special materials for the students to browse, including Penn Libraries’ expanding Harry Mathews collection. Not only was David able to tell us so much about the highly selective Oulipo group and their influences, but he was also able to share some anecdotes from his continuing correspondence with Harry Mathews.

The Rare Books sessions exposed students to the concept of materiality and the story behind each individual book, which is ever important to literary and historical studies as works continue to be digitized and collected online. The great thing about the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s location in the Kislak Center is the possibility of what can happen when you combine old texts with new technologies, especially in the Vitale II Lab where lots of digital humanities scholarship is going on.

Taking the time to hear David’s expert knowledge on these topics and to touch some old books really expanded students’ knowledge of the materials they researched this semester and hopefully helped relieve some finals-time stress in the process. Many thanks to David, John Pollack, and all the folks behind the scenes who helped make these sessions possible!

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