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Undergraduate Research
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Undergraduate Research Seminar

Books and Early Modern Culture


Where is the author?
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Do maps make the world?
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Writing in Books

Where is the reader?
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Course Description


The invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century played a major role in the creation of Renaissance culture and, indeed, in the development of the modern world. Without the printing press, the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution might not have spread throughout Europe, poem- and novel-writing might not have become viable professions, and the plays of Shakespeare might not have survived. Printing made more texts available to more readers than ever before: personal libraries became larger and more common, and more people were taught to read and to write.


The ideas spread through these printed works were significant, but so too were the forms in which they appeared. Small books could be carried in one’s pocket, cheap books allowed readers to collect their own libraries, and lavishly printed and illustrated books proclaimed the importance of their content. As the links above explore, the histories of Shakespeare in print, of maps and atlases, and of book marginalia illustrate how the physical aspects of books reveal what readers learned and how they used that knowledge.


By handling these books today, we can begin to recover how they were used and what they meant. The traces of their use—annotations on the end-papers and margins of books, the ways in which they were bound, the collections of which they were a part—provide a window onto early modern culture that cannot be found in facsimiles or modern editions.


In this advanced research seminar, students will have the unique opportunity to learn about the history and sociology of early modern books through a hands-on exploration of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s rare book archives. Seminar readings will introduce students to some current theories of book history, and archival exercises will relate that theory to actual books. This course will allow students to develop and advance their own original research interests, and would be an ideal experience for seniors interested in pursuing graduate studies in literature, history, or library science, as well as for those students interested in learning more about the early modern period.


About the Folger


The course will meet at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a research library offering unparalleled resources for studying the life and works of Shakespeare as well as the culture and history of early modern England and Europe. These resources range from printed books and manuscripts, to playbills, oil paintings, drawings, and theatre costumes. The Library has one of the world’s largest collections of early English printed books, including about 55,000 volumes printed before 1700 and 30,000 printed between 1701 and 1800. Scholars come from around the world to work in the Library. (Follow this link for more information on the Folger’s holdings. Specific questions about what the collection can offer for your research interests can be directed to the Library's Reference Librarian at reference@folger.edu; please indicate in the subject line that your query concerns the undergraduate research seminar.)


This seminar offers undergraduate students the privilege of experiencing this world of scholarship. Use of the Folger’s collections is normally restricted to college and university teachers and advanced graduate students. All students in this research seminar will be granted full access to the Library and all its resources, including its rare materials, while they are enrolled in the course. Seminar students can also apply to extend their Readership to conduct independent research during the remainder of their undergraduate course work.

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