Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

From Tablets to Tablets—Students in ENGL226 publish booklet highlighting new acquisitions to StFX Library Special Collections

March 8th, 2022
Left photo, l-r, StFX student Emily Hubbard; English professor Dr. Laura Estill, Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities; and student Katherine O’Brien use a replica press for the last day of class in ENGL226. Right photo, Katherine O’Brien.

A group of StFX students recently had the chance to become budding book historians as they carried out direct research during a new English course offered at StFX, publishing a booklet highlighting new acquisitions to the StFX Angus L. Macdonald Library Special Collections. 

Students in ENGL226: From Tablets to Tablets: Texts and Technologies, taught by Dr. Laura Estill, Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities, and offered for the first time last term, were involved with publishing a booklet highlighting new acquisitions from the library’s John Stewart Collection. These are as-yet uncatalogued and allowed students to undertake primary research. 

Dr. Estill says ENGL 226 is a course about the history of texts and technologies and the project came about after the class visited the Special Collections.  

“In a course about book history, it seemed natural to visit the rare books we have on campus, so I contacted Susan Cameron, our Special Collections librarian, about the possibility of having our class visit the Rare Book Room and Special Collections over the course of the semester,” says Dr. Estill. 

“Susan told me about a collection we had that had not yet even been catalogued, and as we looked at these books, we found many gems worth analyzing further, and so this assignment was born.”

Dr. Estill says the students undertook primary research using the books in this collection and wrote the text of this catalogue. All the two-page write-ups about books are by students. A link to the project can be found HERE. It’s hosted in StFX Scholar, which is the official university repository. Print copies are also found in the Father Charles Brewer Celtic Collection Room at the library.

“I wanted students to learn to think like book historians, that is, ask how the form/format/material object of a book can affect it meaning,” Dr. Estill says. 

“I wanted students to learn about a range of approaches to the history of books, including thinking about provenance, users and readers, and historic printing practices.” 

Ms. Cameron says it was an extremely beneficial project for all involved.  

“As the Special Collections librarian, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Estill and her students.  It was a great example of experiential and group learning.  We all learned from each other,” she says.  

“A highlight for me was watching as the students chose the books.  It was fun to see what appealed to them and why.”

Dr. John Stewart was a bibliophile, she says, and the library benefitted from his lifelong book collecting. In addition to his Scottish Enlightenment special collection, in 2016, the library received additional rare books. The students chose their titles from this latter donation. 

“The booklet is a manifestation of the student’s work on their selected books,” she says. “The detailed research they contributed, provides valuable information for processing this collection. The document will be used for promotion and awareness of our Special Collections in the library.” 

Dr. Estill says students rose to the occasion with this project. 

“We had a day of class presentations where students presented on their books to each other and asked each other questions, which led to a wonderful sharing of knowledge. Students shared their excitement about their books, with an emphasis on their curiosity and questions they developed, research challenges and processes, surprising discoveries, and lessons learned.”

Fourth year student Ryan Quigley of East Hants, NS, a political science major taking a minor in history, says he learned about the wonderful resources available through the Angus L. Macdonald Library. “The Rare Book Room and Special Collections provided an amazing opportunity to see historical writings. I also must commend Susan Cameron and the rest of the staff at the library for being exceedingly helpful.”

StFX, he says, has an amazing special collections section of the library. “This not only piqued my interest as a historian, but also was encouraging in that it provided raw material to study through several academic disciplines. The value of the material was why this was such an important project to share with the rest of the StFX community and publish through the upcoming student journal at Queen's University.”

Dr. Estill says this class will be offered every third year. “Future students will definitely be involved in projects with rare books and special collections at our library, but they might not all be based on the John Stewart Collection,” she says. “We have, for instance, a huge run of Punch magazine from the 19th century that I would love to explore with students.” 

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