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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > College Row
College Row

From the Folger

Every rare-book library restricts the use of its pencils-only reading rooms to credentialed scholars. In the case of the Folger, we require readers at a minimum to be Ph.D. students working on dissertations relevant to the Folger holdings in the early modern period, in theater history or in Shakespearean materials. We ask all potential readers for two letters of reference testifying to their good character. We sometimes make exceptions, upon request to the librarian, for nonscholars who require special access to the collection—writers, for example, who might be doing research for a general trade book on a famous Shakespearean actor or director.

But for two weeks each January, two or three Amherst students working on their honors theses are granted Folger reader privileges and allowed full access to the rare materials in the collection. The students usually are easy to spot in the reading rooms—in part because of their relative youth and casual dress, in part because they are among the hardest-working and most focused scholars in our midst. The Undergraduate Folger/Amherst Fellowship Program was the brain child—and joint leap of faith—of the Amherst College librarian, Willis Bridegam, and Richard Kuhta, librarian at the Folger. They were encouraged in this initiative by Alden Vaughan ’50, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and a Folger reader for more than 30 years. The Friends of the Amherst College Library partially sponsor the program, providing funds for students’ travel, meals, living and incidental expenses. The participating students are selected by a committee that includes the program’s two founders, members of the Amherst faculty and the chair of the Friends of the Amherst College Library.

The program has been an enormous success ever since its inception in 1996. The Folger has helped to bring into being theses on Milton’s Satan and Milton’s God (Justin Snider ’99 and Gregg McHugh ’96, respectively); on “Catesby, Linnaeus and Languages of Representation in Natural History” (David Kim ’99); on the “English Origins of Russian Children’s Literature” (Stacy Kitsis ’01); and on “The English Succession Crisis, 1553” (Benjamin Baum ’03)—to name a few. While theses by English majors predominate, history majors and even classics majors also are well-represented on the list of 21 impressive students.

This year, our two Amherst seniors, inspired by the teaching of the Samuel Williston Professor of English, David Sofield, and Assistant Professor of English Anston Bosman, were working on 17th-century poets. Nick Pedersen, who grew up in London, was writing on John Donne, long one of his favorite poets. Mihailis Diamantis was interested in the tensions between sacred and secular love in George Herbert’s poetry.

Folger reading-room staff showed the students how to find their way through Folger manuscript sources and emblem books, including Jacobean “commonplace” books—manuscript books full of their owners’ jottings, including recipes for hair growth, bawdy stories, and epigrams and other poems to save and cherish. Pedersen and Diamantis both looked at one Folger commonplace book (V.a.345) that contains a few poems by Donne and Herbert. The presence of poems in such commonplace books is one indication of the poets’ popularity.

Pedersen was able to look at many of Donne’s letters (the Folger owns 13 of the surviving 39 letters) and—helped by Folger manuscript curator Heather Wolfe—he found Donne’s script surprisingly easy to read, despite the famous difficulty of Elizabethan handwriting. (These letters represent Donne’s urgent attempts to gain favor with powerful patrons, who were outraged by his secret marriage to a woman who was years his junior and far above him in station. It was in his interest to write as legibly as possible.)

Like librarians everywhere, the Folger reading-room staff finds its gratification in enabling the work of readers. But I believe—with justifiable pride—that our staff accepts this particular task with a special passion, in part because of their devotion to the collection and in part because of the special gratitude that regularly comes their way in book acknowledgements or in gifts left behind by departing readers. We were all delighted by the letter that we recently received from Pedersen and Diamantis, who inserted into their text a relevant passage from Donne’s Sermon XVII, comparing heaven to a library where departed souls, like books, “shall lie open to one another.” Their letter concluded, “Whether heaven is in fact some sort of library is of course unknowable; what is knowable, however, is that we have never encountered a library more heavenly than that located at 201 East Capitol Street.”

—Gail Kern Paster

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