Learning firsthand from the collections in Beinecke’s expanded classrooms

Students and professor with picturesque maps spread across the table.
Yale School of Art Professor Sam Messer (in white) and first-year painting students contemplate material from the Beinecke's map collection for inspiration.

More than 150,000 people visited the Beinecke Library’s ground floor and mezzanine public exhibition areas in the last year. Those who knew the building before its recent renovation have exclaimed, “It looks just the same!”

Indeed, the library, with its stacked glass tower, looks much as it did when the building, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft, first opened in 1963.

Downstairs, though, through the doors off the lobby of the courtyard level, Yale faculty and students find newly expanded and configured classrooms, designed for an increase in teaching with primary source materials. Where there once were two classrooms, now the Beinecke Library offers four, all with state-of-the-art information technology and audiovisual equipment. New workrooms serve these classrooms and enable the library’s access services staff to more effectively organize and stage collection items for use in course sessions on site.

Three ancient books stand upright in the foreground, with Beinecke curator Kathryn James in the background.
Beinecke curator Kathryn James with some of the books she uses to teach students in her graduate seminar on methods in book history.

When we set out to renovate 121 Wall Street for its ‘next chapter,’ a major objective was to improve and increase our capacity for courses across the curriculum,” explains Edwin C. Schroeder, director of the library.

Like all of the special collections on campus, we aim to be an integral part of teaching and learning at Yale,” Schroeder says. “We are delighted by the enthusiastic embrace by Yale faculty to use of the library as a classroom, whether for semester-long courses that meet here each week or for occasional meetings by classes regularly taught elsewhere in the college or graduate and professional schools.”

This fall, the Beinecke Library is home to seven full-semester courses and regularly supports 15 or more class sessions each week, with more than 200 individual class sessions scheduled throughout the semester. These classes range from seminars for first-year students in Yale College to advanced graduate seminars offered by departments and schools including Spanish, English, Directed Studies, Divinity, History of Art, African American Studies, Music, Film, History, American Studies, and Art, among others.         

“As a scholar of early modern art, the opportunity to conduct a graduate seminar in Beinecke this semester is an unparalleled pleasure,” says to Marisa Bass, assistant professor in the history of art, whose course on the early modern book meets at the library all semester. “Beinecke's outstanding holdings make it possible to study the full history of early modern book publishing, illustration, design, and use.

Image of a state-of-the-art classroom in the Beinecke.
The renovated and expanded classrooms in the Beinecke Library enable faculty to use technology to enhance the study of its collections.

To teach directly from the object is the foundation of all art-historical scholarship, and the richness of Beinecke's collection supports that endeavor for my period of specialization in the way that few libraries anywhere in this country would,” Bass added. “The library's curators and staff have been immensely helpful and supportive at every step, and already the first few weeks of this fall semester have been a highlight of my time teaching here at Yale.”

Kathryn James, curator of early modern books at the Beinecke Library, who is also teaching a course herself this semester on methods in book history, stresses that students can go beyond the object themselves in the classroom: “Courses and class visits are a chance not only to show students the first editions or manuscripts or formats of texts they might encounter, but also to teach them about the questions that surround objects — how things are made, by whom, why they survive.”

Teaching in the library can offer faculty special opportunities to teach holistically, as in Spanish 850, “The Literary Worlds of El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega,” taught by Sterling Professor of Spanish Rolena Adorno.

“When my students and I walk into our Beinecke Library classroom, we are literally stepping into the library of the major figure of Spanish letters we are studying, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega,” Adorno explains. “As we read the works of El Inca Garcilaso, we are also examining the books of his library, often in the same editions that he owned, which were catalogued at the time of his death in 1616 (coincident with that of Miguel de Cervantes). Thanks to the initiative four years ago of curator Kathryn James and the Beinecke's able staff, Kathryn pulled from the shelves dozens of works that El Inca Garcilaso knew and studied, most prominently, humanist works of Renaissance Italy and chronicles of Spanish history.”

Beinecke curator Melissa Barton working at a desk.
Beinecke curator Melissa Barton prepares for her seminar for first-year students in Yale College on African-American literature in the archives.

Beinecke librarian Melissa Barton adds, “Everything we know about learning suggests that students learn best when they can practice a new skill under the guidance of experts. And yet material and archival research remains a largely self-taught skill.”

Barton, curator of prose and drama in the Yale Collection of American Literature who is also leading a class this semester on African American literature in the archives, notes that the Beinecke Library’s expanded classrooms and teaching programs give students guided practice in order to become the next generation of scholars: “Of course it's great to bask in the aura of objects like Walt Whitman's eyeglasses, but students coming to Beinecke also get to experience the practice of archival research, warts and all — from the eyestrain and backache of examining documents to the joys of discovery.”

Kathryn Slanski, senior lecturer in Near Eastern languages and humanities, and director of undergraduate studies for Directed Studies (DS), has seen those joys of discovery repeatedly since 2014, when she and the Beinecke’s head of research services, Elizabeth Frengel, formalized an ongoing series of visits by DS students each year to engage the past in the present using materials from the library.

As Yale’s student body becomes increasingly diverse, so do the approximately 10%  of each freshman class that populates Directed Studies,” Slanski says. “In Directed Studies we stress that studying a tradition is not restrictive but empowering. There is nothing more empowering than to put these materials into the hands of students from all imaginable backgrounds right at the beginning of their university careers. In addition to the intellectual content, students take away from these sessions the message that such resources at Yale are not just here for prestigious scholars, but are here for them.”

Beinecke Library access services staff members take pride in their work with Yale faculty and students. Anna Franz, assistant head of access services, reflects that “given the incredible riches of our collections,” she and her colleagues “think it’s wonderful that so many faculty from across departments are bringing their students here.”

Interacting with Yale faculty on a daily basis is truly what makes my position special,” says Ingrid Lennon-Pressey, public services assistant at the Beinecke Library. “We want each faculty member and their students to walk out of Beinecke thinking, 'Wow!' We are committed to making sure that each faculty's choice of collection materials and presentations are exactly what’s needed to make sure we get that reaction every time.”

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