Rare books, attic find, and departmental collaboration lead to StFX students conducting original research

Pictured, l-r, are (at table facing away from camera) Grace Still and Hope McCutcheon and (at table facing camera) Susan Cameron, Dr. Laura Estill, and Kirstie Jordan

A rare book collection, an attic find, and a collaboration between a StFX English professor and a StFX librarian resulted in a novel assignment for StFX students taking ‘English 205: Shakespeare Today!’ this past year.  

StFX English professor and Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities Dr. Laura Estill and Special Collections Librarian Susan Cameron led a course assignment this past term that saw the students undertake original research with Punch magazine, a collection of rare books StFX holds at the StFX Angus L Macdonald Library. The student work has just been published on StFX Scholar. 

“It’s particularly cool because the StFX set of Punch magazine spans over 100 years and is in an incredibly handsome binding, making our copies even more valuable,” says Dr. Estill. 

She says the assignment began with a moment of serendipity, when Ms. Cameron took her to see rare materials, some of which were not stored in the official rare book room or special collections room. 

“We wended our way through the byzantine structure of the Angus L. Macdonald Library, around the stacks and up ill-lit stairs to a locked door. Behind the door was an attic room with boxes and shelves of materials with no other home in the library. And in the middle of that room, the St Francis Xavier University collection of Punch magazines were shelved, with their impressive matching green spines decorated in gold. We were immediately drawn to these handsome volumes. I had seen digitized images of Shakespeareana in Punch magazines. I lifted some volumes off the shelf at random and, leafing through, found Shakespeare-related materials leaping off the page.”


It was over a year later when Dr. Estill was slated to teach a new-to-StFX course, ‘Shakespeare Today!’ about how Shakespeare is received, interpreted, and adapted over time, that the duo was happy to finally get students in to work with these valuable and fascinating periodicals spanning over a century.

Dr. Estill says the students had two introductory sessions: one she led on the history of Punch and how to research and analyze Punch, and a second, led by Ms. Cameron and Lorena Brothers of StFX Library on the history of the collection and how the collection appeared in Antigonish. 

Ms. Cameron says StFX is fortunate to have a collection of the valuable and beautifully bound Punch Magazine. StFX has 112 bound volumes, most of which are bound similarly, with some variations in the later volumes. They span the period from 1841 to 1948.

Working in person with the rare materials, each student, most of whom were not English majors, found a piece of Shakespeareana that piqued their interest, which they adopted and researched for the assignment. They supplemented research with primary sources using digital facsimiles. 


Dr. Laura Estill (centre) with students Edward Meadus and Makoto Barnard

Dr. Estill says students chose material such as play reviews, articles, cartoons, and satirical pieces: all deployed Shakespearean ideas (and ideas of Shakespeare) for different reasons. The students worked with materials from the Victorian era to the mid-twentieth century. They not only had to learn about Shakespeare but also later time periods. The question students asked is: “Why did this writer/artist reference Shakespeare and to what end?” The assignment prompt, included at the end of the booklet, gave sample questions students could ask to help determine “what is interesting about the Shakespeareana?”

“I wanted students to think about how we interpret and deploy texts in culture,” Dr. Estill says. “The students undertook original research: they wrote about materials that, often, had never before been studied. They learned how to find information about literary texts and historic periods, which can help them become better critical thinkers. And they shared what they found (in this booklet), which hones communication skills. 

“The StFX library holds fantastic rare books and special collections; it’s always a joy to bring students there.”

Dr. Estill says she was happily surprised at the range of interesting materials students found to write about, from a letter to the editor from Edward Fitzball (a playwright who compared himself, in jest, to Shakespeare) to a satirical one-act prequel to Hamlet to a cartoon comparing Queen Victoria’s infatuation with Napoleon III to Titania’s addled love for ass-headed Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 


Ms. Cameron says the assignment provided the students with exposure to rare and older book materials and the chance to spend time using them and gain an appreciation for the difference between using the physical object and the online version. “It is very likely that for many of them it could have been the first time they had the chance to do that,” she says.  

“In today’s digital world, a hands-on experience with print primary source material is rare. It was fun to see them realize that it is a sensory experience as well as just an interaction with the printed content. Many of them were afraid to touch the material or amazed that they had access. They had the ‘white gloves’ idea that these materials are not to be handled except with extreme care.

“I could see the students making connections with what they found in Punch and using reference materials to put the pieces together, while I was working with them on the assignment. These are basic research skills, and they were having fun learning. It could spark someone to decide to study book history or a related field.”

Ms. Cameron says she was keen to have students realize that the library has special collections and to learn a little about how these collections came to be, and that there is always a story behind them. “I also introduced the concept of special collections, and that there are an astonishing variety to the subjects and types of collections out there.

“I was particularly pleased that this assignment prompted me to do provenance searching and that I made some discoveries, in particular about the large collection of books left to StFX from the estate of Dr. John Francis Waters of Ottawa. Punch is so full of potential for projects in many disciplines on campus, and I would like to encourage people to consider innovative assignments like this one.”

The students included Abby Ives, Abby MacDonell, Avery Walker, Caroline Kelly, Ciara Wainwright, Danielle Phillips, Ebony Gosselin, Edward Meadus, Elise Canning, Erin MacLellan, Grace Still, Hope McCutcheon, Kirstie Jordan, Lily Burt, Makoto Barnard, Matthew Breau, Olivia McNamara, Renee Papp, Samantha Burton, Sara Waldron, Sierra Fraser and Teresa Church.