Over the last year, much has changed at The Burke library. The era of COVID-19 has brought about a host of challenges, particularly the ongoing effort to connect students with our magnificent collection of rare materials. The Burke is currently closed to visitors, but manuscripts, rare books, and archival material are always richer and more interesting in person. How can librarians convey that richness to students, when they cannot enter the library?
To confront this challenge, I teamed up with two curators at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library to offer a virtual substitute. This specifically was aimed at the hundreds of students enrolled in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the two foundational courses of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. On Friday, February 5, Emily Runde, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Collections, Melina Moe, Curator of Literature, and I hosted a special 90-minute presentation, open to students in all sections of this course, called “The Material History of the Core Curriculum.” Our presentation used two Core Curriculum texts, Homer’s Iliad and the Bible, as case studies to think about the complicated (and often very fragile) way that texts, especially ancient texts, come down to us today. These are texts that were assembled over centuries, and which exist in copies that do not always agree with one another. Understanding that history helps students to think more deeply about the version of the text they read for class.
The segment on the Bible proved a great way to introduce students to some of The Burke’s particularly wonderful treasures. I introduced everyone to UTS MS 47, a gorgeous 13th-century manuscript Bible from England; to UTS MS 68F, a single-leaf fragment containing a commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians; and to the 1523 edition of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Old Testament; and last, but certainly not least, the first volume (of seven!) of the 1655 Walton Polyglot Bible.
We discussed the different formats books have taken in past eras, how different writing technologies shaped how books were made, and even how different books can tell us about how their owners used and thought about them in different places and at different times. These objects all contain parts of the biblical text, but each has a unique story, and each opens a new window into the larger history of the Bible as one of the world’s most important and influential texts.
Emily, Melina, and I wish we could have welcomed students into the library to look at these fascinating objects in person. We hope to return to that kind of teaching in the near future. However, we also recognized this virtual session as an important opportunity for us to think about new ways to teach with rare materials. Conveying the physicality of an object without having the physical object present was a major challenge. We hope we were able to meet that challenge, and that the students who attended this session learned something about their assigned texts and came away wanting to know more. We certainly learned a great deal putting this session together. And we had a lot of fun, too.