Mortimer Rare Book Room Instruction

Martin Antonetti


The book has been an object of study at Smith College at least since 1945, when retired librarian Eunice Weed '02 first taught a course on rare books. Since then Helmut Lehmann-Haupt, Leonard Baskin, Elliot Offner, Ruth Mortimer and others have used the rare book collection as a laboratory for instruction in the art, the technique and the history of the book. The current curators in the Mortimer Rare Book Room continue to offer a full range of instruction, from the two semester-long courses, The Art & History of the Book and The Artists Book in the 20th Century, to shorter interterm classes, to presentations for visiting classes.


Martin Antonetti, Curator of Rare Books (1997-2016)

The Art & History of the Book (ARH247/ENG293)

In spring 2017, this course will be taught in the MRBR by Professor Joseph Black of UMass/Amherst. This 4-credit, semester-long course usually taught by the curator of rare books, is designed to introduce students to the history and art of the book, particularly in the Western world. It has three separate but inter-related emphases or themes. The first is about seeing the book as a physical artifact-how to look at a book as a biblio-archaeologist would. To do this students will learn to uncover information about the nature, purpose and implications of a book's type, paper, printing, illustration and binding.

The second theme is the impact of the book on European society. That is, the book not only as a commercial commodity and as the primary vehicle for the transmission of ideas but also as an expression of the mentalité, or mind-set, of all those who came in contact with it: author, printer, publisher, seller, binder, illustrator, reader, censor.

And the third theme that weaves through the entire course is the mutability and transience of the text, the sometimes fragile and tenuous transmission of a work from edition to edition, century to century, civilization to civilization. In exploring this third theme the class will be mainly concerned with the question of how the physical form of a book affects the way the text is understood and disseminated.

Students have the advantage of being able to work with examples of manuscripts and printed books from the Mortimer Rare Book Room in order to learn the basic taxonomy of the book. They will also develop the ability to ascertain what these physical objects can tell us about their creators' varied intentions and anticipated audiences. Books are "primary sources" from several points of view, and this course hopes to shed light on how many different kinds of things books can tell us.

Class meetings are held in a variety of formats, combining formal lectures and class discussions with hands-on workshops and the study of rare books themselves. During the semester several outside experts in the history of the book will visit the class. Course enrollment is by permission of the instructor.

The Artists Book in the 20th Century (ARH268)

Critic and media historian Johanna Drucker has observed that the artists book is "the quintessential 20th-century artform, appearing in every major art movement of this century, and providing a unique means of realizing works within all of the many avant-garde, experimental and independent groups whose contributions have defined the shape of 20th-century artistic activity." Artists books are collaborative explorations of the domain of the book: a highly-charged meeting ground between literature, fine arts and applied arts, where technical skill and the ability to develop literary and visual content come together. Just as photography in its early years forced painters to rethink what they were doing and ultimately changed the artistic landscape, book arts is now challenging us to reimagine the hitherto uncharted terrain between the visual and the verbal.

This 4-credit, semester-long course is a survey of the genre from its beginnings in the political and artistic avant-garde movements of Europe at the turn of the 20th century through contemporary American conceptual bookworks. In particular, the course will examine the varieties of form and expression used by book artists and the relationships between these artists and the socio-cultural, literary, and graphic environments from which they emerged. In addition to extensive hands-on archival work in the library's Mortimer Rare Book Room and the museum's Selma Erving Collection of Livres d'Artistes, students will read extensively in the literature of artistic manifestos and of semiotics, focusing on those critics who have explored the complex relationship of word and image.

As with the course described above, class meetings are held in a variety of formats, combining formal lectures and class discussions with hands-on workshops and the study of rare books themselves. During the semester several outside experts in the history of the book will visit the class. Course enrollment is limited to 12 students.

Interterm Courses

The Mortimer Rare Book Room-with support from the College Archives, Sophia Smith Collection, and select faculty-often offers an interterm course in the month of January, taught by Karen Kukil, the associate curator of Special Collections, on the use of primary source materials in literary study. The aim of the course is to construct a critical edition of a literary work from the collections of original manuscripts and typescripts in the Mortimer Rare Book Room. Current practice in critical and bibliographical method is emphasized. There is also discussion of various technical aspects related to the editing of a text: identifying authorial intention, establishing the copy-text and the mechanics of the critical edition, addressing variant readings, and emendating the text. The course is designed to give students practice in conducting original research, a particularly valuable skill for those who plan to attend graduate school. The following course will be taught as part of the Archives Concentration program over the next three years.

Editing Sylvia Plath’s Poetry
This course teaches students how to transcribe and edit poetry drafts in preparation for a variorum edition of Sylvia Plath’s late Ariel poems. Technical aspects related to the editing of a text are discussed, including transcription, emendation, and digitization. Plath's manuscripts, journals, annotated library, and other biographical material in the Plath Collection in the Mortimer Rare Book Room are available during the course, as well as her papers in the Smith College Archives. The publishing history of Plath’s writings and the management of her literary estate are considered. Guest lectures by Plath scholars and technical exercises with digital humanities experts are included in the course. Each student will be required to transcribe and prepare a digital variorum edition of one poem from the Plath Collection. Whenever possible, footnotes will be based upon primary sources.

Presentations to Classes

Five-College faculty may schedule class meetings in the Mortimer Rare Book Room for presentations on selected subjects by contacting Karen Kukil, Interim Curator of Rare Books (ext. 2908).