Research at the RBML | Sophia Houghton investigates the materiality of trees

If as Auden remarked, “a culture is no better than its woods,” what does it look like when books try to represent trees? Columbia graduate student Sophia Houghton visited the RBML to find out. Recently introduced to the RBML by Curator Thai Jones, Houghton returned to the archives to look at see Romeyn Hough’s American Woods.


What is your project called?

Serializing the Sylva: A Close Reading of The American Woods by Romeyn B. Hough”

What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library? 

During an introductory visit to the RBML, I learned from Thai Jones (an RBML archivist and historian) that Columbia has a holding comprised of what he described as a collection of “tree wood cuttings.” At the time, I had no idea what that meant. But I was extremely intrigued, and decided to make an appointment because I have been doing research on literary representations of trees––and specifically, on those representations that attempt, but ultimately struggle, to convey the material reality of trees. I was very excited to discover volumes thirteen and fourteen Romeyn B. Hough’s 1913 collection, The American Woods, which consists of 1/1200 of an inch-thick wood-specimens (actual, physical wood, not just photos!) accompanied by a cross-reference pamphlet with extensive descriptions of each type of wood (its characteristics, habitat, and uses). It turns out that Romeyn Hugh developed the first machine that could cut wood with this extreme precision, and that this technique of preparing and preserving wood was a completely novel way of “representing” ––and exporting––American trees to a mass readership.

How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

As a first-year Ph.D. student at Columbia, this was both my first time visiting the RBML, and my first time working with archival material.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

In addition to Romeyn Hough’s volumes, I also was able to view a facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s Master Letters, edited by R.W. Franklin; and, an oral history project titled the “Forest History Project,” which contains eight volumes of transcripts from interviews with members of the U.S. Forest Service spanning from 1925-1975.

I did not know that any of these materials were held at Columbia.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

Before my first session to view The American Woods collection, my anticipation was that I would find a standard manuscript with illustrations and descriptions, so when I removed the collection from its folio and discovered that it contained physical specimens of wood, the visual and material impact was especially powerful. I was struck by the presentation of the wood specimens in particular. Hough presents the anatomical structure of each tree in three cuts, each framed in embossed gold ink: the “transverse” section, the “radial” section, and the “tangential” section.  At the top of each taxonomic trinity, the binomial and common name are also printed in gold lettering. These aesthetic choices lend the specimens a “gilded” materiality; they achieve something between artistic presentation and scientific preservation.

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Even if you have little or no experience doing research with archival materials in the RBML, I would strongly encourage researchers and students to start by searching for even the most general topics/authors/problems that interest you (even if you don’t yet have a fully developed research topic!) in the Archival Collections Portal on CLIO, and approaching the process with curiosity rather than narrow expectations. The archivists and librarians in the RBML made sure that I knew how to physically handle the material, so I felt comfortable engaging with it.

From start to finish, my experience thus far at the RBML has been fulfilling not only because I discovered in The American Woods a completely new (for me) and exciting line or inquiry and potential research topic, but also because I was able to learn a new research mode. This is all to say that I would highly recommend utilizing CLIO to find RMBL materials that pique your interest, even if you do not yet have a specific research question––and especially if you have never worked with archival materials.

Here are some snapshots of Romeyn B. Hough’s American Woods:

Romeyn B. Hough’s The American Woods
Romeyn B. Hough’s The American Woods