Despite the on-again, off-again rain that had been falling throughout the day, students, faculty and New Haven residents had filled most of the seats set up for Fred Moten’s poetry reading at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library well before the 4 p.m. start time. Beinecke staff wheeled stacks of fold-out chairs across the floor and set them up in rows stretching all the way to the walls as more people streamed up the steps, shaking water from their hair and unzipping heavy jackets. Though the Beinecke’s marble walls lacked their famed golden glow, the library exuded an internal warmth. And as Nancy Kuhl and then Richard Deming stepped up to announce the poet, a hush descended over the crowd.
Moten’s reading was just one of six public events held at the Beinecke last week. Other events included a performance of political music by the Collegium Musicum, a lecture by Carrie Mae Weems and a keynote address by Terry Tempest Williams for a seminar on Western photography. It’s unusual for the Beinecke to host so many events in a week, but interest in the library has been high since its reopening this September after a yearlong renovation. In the past three months, the Beinecke has received over 47,000 visitors, well on its way to exceeding its pre-renovation average of 150,000 visitors per year according to Beinecke Director E.C. Schroeder.
“We’ve used the reopening to remind people that we exist and that we haven’t totally gone away,” Schroeder said.
The reopening has not only been an opportunity to engage people already acquainted with the Beinecke but also new audiences, according to Public Relations and Communications Director Michael Morand. But while the library works to reach out to the New Haven community, in many ways it also strives to connect with Yale students, whether that’s through exhibitions, public events, research collections or classes. Everyone I spoke with, from curators to undergrads, emphasized the value of having such an extraordinary repository of historical and literary material available for student access.
“The Beinecke has a goal that every undergraduate will have some kind of experience in the building in their four years here,” said Melissa Barton, curator of American literature, poetry and drama. “Having an experience of using archives and rare materials and having access to primary sources to do real historical research is such an important part of an undergraduate education.”
* * *
Original construction on the Beinecke was completed in 1963. The library, which can hold 180,000 volumes in its central stacks and over 1 million underground, has materials from the Gutenberg Bible to a first edition of “Ulysses” to a collection of Chipotle cups. \The building underwent renovation between May 2015 and August 2016 to replace its outdated HVAC system and to expand the amount of teaching space available, increasing the number of classrooms from four to seven and making room for more lecture-size classes.
By Thanksgiving break, the library had already hosted 100 classes taught by both curators and teaching faculty — averaging eight to 14 each week. Though students may have already seen digitized versions of original documents online, it’s a different experience to see them in person, explained Barton, who typically leads 10 classes a semester.
“Many people now are not accustomed to seeing handwriting, so to see handwritten letters, handwritten manuscripts, even from the 20th century — people grapple with how to read it, and that can be a really fun experience to go through,” Barton said. “Or to know that cut and paste is something that literally used to happen — we have manuscripts to show that actual strips of paper are being glued back together.”
For English professor and Shakespeare scholar David Kastan, the Beinecke’s collections was a major reason for his move from Columbia to Yale. He holds at least one session of almost every course he teaches in the library and emphasizes the value of accessing the materiality of works of literature, whether that’s to contextualize the piece as a physical object or to analyze annotations that early readers left behind as clues to understanding their interpretations of the text. I ran into his “Shakespeare Histories and Tragedies” class examining the Beinecke’s copies of Shakespeare plays, including a handwritten version of “Macbeth” that differs from the Shakespeare and Davenport print editions. Eve Houghton ’17, a curatorial assistant who was invited to speak at the session, believes the text may have been used as a promptbook for the Duke’s Theater.
“[Early] editions locate these books in a particular history, reminding us of the easily forgotten truth that ‘authors don’t write books,’” Kastan wrote in an email. “They write texts that the labor of other people turn into books, and the early books have physical characteristics that carry meanings and value that is different from reading the texts in a modern edition.”
* * *
You don’t have to take a class to take advantage of the Beinecke’s materials — visitors can see them in exhibitions open to the public. Two are closing this Saturday, Dec. 10. The first, “Recent Acquisitions,” displays materials obtained since the library’s 50th anniversary in 2013, and includes items ranging from portraits of Abraham Lincoln to stencils from the British punk movement. And the second, “Destined to Be Known: The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters at 75,” celebrates the life of James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist, writer, lyricist, diplomat and educator. The exhibition marks the 75th anniversary of the collection, which was founded in 1941 by Carl Van Vechten in Johnson’s honor.
“James Weldon Johnson [was] a very important and kind of under-recognized figure in American history,” Barton, who co-curated the exhibit, said. “To think of him as someone who had this strong belief in democracy and the power of demonstration and organization, in trying to work within the system but also within the rule of law, are all things that are probably important to keep in mind right now.”
A known figure in the Harlem Renaissance and the first African-American chosen as executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson played a role in many achievements of the civil rights movement, authoring the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and organizing the 1917 Silent Protest Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City. (A photograph of the parade will be on view in the Beinecke’s spring exhibition.) The exhibit is organized around each of Johnson’s many roles and includes handwritten drafts, photographs, and copies of his novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.”
David Jiang ’19, who visited the exhibit, was particularly struck by seeing Johnson’s handwriting. “One can always read about what he accomplished in a book, but there’s nothing like learning about the life of such an inspirational American through actual documents he wrote,” Jiang said.
In the spring, the whole building will be dedicated to an exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance titled “Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and the Beinecke Library,” featuring around 350 of the library’s acquisitions related to the era.
“[The Harlem Renaissance] is one of the core strengths of the James Weldon Johnson Collection, and the Beinecke has never had an exhibition devoted to the period,” Barton said. “Gather Out of Star-Dust” will showcase a chronology of and different thematic angles on the Renaissance and is set to open in January.
* * *
The Beinecke, however, is not just a repository for accumulating books — it is also a site for study open to academics across the country. Besides the availability of its collections to students at Yale, the Beinecke awards fellowships to graduate candidates from other universities to come to New Haven to make use of its resources.
The reopening, in fact, coincided with the publication of three books this fall (and another to be out in the spring) in cooperation with the Yale University Press. Typically, the library only produces one book every year. The Beinecke’s new titles — a copy of the mysterious 15th-century Voynich Manuscript, a book of essays about children’s literature titled “Storytime” and a book of essays analyzing the use of material text (commissioned in honor of Kastan) titled “The Book in History, The Book as History” — include contributions from various scholars who have come to the Beinecke for research. The diversity of the books is evidence of the range of study that can be done in the Beinecke’s collections, said Modern Books and Manuscripts Curator Timothy Young.
That research isn’t limited to graduate students — undergrads who work as curatorial assistants are also an important part of the Beinecke’s practice of scholarship. Houghton has put together an exhibit on annotations and marginalia and coordinated the image selection and photography for “The Book in History, The Book as History.” Adam Mahler ’17, a former copy editor for the News, designs curricula for class visits to the Beinecke, answers reference inquiries, and gave the first Gallery Talk led by an undergraduate on Monday, Nov. 30, about his work on Fernando Pessoa, the modernist Portuguese poet.
“I hope that undergraduates feel welcome at the Beinecke, and that they know they can come to the reading room and work on almost anything in the collections — which is an amazing privilege,” Houghton, who specializes in early books and manuscripts, said. “I’ve done work at a lot of special collections repositories in the U.S. and U.K., so I’m not just being partisan when I say that the Beinecke is incredibly and unusually supportive of undergraduate research.”
Schroeder, too, makes a point of emphasizing the Beinecke’s commitment to undergrads.
“Where possible, we try to work with students and support programs that they do,” he said, citing Mahler’s gallery talk as an example. And while the Beinecke is not an open library like Bass or Sterling where students are free to browse the stacks, “[they] are more than welcome to come in and use the materials.”
* * *
Running late to class, I slipped out of the Beinecke just as Moten began to read, his voice echoing around the building. It had begun to rain again and the plaza glistened under the dimming sky.
“What we have tried to do with the reopening,” Michael Morand, the public relations director, said to me earlier, “is to remind people that the materials here are not dead. They are for the living. And they bring the past to life in the present in service of the future.”
As I headed toward Cross Campus, I turned back to look at the library, the view, as it has been all semester, blissfully unhindered by the residue of construction.