There are many oddities in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library that are neither rare books nor manuscripts: Eugene O’Neill’s rings, locks of Frederick Schiller’s hair, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s flute, among others.
The librarians at Beinecke also once believed that they had a more intimate — and oversized — artifact.
“We were supposed to have President Taft’s underpants, but that seems to be a myth,” said Christa Sammons, the curator of the Collection of German Literature at the Beinecke. During his presidency, Taft weighed over 300 pounds.
But relatively few undergraduates ever see these curiosities during their time at Yale, Sammons said. One of Yale’s unique resources, the Beinecke houses early books and manuscripts, letters, art and a myriad of other research objects. Widely used by graduate students for research projects, the Beinecke is making an effort this year to reach out to undergraduates in particular.
“We’re always trying to dispel the myth that undergraduates aren’t allowed to come here,” Sammons said.
Many undergraduates said they have never been in the Beinecke Library because their courses don’t require work with Beinecke sources.
“I’ve thought about using it, but I’ve never had a paper that would require it,” Josh Baraban ’06 said.
Although students may not use the Beinecke for research purposes, some visit with parents or attend events there.
“I’ve only ever gone there for concerts,” Erin Birdsong ’05 said.
Germanic language and literature professor Cyrus Hamlin, who is currently teaching a freshman seminar in the Beinecke, said a committee is studying the problem of bringing undergraduates to the Beinecke.
Although he said the Beinecke staff is excited about new programs such as the Freshman Seminar program that will bring undergraduates into the library, it is difficult to incorporate that type of research into classes.
“The difficulty is finding a way of designing a course with hands-on research in the Beinecke,” Hamlin said.
When the Freshman Seminar program was created this year, Frank Turner, the director of Beinecke Library, said he wanted to bring freshmen to the library as a part of the program. His offer resulted in the creation of Hamlin’s seminar, “German Culture, Arts, and Letters.”
Hamlin’s course examines German cultural history through the study of original documents including sheet music and books. Only two students enrolled in the seminar, which requires a reading knowledge of German.
“[Turner] is very actively concerned with involving students more with the special collections,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin said language barriers are a problem with undergraduate courses dependent on Beinecke documents. Many of the Beinecke’s holdings are in languages other than English.
“Ideally, for any kind of genuine research to be done, one needs more advanced students,” Hamlin said.
However, contact with manuscripts can be a learning experience on its own. Sammons is working with Hamlin to provide materials for the course. She said the experience of holding a book from the 17th century can change the student’s experience reading it and add a layer of meaning.
“I hope that these participants in the seminar will begin to see a literary text … as a text embedded in its publication history,” she said.
English professor Amy Hungerford said that students in her sophomore seminar “Literature Now” have examined manuscripts from Robert Penn Warren’s papers to supplement their study of “All the King’s Men.” The Beinecke collection contains letters from Warren’s editor recommending changes to the novel as it was being written.
Hungerford said that examining an author’s correspondence can give students insight into an author’s goals for the novel.
“It’s a view of Warren’s compositional process from just a different point of view that you just can’t get anywhere else,” Hungerford said.
Sarah Cortina ’07, a student in “Literature Now,” is using the Beinecke collections for a research project on J. M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.” She said researching Barrie was her first foray into the Beinecke Library.
Cortina said the original documents in the library were particularly interesting because they have a direct connection to the author.
“It’s interesting to know that the person you’re researching actually held these documents,” she said.
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