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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
"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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