Professor Katie Vulić has been bringing her medieval literature classes to Western Libraries Special Collections ever since she first began teaching at Western. For the first several years, Vulić taught students exclusively from copies of original works; Special Collections owns a number of facsimile reproductions of medieval manuscripts that helped her students gain an understanding of the original context and culture of their class texts.
At the same time that she was using these facsimile materials, Vulić was also interested in finding an opportunity to introduce original materials into her courses so that her students could engage directly with original manuscripts and learn from them firsthand about medieval literary culture.
“One of the goals in using original manuscripts is for students to recognize how hugely different their reading practices are between reading mass-produced, cheap, clean texts versus hard-to-produce medieval luxury goods, the kind where every letter written is its own work of art,” explained Vulić. “Additionally, with the facsimile materials, I could say ‘Here is what is known, here is what has already been discovered.’ With the original materials, I can do that too, but then I can also come back and ask, ‘What can we learn from these materials that is not yet known? What are the differences between medieval reading practices and our own?’”
Last year, Vulić was able to pose these questions to some of her graduate students after she made arrangements to borrow some original manuscript fragments and incunables (early printed books) from Washington State University’s Special Collections for her class to use. These materials were kept in Western Libraries Special Collections, and her graduate students were then able to spend a number of hours over a two-week period working directly with the borrowed materials.
“I had them go the whole nine yards with the manuscript fragments: transcribe passages, prepare a thorough description of their features, and check the existing databases in order to identify what they were," Vulić said. "Students did say it was a lot of work but they also really enjoyed it and said I should keep the project going.”
Though all of the medieval items loaned from Washington State were just individual leaves of parchment separated from their full original manuscripts, students can learn a lot from scraps and fragments. “If a book was taken apart like that, it was often because it was considered commonplace, outdated, or not valuable. Old manuscripts could be used for scrap, or for reinforcing the binding of other more current books. What that means is most of the scraps we can afford and that we see tend to be in Latin and church-related, but one advantage of that is they also tend to be searchable,” explained Vulić.
While some of the manuscript fragments have cataloged information as part of their records, other fragments have very little documented information accompanying them. However, for the fragments that are not searchable, there is still a lot that can be discovered.
“It’s hard to make a huge discovery in just one day, but sometimes we could use context clues to figure things out. And students come away with a real appreciation for the unique methods, challenges and experiences of this profession. They also gain firsthand experience with archival practices and discovering something ‘new’ in an archive, sometimes even contributing quite a lot to existing knowledge. Students are surprised by how hard these materials are to read, but they seem to have a lot of fun with it, as if they are working out puzzles. It’s an opportunity that undergraduates don’t usually have—a chance for them to see and interact with materials that are usually kept behind glass.”
This experience with her graduate students made her think of piloting a similar project in her undergraduate classes, and one year later, Dean of Western Libraries Mark Greenberg helped facilitate another loan of original materials from a rare book dealer with whom he has worked in the past.
Vulić has since used these original manuscript fragments this past quarter in two of her undergraduate classes. She synthesized the highlights of what her graduate class did over a two week period into two days, and Vulić thinks her classes have enjoyed the experience. She noted that access to these materials gives students an enhanced sense of the culture, can correct misinformation from movies, video games, and popular culture, and can help students become more grounded in the time period from which the pieces were produced, while simultaneously creating opportunities for interaction with the original materials about which there might not be a lot of known information.
Vulić explained that while she wished Western Libraries would someday have its own collection of original manuscripts, she also wanted her colleagues to know about the resources available to them that Western Libraries can help provide. She stated that she is always surprised when she meets someone who teaches at Western who has not visited Special Collections.
“It would be lovely if more of our colleagues would take advantage of these resources. I have found it to be fantastic working with library staff. They are always so willing to work with me and to meet my teaching needs. They have always been the best partners in just the best possible ways. I cannot say enough good things about them. For faculty thinking about setting up a new class and using some of these resources, it may take a little work to get things going, but it will be worth it in the long run, and you will always get the support you need from the library.”