New Covenants in Special Collections

On February 1, 2008, Emory hosted “New Covenants in Special Collections: A Symposium on Obligations and Opportunities.” This essay is an edited excerpt from a presentation during the symposium.

In the Dangerous Hands of Undergraduates
The teaching mission of Emory’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library
Ronald Schuchard, Goodrich C White Professor of English


Vol. 10 No. 5
April 2008

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Getting Real
The academic commitment to service learning at Emory

Further Reading

“I would love to see a day when students, staff, and faculty choose Emory because they want to pursue the finest liberal education in order to civically make a difference.”

“The setting for testing our theories of neighborhood transformation and social change is outside the classroom and in the community.”

New Covenants in Special Collections

In the Dangerous Hands of Undergraduates
The teaching mission of Emory’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

The Keeping of Records
Alice Walker’s archive as an act of self-authentication

The rising tide of faculty responsibilities

Letter to the Editor


One liberating effect of the digital revolution has been the democratization of scholarship—making once-remote and grant-dependent scholarly materials increasingly accessible to all researchers, regardless of prestigious credentials and fellowships. The time has come, many of us believe, to democratize access to manuscripts within institutions of higher education, especially in research universities with archival resources and materials that could and should be used in the education of undergraduates. In this new age, many of the undergraduates we aim to attract have more sophisticated digital skills than their teachers. Their searching minds are eager and ­ready to wed those skills with manuscript and digital archives if shown the way. We see this every day in Emory’s Manuscript and Rare Books Library, or MARBL, where the revolution began thirty years ago.

MARBL has been much in the news this past year with the acquisition of the Salman Rushdie and Alice Walker archives. Some educators and librarians are astonished, some even appalled, to know that those manuscripts may soon be not in glass cases, acid-free folders, and safe grey boxes but in the dangerous hands of undergraduates, as are those already of W. B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, and many other English, Irish, American, African American, and Anglophone writers. How did we become such irresponsible custodians of our literary and cultural heritage?

In my case, as a longtime practitioner of placing manuscripts in the hands of undergraduates, I blame a frustrated English librarian whose supervisor was on holiday. In the late 1970s I took a group of twenty-five Emory undergraduates to England for a six-week course titled “Literature and a Sense of Place.” Our travels took us to D.H. Lawrence country in Eastwood, to the birthplace, where one still sees the sharp division between the beautiful countryside and the disfiguring coal mines. I had written in advance to the archivist at the nearby University of Nottingham that if possible we would like to visit and see Lawrence materials of whatever kind, especially related to Sons and Lovers. When we arrived we were taken not to glass cases with printed materials but into a room with long double tables, neatly covered with manuscripts, letters, notebooks, and photographs, ready for personal examination. For two hours those students, including the lager-louts among them, were like discovers of an Egyptian tomb, O-my-godding and yelping over the manuscripts, calling to each other from across the room to see this and that letter or manuscript change, spontaneously reading out lines.

None of us will ever forget that morning. The students talked about it as the highlight of the program and gently criticized me for not having arranged more close encounters of a manuscript kind. I profusely thanked the Saturday librarian, who had let us play while the archivist was away, and who had been delighted to show and share the manuscripts. That morning had a lasting impact on those students and changed my teaching life.

What is it about the archival experience that can have such a dramatic and lasting impact on the intellectual life of an undergraduate? Students come up to MARBL for the first time, timidly, carrying in backpacks their thick, thin-papered, impersonal anthologies in which they have discovered poems or stories that have brought them varying degrees of excitement in class. And then they surround the table in the Woodruff or Harris room laden with the manuscripts, drafts, typescripts, and proofs of a work they have loved or written about, together with related letters, diaries, notebooks, and photographs—and suddenly the material initiates for them an Egyptian tomb experience, only better. The first awe of seeing the material, let alone touching it, of moving from piece to piece; the privilege they feel of having a first-hand look at an author’s first raw attempts to transform thought and emotion into art; the excitement of discovering the story that the succession of drafts tell; the false starts, the cancellations, the half-torn, once-crumpled page, the mourning paper, the different colored inks, the different weights of pencil, the doodles, the coffee cup rings, the grocery list in the margin, all the earthy matter and afterburn of transcendence. It is a great educational moment; it is often a class-action moment, coming at just the right time in their individual and collective intellectual lives. And sometimes the O-my-godding moment can hardly be contained. A freshman in my Introduction to Poetry class was so exhilarated that he came and asked if he could leave the room. Why? I asked, to which he replied, “I’ve got to call my Mom about this!” It momentarily lifts them out of themselves—one of the primary goals of undergraduate education and the essential beginning of intellectual maturity; it is one of the unique educational experiences that MARBL can provide and that we cannot afford to withhold.

Each year more and more faculty members at Emory make the archival collections part of their syllabi with innovative projects and assignments. Here are some jaw-dropping statistics in MARBL’s Annual Report for 2006-07, statistics that show the extraordinary momentum of the teaching mission. With the continuous expansion of archival and print collections, and the widespread publicity in the New York Times, the London Times, and other national and international newspapers, one might expect, as in most universities, that the largest increase in use would be, excepting the influx of visiting researchers, from our own faculty and graduate students. Not a bit of it! Last year, while faculty use increased 10 percent and graduate student use 15 percent over the previous five-year period, undergraduate use increased 40 percent. While there were 350 visiting researchers from nine nations last year, constituting 47 percent of the total use, there were 236 undergraduate researchers, constituting 31 percent of the total use, followed by graduate researchers (12 percent) and faculty (10 percent).

Why, one might ask, are most of our research institutions in America not allowing their special collections to play such a central daily role in the intellectual and research development of their undergraduates? We know the widespread responses and assumptions: intellectual immaturity and carelessness, training and preservation nightmare, lack of space and staff, and often strong prejudice: “Undergraduates should be reading books, not manuscripts,” one professor scowled at me. But I have never seen an undergraduate mishandle a manuscript: even before training they approach them with greater reverence and fear of damage and hormonal contamination than graduates or faculty. Our undergraduates, highly selected for their achievement and promise when admitted, are respected, trained, and supervised like any other scholar, and as many are admitted as Woodruff, Emory, and other named scholars, we should feel obliged to educate them as apprentice scholars—in MARBL, in the Carlos Museum, in our science laboratories—wherever a shock of recognition can occur.

MARBL has outgrown its once empty, now full home on the tenth floor, not only for its collections but for its place and mission in the university. So urgent is the need that trustees and administrators have begun plans to have in place in five years a state-of-the-art, free-standing MARBL on the central campus, near the Woodruff Library—a MARBL that has the opportunity to lead the world in changing the old culture of special collections. We envision a MARBL where manuscript and print materials are married to sophisticated digital technology in a new environment for teaching and research, with rare materials on the table and their digital forms on screens and desktops, with immediate links to complementary materials in partner libraries. We expect that it will contain seminar rooms integrated into the heart of the collections, so that classes can be scheduled there on a daily basis, moving beyond the occasional “field trips” from distant classrooms. Our IT visionaries have begun to describe how they foresee digital technologies for MARBL that will enhance our ability to analyze both traditional materials and new types of collection objects—still and moving images, 3D representations, immersive environments. They foresee innovations in digital displays and note taking, with study desks that have nothing but a display as their desktop, providing a way of interacting with digitized representations of physical collections, allowing the student to manipulate and resize a manuscript by dragging fingers across the desktop, to make notations and annotations that are linked to the place where the observation is made in the digital text. As such display surfaces and touch- and shared-screen technologies become more sophisticated and interactive, our students can digitally review an archival collection with no threat to preservation.

We envision, in short, a high-flow, high-use building of teaching and research that serves the intellectual life in all its private and public forms. When MARBL is seen not as the mausoleum but as the heartbeat of Emory, then we can say that it has not only changed and “changed utterly” the old culture of special collections, but that it has created again, and with a higher bar, that ethereal “next level.”