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veritas Harvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1325 May 2005

Harvard University Library Notes / March 2006 / No. 1330

First-Years Work Hands-On with Houghton's Illuminated Manuscripts

Harvard students who signed up for last semester's Freshman Seminar 39g—entitled "The Book of Hours: Picturing Prayer in the Middle Ages"—bypassed some common research barriers for young scholars. During their study of medieval art history, the ten freshmen received unlimited access to rare 15th- and 16th-century manuscripts, became published scholars, and mounted a six-week exhibition at HCL's Houghton Library that ended on March 11.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, professor of history of art and architecture, set out to expose his students to primary source materials in Houghton early in their academic careers. "The rare book library is as much their library as is Lamont Library, or as is Widener," said Hamburger. "They should take advantage of it."

Hamburger's seminar, ostensibly a course in medieval art history, ultimately became a multifacted experience in the history of reading, the history of prayer, the history of religion, and study of the cultural context in which these books were used. All of which only increased the challenges presented to the students in writing 10- to 12-page analytical papers, beginning with the full technical descriptions of individual manuscripts.

Students spent many hours in Houghton learning to handle the fragile, priceless texts and to interpret them. "There's really no more direct way of coming into contact with the past than, with all proper care and precautions, to take a book or any ancient artifact in your hands and puzzle it out and to see just how intractable they are," said Hamburger. "It's very, very different from seeing one reproduced in a textbook where it's ostensibly explained and given a label."

The original research produced by the students, and the manuscripts they used, became the basis for an exhibition in Houghton entitled "The Book of Hours." The initial suggestion and encouragement for the exhibit came from William Stoneman, Houghton's Florence Fearrington Librarian, who helped make the rare texts available to the students.

As part of Houghton's outreach program, staff members keep college department and faculty members aware of the resources and services that the library has to offer. Last year, Houghton hosted 126 class sessions. These classes are occasionally led by Public Services staff and curators, and Stoneman himself co-teaches classes with faculty.

"Harvard librarians collect, preserve, and provide access to all kinds of special collections so that they can be used by Harvard students and faculty, and by the scholarly community outside Harvard," said Stoneman. "My colleagues and I are pleased that Houghton Library has played such an integral role in this core function of the University."

Hamburger, who plans to add the course to his regular rotation of classes beginning this summer, hopes the course had a significant impact on his first-year students. "I'm convinced that it will have been, you might say, a conversion experience for them. That's in a sense what you hope for—whether someone's going to go on or not, whether they discover something entirely new and find a lasting enthusiasm. That's really what you live for as a teacher."

 

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