One morning last November, I found myself delicately turning the pages of a medieval Christian manuscript, decorated by hand in still-brilliant blues, reds, gold. Elaborate designs graced the margins. Vivid illustrations of scenes from the Bible, drawn with a distinctly medieval frankness, leapt off the page. I noticed the sensation on my fingertips — that sturdy, almost leathery texture of vellum (the thin animal hides that served for paper before the use of pulp).
Then, I stepped back and asked, how might this manuscript help a teacher bring medieval Europe to life for his or her students? What does a manuscript provide that a textbook does not? What would be gained and what would be lost if we had this page digitally reproduced, that is, professionally photographed and displayed on a website? The texture, the smell would be gone. But those colors and the startling scenes would still be stunning on screen. Does the Internet's much-touted ability to overcome spatial barriers effectively dissolve the walls of a rare-books reading room?
I work in the teacher programs department at The Newberry, a Chicago-based humanities research library, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. I am the dedicated staff member on a project, funded by the Grainger Foundation, called Digital Collections for the Classroom. What this means, in effect, is that I consult with the university faculty who lead our enrichment seminars for teachers and with the scholars based at the library's research centers and with the librarians who specialize in areas such as modern manuscripts or maps. Then, I dive in — sometimes taking advantage of a staff privilege and browsing the book stacks myself; more often, grabbing a pencil and filling out the small, yellow call slips to page materials to a desk in the reading room.
The Newberry may appear cloistered behind its monumental pink granite facade, but the library is, emphatically, open to the public. Anyone 16 or older can present a photo ID to obtain a reader's card and then request to see — and to handle — any item in the library's collections. The library supports the research of hundreds of scholars every year in this way. It also presents exhibits and runs countless public programs: adult education seminars, a massive used book sale, the annual Bughouse Square Debates. But the Newberry is not inviting to the young, as the age requirement suggests. And secondary school teachers rarely can conduct archival research themselves.
The project I've been working on emerged from the desire to bring primary sources — original historical sources, in as near to their original form as possible — into classrooms. The project positions teachers and students as researchers, encountering historical documents in all their peculiarities. I seek out sources that will make the past more real and more exciting to students, that bring forth the complexity of any given moment, its utter strangeness to our own times, perhaps, but also its profound relevance. The project is one of a number of recent digital initiatives that allow the Newberry to reach new audiences in ways that could scarcely have been anticipated 25 years ago, not to mention 125. For me, it affords the pleasure of being a generalist, of conducting research into subjects well beyond my areas of academic expertise.
A few weeks ago, I found myself examining a black-and-white photograph of two women staring deeply into one another's eyes. It was Gertrude Stein and Fanny Butcher, the Tribune's literary editor from 1922 to 1962, friend to many of the great Modernists, and doyenne of Chicago's mid-20th-century literary scene. She was unknown to me until Liesl Olson, director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture, pointed me to her papers as a source for an upcoming collection on women and mobility. The friends are standing, perhaps in someone's living room — Stein, with her cropped hair and imposing frame, Butcher, more conventionally feminine but, without a doubt, a force herself.
Looking at this image of these two women looking at each other, I am transported to another place, struck by how often historical research feels like a form of travel. The teachers and students for whom I'm preparing these sources won't have quite the same experience of shuffling through photographs in a manila folder or turning the pages of a 15th-century manuscript. But I hope they'll know a little of the thrill of discovery when these images from the Newberry's collections flash onto their computer screens.
Hana Layson is a freelance editor and writer in educational and scholarly publishing.