Hands-On Research with Rare Books and Ephemera
Student Commentary by Sarah Kendall
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As an undergraduate English major with a concentration in creative writing, I had always regarded books as a portal into the world of fiction, a place where I could study plots and themes, setting and syntax. I had never stopped to consider books as historical objects until my first class in English 241: Archeology of Text. The assignment for the final research paper seemed simple: use what we learned during the semester to explore, analyze, and describe a document of interest from Goucher’s Special Collections.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I knew from the start that I was intrigued by Goucher’s prolific collection of Jane Austen materials, but needed something specific to spark my interest. Walking around the small Special Collections room in the Julia Rogers Library, my gaze landed on a blue box behind a glass case. I soon learned that inside that box lay the first American edition of Emma (Philadelphia: M. Carey; for sale by Wells & Lilly, Boston, 1816). Nancy Magnuson, college librarian, told me all about Alberta Burke’s letters and thought that they might contain clues for my research. I have always been fascinated with letters (both reading and writing them), and the process of tracking a specific book through personal correspondences captivated me. I chose to study the 1816 first American edition of Emma and explore the letters that track how it found a home in Goucher’s library.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I remain baffled by the amount of information and detailed history I discovered while writing a descriptive bibliography. I wrote detailed accounts of the letters from Alberta Burke and David Gilson, the letters between David Gilson and Henry Burke, and the 1816 first edition of Emma. After seeing the interest that both Alberta Burke and David Gilson had in the first American edition of Emma, I knew that perusing the pages and studying the tome in detail would be essential to revealing the book’s history. Sifting through dozens of letters hoping to find mention of Emma thrilled me to no end. Reading different letters from various sources also illuminated how various people valued the first edition and why they wanted it in their possession. The circuit of corresponding materials proved equally intriguing and helpful for tracking down how the book traveled from Philadelphia to Goucher’s library.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I learned that by latching on to a specific topic, I could follow a steady thread of conversation about Emma. The experience made me feel like a genuine historian instead of an undergraduate student simply researching journal articles or internet resources. It felt very special and intellectually stimulating to handle history with my own hands! I even discovered two additional letters hidden between the inside cover and the title page of the first volume. Unearthing these two letters felt very encouraging and proved that there is always the possibility of finding something new within the archives.