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Teaching with Special Collections: An Introduction

Teaching with Special Collections: An Introduction

A page from a scrapbook of poems, letters and other ephemera, featuring an Excise Paper written by Robert Burns in 1794 with manuscript commentary by James Lyle. University of Edinburgh Special Collections, La.II.210.

Course Description

At any level, book history should be taught with books in the room.  Some of the most sophisticated theoretical reflection in the field has emerged from encounters between scholars and particular books, and so it is appropriate for theoretical concepts to be taught through specific examples.  But the apparently simple aspiration to put books in the hands of students quickly involves us in a number of practical concerns.  Locating suitable books to use in teaching can be challenging, even in an institution with large and diverse collections.  Even without a dedicated teaching collection, however, it is possible to bring books into the classroom and teach students in a hands-on fashion.

This course will explore how to teach book history to advanced undergraduates and masters-level students.  It will advocate a skills-based approach to book history, which introduces students to key debates in the field through practical work with collections materials.  Throughout, the course will address the practical challenges of teaching and the collaborations between faculty and library staff which arise in response to those challenges.  Topics covered will include the acquisition of technical skills such as bibliographical description, as well as the connections between book history and cognate fields such as media archaeology.

The course is suitable for people with an interest in teaching book history from any period, including librarians, academics, and doctoral students in a range of disciplines.  No prior experience of teaching in the area is required, although some familiarity with handling rare books and special collections materials will be assumed.

Course Instructor

Tom Mole is Professor of English Literature and Book History at Durham University and Principal of Van Mildert College. He has taught book history at all levels of the curriculum, and from 2014 –2021 he convened the MSc in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.  With Michelle Levy, he produced two key teaching texts in the field: The Broadview Reader in Book History (2014) and The Broadview Introduction to Book History (2017).  His monograph What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (2017) won the Saltire Prize for the best research book in Scotland and was commended for the DeLong Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP).  His latest book is The Secret Life of Books (2019).  For more, see

Advance Reading List

Main texts:

  1. Karen Attar, ‘Books in the Library’ in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. By Leslie Howsam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 17-35.
  2. Michelle Levy and Tom Mole, The Broadview Introduction to Book History (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2017).
  3. Stephen Orgel, The Reader in the Book: A Study of Spaces and Traces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Supplementary texts:

  1. Michelle Levy, ‘Do Women Have a Book History?’, Studies in Romanticism 53.3 (2014), 297-317.
  2. Tom Mole, ‘The Book History Masters: A Case Study’ in Teaching the History of the Book, ed. by Emily Todd and Matteo Pangallo (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, forthcoming). PDF provided.
  3. Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton , ‘”Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy’, Past & Present, 129 (1990), 30-78.

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