True appreciation is served with a good dollop of source

December 1, 2006

Students should experience the rare joy of getting their noses stuck into original manuscripts, insists Ronald Schuchard

I would guess that 99 per cent of undergraduates in US, UK and European universities never darken the doors of their special collections library. And even if they know the location of such uninviting rooms they look upon them from the outside as alien inner sanctums inhabited by a strange cadre of dour postgraduates, mouldy fellows and cadaverous old professors, a view inimitably universalised for them by W. B. Yeats: "All shuffle there; all cough in ink;/ All wear the carpet with their shoes."

Thus, because the manuscript rooms play no role whatsoever in their education, they graduate into their vocations and rise to influential positions as alumni immune to appeals for the acquisition, development and retention of manuscript collections. In the larger scheme of an alma mater's or a nation's concerns, manuscripts do not matter much. If such indifference to manuscripts by the university-educated public is a scandal, it is one of our own making caused by the traditional exclusion by universities and research libraries of undergraduates from the magic of manuscript use and a failure to educate them in their cultural importance.

The good news is that the seeds of a mini-revolution within the larger digital revolution have sprouted in a few US and UK universities.

One liberating effect of the digital revolution has been the democratisation of scholarship - making once-remote and grant-dependent materials increasingly accessible to all researchers. And now universities are forming digital partnerships to share and complement their collections.

The time has come to democratise access to manuscripts. My university, Emory, recently acquired Salman Rushdie's manuscripts. It plans to put them not in glass cases but in the trained hands of undergraduates, as is done with those of Yeats, Lady Gregory, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy.

In 1979, I brought a group of 25 undergraduates to England. Our travels took us to D. H. Lawrence country in Eastwood. I had written in advance to the archivist at Nottingham University to ask if we could visit and see Lawrence materials of whatever kind. When we arrived, we were taken not to glass cases with printed materials but into a room with long double tables neatly covered with manuscripts, letters and photographs ready for examination. For two hours those students, including the lager louts among them, were like discoverers of an Egyptian tomb, "O-my-godding" over the manuscripts, spontaneously reading out lines. None of us will ever forget that morning. The students talked about it for the rest of the trip. They criticised me for not having arranged more close encounters of a manuscript kind. I profusely thanked the archivist, who informed me that no instructor of a student group had ever asked to see them before. It changed my teaching life.

Before 1979, Emory did not have a modern manuscripts collection (full stop), but in that year a munificent donation to the university by philanthropist Robert W. Woodruff, the chairman of Coca-Cola, enabled Emory, with the assistance of literary critic Richard Ellmann, to make substantial acquisitions of the manuscripts of Yeats and Lady Gregory. When Ellmann died in 1987, we established the Ellmann Lectures, which were inaugurated by Heaney, and when Heaney donated the manuscripts of his lectures to the library we were inspired to continue collecting into the contemporary period. Gradually, the teaching mission of the collections has become emphasised as much as the research mission. For the past 20 years, thousands of Emory undergraduates have enjoyed being brought early to the feast of archival research, and the intellectual lives of many have been transformed by the initial awe of handling, and the excitement of using for independent discovery, the manuscripts of works studied in textbooks. Some of these students receive internships to assist with receiving and cataloguing archival materials and to hone their research skills, which enhances their competitive edge for graduate fellowships. (You can imagine the impact on an interview committee of an undergraduate who knows the Hughes/Plath archive inside out and can challenge the panel's conventional views of their relationship with reference to specific unpublished material.) Why are most of our research institutions not allowing their special collections to play such a central role in the development of their students? Indeed, the authors who have chosen to place their archives and collections at Emory have been greatly attracted by the teaching mission and by the accessibility of their materials to students as well as scholars. They have enjoyed being a part of a unique "living library", where writers in the prime of their careers place their works, give readings, visit classes, assist students with their projects and return to add new manuscript materials. Rushdie, for instance, will join us as a teacher next year. It is not just the money that builds great archives (though it helps). Many writers want some kind of meaningful purchase on the place of their papers, not an abandonment of them.

The teaching revolution in special collections is spreading to other universities. In recent renovations, the Beinecke Library at Yale University has added three new seminar rooms for use by undergraduate classes. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University regularly brings its core curriculum students into the archives. And the revolution is now beginning in a few UK universities. I believe that in future the most prosperous special collections libraries will be those that have incorporated an active teaching mission into their research mission.

When trustees, chancellors, administrators, government officials, grant-giving foundations and alumni see that the manuscript collections serve not only a few scholars but also each new class of students, they will open the financial pipelines that keep manuscripts flowing to responsive institutions.

I realise that many special collections libraries were built long ago with no anticipation of serving undergraduates. But my vision is of a special collections library where manuscript and print materials would be married to sophisticated digital technology in a new environment for teaching and research, with rare materials on the table and their digital forms on monitors and screens, with immediate links to complementary materials in partner libraries. It would contain seminar rooms integrated into the heart of the collections. It would have a formal reading room and an informal lounge and browsing room where undergraduates and seasoned scholars could meet. It would have ample exhibition space in public reception areas to highlight new acquisitions, an adequate auditorium for readings and lectures, a space for public receptions, library and university dinners. It would become a high-flow, high-use building of teaching and research that serves the intellectual life in all its private and public forms. And over the entrance would be carved in block capitals, "MANUSCRIPTS MATTER".

Ronald Schuchard is professor of English, Emory University, in the US.

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