My special collections assignment for Swift and Literary Studies


Hi everyone,

Since Anna and Eleanor asked about this, I thought it would be easiest just to give you a bit of a background to the special collections work that I do with my students, then show you the assignment, and see what comments or suggestions you all might have.

The background here is that, while I am not really a bibliographer or researcher in the History of the Book, I think these issues are interesting and pertinent for students in literary studies, especially in regards to undergraduate research.  Frankly, though, the focus is really on the research dimension, and getting in the habit of extracting, and building upon, the information they can glean from these items.

I’ve always had a special collections “day” since I started teaching this course, but after a decade or so, I’ve learned how to get more from special collections visits by focusing on the Swift-oriented rare book materials as the basis for small, discrete, group research projects that are explicitly aligned with their course readings in Swift and Swift literary criticism.  I do rely heavily on group work in this course, which I’ve never regretted, but which does demand some special pedagogical attention for it to work.  This is their first group assignment, and it comes just after I’ve formed my five “research teams,” which consist of 3-4 people, and are organized around certain recurring themes of Swift criticism (Swift and Empire, Swift and Femininity, etc.) which vary slightly from term to term.

The point of the assignment is for them to handle some Swift or Swift-oriented books, and then make some connections in a brief course blog post between what they have examined, what they have researched, and their overarching Swift topic.   This group project demands that they describe and compare the physical attributes of some items examined, speculate a little about the sources behind the item, then do a little research off-site (using our library digital resources like the ODNB, MUSE/JSTOR, etc.) to generate about a paragraph’s worth of information about either a) the Swift work examined, b) the editor or bookseller named, and any connections to Swift, or c) any historical person named in the work, and his or her connections to Swift.

This is posted on the course blog the same week as the visit, and students are able to view and compare each others’ findings.

The other important aspect to this exercise is my “sourcing heuristic,” which I developed from Samuel Wineburg and his followers for teaching historical thinking, and which I now try to incorporate into all my classes as a way to explain the uses of historical materials.  I think I’ve discussed this before, in my description of my Burney assignment, but I really do think this is an important aspect of our research.  I am simply asking them to ask a simple series of questions about whatever text or item they handle, and try to answer them as they learn more: Who wrote it?  When (and where) was it published? What type of document is it?  What type of audience was it written for? And finally, Why was it written? If the majority of students are able to ask and answer these questions about whatever they read in a literature class by the time the semester ends, I’m doing a pretty good job.

I should add that in my own thinking about literary studies (as a discipline? as a set of professional practices?), I’m much more inclined to think that the core of our disciplinary practices reside in organizing principles like sourcing and organizing concepts like “author,” “work,” “genre,” “period,” rather than in a list of canonical writings or writers as such  In other words, I’m interested in teaching students how these lists, or canons, are generated, and how disagreements are argued, rather than trying to get them to memorize and recall a particular version of the list.  To enter into that scholarly discussion, however, they have to understand how that information is collected and those valuations are asserted and argued and finally collected in particular bodies of critical traditions.  That, after all, is what the course is about.

So here’s the worksheet.


[ I’d be thrilled if others took this assignment and adapted it for their own classes, but please leave a note here to let me know your name, institution, and the class for which you adapted it.  Thanks.]



29 Responses to “My special collections assignment for Swift and Literary Studies”

  1. Dave Mazella Says:

    Just in case it’s not clear from the assignment, the students are presented with about 15-20 items on tables, which contain the Swiftean goodies. Beforehand, they are given a title of a work that they can search for among the goodies. This work can be found on one of the tables, and can form the basis for their reports/investigations. So the Swift and Politics group, after looking briefly at all the items, will be looking for the Examiner, the Femininity group “Cadenus and Vanessa,” and so forth.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Very nice, Dave. I share your interest in “in teaching students how these lists, or canons, are generated, and how disagreements are argued,” and the book as a physical artifact (as well as forms of printed matter) plays an important role in my mind in canon formation and can further understanding issues of exclusion and inclusion of works over time.

    Discussing issues of format, the absence and presence of authorial names on title pages, paratextual features such as advertisements or lists of other works bound in a volume, place of publication (both city/town and actual location) and many of the other queries you have students record as they examine versions of various Swift’s works complements your end goal effectively. In other words, this exercise functions not only to foster students’ research skills but also to help advance their comprehension of the processes by which authors and works enter, leave, or remain excluded from canonical lists.

    Do you review the implications of some of the physical characteristic in advance? Or do you wait to address them in response to student blog entries? I also wonder if you have students consult ESTC during the research stage of this assignment? Or do you introduce them in advance to this tool ? Although The British Book Trade Index often contains multiple entries for a printer, bookseller, binder, and the like (and thus often requires more familiarity with the trade and individuals involved in it than students would have), it is a good tool to uncover more about those involved in the making ore selling of a particular work. On the very fine worksheet you have created, you might consider using the feminine as well as masculine pronoun for information about the printer, bookseller, and so forth. Students are often surprised by women’s involvement in the trade, and attending to women in the trade in this exercise might raise some interesting observations and questions.


  3. Dave Mazella Says:

    Hi Eleanor,

    These are all good suggestions. I hadn’t considered using the ESTC or the Book Book Trade index, but these might make very useful sources for their subsequent research reports. And the worksheet revisions are a good idea.

    I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the physical qualities of the books beforehand, but I think that a good introductory reading on their significance would help discussions afterwards. Any suggestions?



  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Dave. It’s helpful to see the details from an assignment. I like the way you begin with the basics. Do you encounter repeated questions from students when they approach this assignment, or does it run smoothly? And I’m also interested in Eleanor’s question: do you discuss the physical characteristics of the book and the clues those characteristics provide in advance, or wait until after students have studied books to discuss this? (I see you answered this question above–thanks!)


  5. Dave Mazella Says:

    This assignment works very smoothly at this point, because I’ve been refining it over the years, and focused it much more strongly on the research dimension. This is partly the result of the work I did recently with my other research-intensive course, which we organized around special collections work along these lines. This is how I got the idea of the two part assignment, an on-site worksheet, which the group then uses as the basis of subsequent research.

    I should also give a lot of credit to Julie Grob, the special collections librarian I’ve collaborated with over the years, because her feedback was very helpful for my tweaks.

    There’s a huge fascination factor with this kind of work, and students always comment about it in their end of term evaluations. It makes them feel like “real English majors.”


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    My experience with student enthusiasm and satisfaction matches yours. As a few students have remarked, the special collections visits open up an entire new world that they did not know existed. These types of visits also work as excellent preparation for using databases such as EEBO, ECCO, and even Burney. Because I am teaching an entire history of the book course this fall, I hope this year to bring students to the Library Company, the Free Library, and/or the Rosenbach. I’ll need to see if I can work that out logistically. (I should be able to do so for the graduate version, which I am also teaching). Still, I have an adequate selection of texts to work with in my university library, and the Chester County Historical Society is just a few blocks away.


  7. Dave Mazella Says:


    If you’re so inclined, please do a post on this course, and let us know how it works out. I’m curious about how this kind of course could work with undergrads.


    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

      I have actually taught such a course to undergraduates a few times, and I can report that they respond quite well to this subject matter. Billed as an introduction to manuscript, print, and digital cultures, the course spans from clay tablets to electronic texts, though the bulk is devoted to print. Geographically, the focus is on the West, yet I have weeks devoted to media in the Arab world and China. This time the course consists exclusively of English majors, but previously the composition attracted a range of majors; it filled very quickly for the fall, and that’s why I suspect that majors dominate.

      About ten years ago I taught an online history of the book graduate course for the Library and Information Science program at Southern Connecticut State University. Interestingly, many (but not all, of course) were quite unfamiliar with the descriptive bibliography as well as the many other issues related to examining the creation, production, distribution, and reception of the written word. Evidently the emphasis had been far more on information science and electronic developments. Yet, for the most part, the grad students readily understood the importance of the course’s material in addressing the digital transformations.


  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I have a few suggestions for background reading, Dave. If you want to provide some background but not assign actual essays, you might create a glossary using appropriate entries from John Carter and Nicholas Barker’s ABCs for Book Collectors (8th edition;) or Geoffrey Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book (2nd edition).

    As for essays, you might find J. Paul Hunter’s “From typology to type: Agents of change in eighteenth-century English texts.” Cultural Artifacts and the Production of Meaning. Eds. Margaret J. M. Ezell and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994, 41-70. For imprint information, you might look at Michael Treadwell’s “London Trade Publishers. 1675-1750,” The Library, 6th series 4 (1982): [99]-134. I examine the use of particular titular keywords within the context of imprints (Shevlin, “The Warwick Lane Network and the Refashioning of ‘Atalantis’ as a Titular Keyword.” Producing the Eighteenth-Century Book: Writers and Publishers in England, 1650-1800. Eds. Laura L. Runge (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), 164-192). I also have written on the title as a textual practice: Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ’em Kin to One Another’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Functions.” Book History 2 (1999): 42-77.

    There’s work too on women in the book trade; besides chapters from Paula McDowell’s The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1998), one might use Hunt, Tamara. “Women’s Participation in the Eighteenth-Century English Publishing Trades.” Leipziger Jahrbuch für Buchgeschichte (1994):47-65. Lisa Maruca’s The Work of Print Authorship and the English Text Trades, 1660-1760. Seattle: University of Washington, 2008 offers interesting material on the intersections among the material text, the trade, and gender.

    James Raven has written extensively on the trade including advertisements (James Tierney has some good essays on this topic, too). Chapter 6 through 10 of his The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) offer a wealth of information about various booksellers, printers, and publishers. Chapter 10 focus on “Promotion of Wares” provides detailed information that links print to other consumer products. See, too, Michael F. Suarez’s “The Business of Literature: The Book Trade in England from Milton to Blake.” A Companion to Literature from Milton to Blake. Ed. David Womersley, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 131-150.

    Another electronic resource is Ian Maxted’s Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History.


  9. Dave Mazella Says:

    Wow, this is an extraordinarily useful set of readings, Eleanor, thanks. I’m sure at least part of this can go onto my course blog’s “Resource” page, which I encourage them to use for their online research projects. Thanks, DM


  10. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Good! There is an incredible amount of material available on this topic, and these suggestions were just a few that immediately came to mind. I am sure I have forgotten several significant ones. No matter what type of 18th-century course I am teaching I always assign reading from Raven’s work and John Brewer’s “Authors, Publishers and the Making of Literary Culture” & “Readers and the Reading Public.” The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. (London: HarperCollins, 1997).

    I also intended to supply information about the videos/dvds available from the Rare Book School, University of Virginia’s bookstore:

    D1 Two classic Book Arts Press Publications now remastered on one region-free DVD: The Anatomy of a Book: Part I: Format in the Hand-Press Period and The Making of a Renaissance Book.

    Also sold with a workbook, practice sheets of facsimile chainline paper, and a set of facsimile format sheets (see Facsimiles of Bibliographical Format below).

    D2 Two classic Book Arts Press Publications now remastered on one region-free DVD: How to Operate a Book and From Punch to Printing Type.


  11. Dave Mazella Says:

    Hmm, I’ve always had some discussion of “print culture” in my Swift classes, but this kind of scholarship makes the connections between the culture of print arguments and the special collections work more tangible. I’ve used Raven before, but hadn’t considered using him for this course.

    Julie has sometimes used video in our special collections visits to show how 18c presses work, but these RBS videos etc. look very useful. I’ll alert her to these.

    This will really jazz up this portion of the course, Eleanor. Thanks.


  12. Anna Battigelli Says:

    You will definitely want to look at Stephen Karian’s outstanding Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript (Cambridge, 2010). It is a goldmine of information regarding Swift’s relations with the print world. In fact, we should probably discuss it on this blog, perhaps later this summer.


    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:


      Your suggestion is an excellent one, both for Dave’s specific course and for our discussion. Steve’s book highlights in no uncertain terms both the importance of bibliography and the value of print and book-history approaches to literary studies.



  13. Anna Battigelli Says:

    A limited preview of Steve’s book can be found on Google books. It traces the role of print and manuscript in Swift’s work. However nice it is to have a partial preview, this is a book all libraries should stock.


  14. Dave Mazella Says:

    I think it would be great to do a Collaborative Reading on Steve’s book here sometime this summer, and maybe have him chime in at the end. I’d like to see more examples of alliances between History of the Book and Literary or Cultural History. What do you think?


  15. Anna Battigelli Says:

    We’ll review Steve’s book in July. And Steve has agreed to respond to the reviews. Dave, how would you like to pick a chapter to review?


  16. Dave Mazella Says:

    Can I take ch. 1, “Print Publication”? (pp. 11-43) That would be the material I would be most familiar with. Thanks, DM


  17. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I would be glad to do Ch. 2 (Manuscript circulation before 1714) or Ch. 3 (Manuscript circulation after 1714)–and perhaps both.



    • Anna Battigelli Says:

      I’ll take one of the remaining chapters. That leaves three for others to take.


      • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

        Do we want to plan on this discussion to start during the latter half of July? Say the 20th or so?



  18. Lisa Maruca Says:

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this book. I can’t commit to review a section–I’m out of town for much of July and I’m no expert on Swift–but I did just ask my library to purchase it, and I look forward to discussing it here.

    Thanks, Anna, for alerting me to this conversation. Something exciting always happens the week I step away from the blogs I follow. Dave, what a fantastic assignment. I like that the historical questions include print/bibliographical issues but are not limited to them–eg, your question about research on a person mentioned in the text. What a great way to engage students in studying the historical context of our texts (this seems related to your recent Long Eighteenth post but that’s another topic!) AND introducing them to some important tools that allow them to do so. Which questions do the students usually seem more interested in pursuing in the research section–the book, the printer, or the “historical personage”?

    I’d also like to hear more about the context of this assignment. What sorts of books are on the table? I’m trying to envision how I could do something similar in a library that does not have a rare book room and where the special collections are limited. What class(es) do you use this assignment in? Survey, methods, 18c lit? That would make a big difference in the students’ preparedness and interest, it seems to me.


  19. Dave Mazella Says:

    Thanks, Lisa. Students are usually pretty evenly split in their investigations. Since their topics relate to an annotated bibliography on Swift they will do a few weeks later, the topic helps determine their focus on this assignment. That is, the Swift and Empire group will look to see if they can identify a connection between their work and the topic, or investigate a figure related to that topic who comes up in the text.

    We have a small group of Swift texts, including an 18c collected works and Scott’s 19c works that we use, along with a variety of other texts. I’d say the tables have about 15-20 items from the 18 to early 19th century. I have used these enough that Julie and I need to switch things around so they don’t fall apart.

    Conceivably you could use some kind of grouping of primary texts, either digital, or conventional print materials, for this exercise, though of course the point is to notice the differences made by the various forms of printing etc.

    This course is a version of our gateway to the English major, which I’ve written about in Profession ’98. Contact me offline and I’ll send you a pdf. I’ve also blogged it on the Long 18th, which you can find here:

    But to answer your question, this course uses repeated rereadings of Gullivers Travels to learn a variety of critical approaches. So these are entry-level English majors, but usually without any prior knowledge of 18c literature. Evaluations often begin with the phrase, “I never expected to like Swift . . . .”


  20. Dave Mazella Says:

    Oh, and to contact me, I’m at


  21. juliegrob Says:

    Hi, all. It warms the cockles of my heart to read about faculty teaching with special collections material.

    Eleanor, in another course that I help Dave with, I have done an introductory discussion about the physical characteristics of the books. For the Swift assignment, Dave and I are both circulating in the room while the students look at the books and fill out their worksheets, and they call us over when they hit something they have a question about, like the long s or the phrase “printed for…” That may not be the best approach but it does give them an opportunity to get some questions answered before they post to the blog.

    Dave, we do have the Book Arts Press DVDs in Special Collections. In undergraduate classes, I show short YouTube videos of a hand press being operated and handmade paper being made. They are a fantastic way to convey in a limited amount of time what the printing process looked like in the hand press era.

    Lisa, I think you might be able to adapt this assignment, probably for a smaller course, even without extensive special collections holdings. I think part of the interest comes just from students experiencing printed books from the period they are learning about. So if you are able to track down a handful of 18th century books that show some of the physical characteristics, maybe you could alter the assignment to ask how the item they are looking at (random 18th century novel) might relate to the particular novel they are studying. Or you could possibly have them work side by side with an original 18th century book or even facsimile and the contemporary paperback edition they are using in class. It is kind of fun for students to identify what is different between the two – the cover, the paper, the type, etc. – and think about how that would have affected the reading experience. Now I’m getting excited about how you could alter such an assignment to work at your institution!


  22. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Julie, for these excellent suggesitons. Can you suggest urls for the YouTube videos of hand-press operations?


  23. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks for this post, too, Julie. I would also be interested in hearing of your URLs, and I will be able to contribute some as well when I return home tomorrow morning.

    In the meantime, Ian Gadd and Gabriel Egan have constructed a virtual printing press using Second Life. Access to the press, accompanying videos, and snapshots of it can be found at Virtual Printing Press.

    Those interested in scribal production as a contrast to the hand-press period, might be interested in the DVD The Illuminator and and a Bible for the 21st Century.

    Hope College also has a video on making Papyrus.


  24. On librarians and [historical] information literacy « La pensée des lumières Says:

    […] also appreciated an assignment that was posted on the Early Modern Online Bibliography blog last week by Dave Mazella. Clearly the assignment speaks to the contextual and content / material knowledge that should be a […]


  25. Jim May Says:

    I think Eleanor Shevlin’s right that many probably thought enumerative bibliography was meant by Jennifer Howard’s query. Very few literary professors can in fact write the collational formula for a book–say 5%. The antiquarian booksellers, the rare books cataloguers at major libraries, and 1% of literary scholars actually can analyze a book down to what units were impressed and describe it. So, the question seems rhetorical to me. Of course, bibliographical skills are held by very few. That’s become more true since grad programs in large numbers cut the old required bibliography course 20 years or more ago. But, even when I had such a course (from Shirley Kenny at Maryland), few students mastered the skill–and usually this course was taught by professors who weren’t very capable themselves and couldn’t teach descriptive bibliography at the Rare Books School. If you look at the big-name bibliographies produced during the first half of the 20th century, of authors (Swift, Pope, Dryden) or of collections (Rothschild, Tinker, etc.), many contain basic bibliographical errors. There was no golden age when such skills were widespread. I’m more concerned at the skills’ disappearance from the rare books room staffs. I’ve had a lot of bad info from rare books librarians in recent years–for instance, someone’s telling me that a title-page wasn’t cancelled and not understanding how, given the watermark evidence, it had to be. (Just because the stub isn’t visible doesn’t mean it’s integral!) Now that most scholars of hand-press literature are working with digital images, when they do see primary materials, even fewer will be able to tell a duodecimo from an octavo. There is a genuine niche here for younger scholars to enter–there’s lots of basic analytical bibliography to be done, lots of author bibliographies are needed, lots of textual difficulties are noted but not resolved by Foxon, etc. The great interest in book history hasn’t led many to develop analytical skills with hand-press materials. To my mind, most “book history” work is about publishing history and the history of the publication trade, not about book history. From surveying bibliographical studies for ECCB during the past 15 years or more, I’d guess that fewer than two dozen books and articles a year involve physical features of printed matter from the long 18C (British). I know Trevor Howard-Hill, the editor of PBSA, craves for genuinely bibliographical pieces hypothesizing and the like from physical evidence.

    It makes sense to me to anchor bibliography to textual criticism, as my graduate course in bibliography-methods did. But, for the Richmond ASECS, I proposed a session (sponsored by the Bibliographical Society of America) on physical/bibliographical evidence related to textual decisions, and I didn’t get a single proposal–so, I’m not sure that textual studies are commonly enough integrated with bibliography for textual studies to be the point of access. Not a lot of people do textual work–here again we see a shift: once many dissertations were in fact editions (my own was an edition of Young’s satirical poetry and thus I had to do analytical bibliography in earnest while in grad school). I’ve never taught bibliography other than the enumerative kind, which I refer to in class as “documentation,” and the new MLA guidelines (many are just ludicrous, like the mandate to use “[. . .]”) make that all the more odious. I’ve been encouraging colleagues to buy old books–they are cheap and easily obtainable now with ABE and other sites. That appreciative ownership could lead to a grasp of bibliography–the symbols used to describe books surely put many off–there’s symbol anxiety in other fields than math. More work would be done on printing and the printed object if people were also collectors or just able to do it at home. But I think we who do bibliographical work should be happy that we have lots of easily publishable (if sometimes tedious) work lying out before us and that we are sometimes consulted by colleagues needing our help–it’s nice to be rare birds!–Jim May


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