Flipping the Archive: Tulane’s Archives and Outreach Program


Medievalists who use rare books and manuscripts in their research will remember the first time they stepped into a magnificent reading room—the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, say, or, before the opening of the Weston Library, Bodley’s Duke Humfrey’s Library. The romance of working in such environments, combined with the intellectual pleasures of handling materials that connect us, physically, with the distant past is a powerful stimulus to learning—an appreciation for the value of archives that we wish to cultivate, as well, in our graduate research students.

In the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University in New Orleans, in a very successful three-year program called Archives and Outreach, we have also been translating appreciation for the tangible remains of the past into the undergraduate and secondary school classrooms. Second- and third-year Tulane undergraduates, after studying the elements of book history and its application to literary study on campus, become mentors to younger scholars at our community partner, Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. They introduce these students to topics as diverse as the history of handwriting, parchment and papermaking, and the relationship between image and text in some of Tulane’s medieval and early modern books. Moreover, they relate these items in their presentations to others in more contemporary archives at Tulane—for instance, autograph documents connected with the Harlem Renaissance, which are available on campus at the Amistad Research Center (a Tulane affiliate); and engravings of Shakespeare’s heroines from nineteenth-century editions of the plays produced for young women that are held in the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections. High school students studying Chaucer have the opportunity to examine, by way of digital photographs provided by Tulane, an antiphoner leaf from a medieval service book, gifted to the library with other single manuscript leaves in the 1930s, or a page from Caxton’s printing of The Canterbury Tales, acquired by Tulane in 1905 from Chicago’s Caxton Club, as part of the publication of E. Gordon Duff’s study, William Caxton. After some time spent working with their undergraduate mentors on these reproductions, the high school students and their teachers make field trips to Tulane, where they learn how to appreciate the originals first hand and begin to imagine, inspired by them, their own archive-based projects.

The development of the program was fortuitous. I first envisioned it while doing research at the Newberry Library, Chicago, where I got to attend a talk by Michael Meredith, formerly librarian at Eton College in the UK, about a successful outreach initiative he undertook there. Tulane had been recovering, slowly but surely, from the devastations of Hurricane Katrina. Our own Special Collections suffered (the library was, for a time, declared a biohazard) and the daily newspapers were filled with images of people’s intimate personal memorabilia—family bibles, photographs, and personal letters—which had been inundated and rescued from the floodwaters that submerged much of our city. Everyone has an archive—a tangible past worth preserving and studying. Indeed, New Orleans itself, which has grown up around one of America’s liveliest ports, is an elaborate archive, a palimpsest of cultural influences—African, French, Spanish, and English—that have enriched the art, music, and literature of the region for centuries as well as the long documentary history of the diverse people and traditions of New Orleans.

The key idea behind Archives and Outreach, then, is that the archive is not simply a private preserve, accessible only to the professional scholar, but an endlessly valuable and useful public record that ought to be more available to local students—those who come to New Orleans from all around the United States and the world to study as undergraduates, and especially those who have grown up here.

The key component to the program’s success is focus. I and the enthusiastic undergraduates I teach have learned to conceive of lesson plans for the high school classroom that have very particular goals, usually connected with one or two images and two or three keywords per session. (Our community partner liaison, an English teacher at Lake Area, provides invaluable help to us in conceiving and revising our lesson plans.) One of our lessons, for example, pairs a page from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours that shows a close relationship between text and image with a digital image from one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, which shows a similar—but also of course different—coordination of picture and text. Another demonstrates the wide variety in scribal hands and early typefaces by abstracting different styles of letterforms from the page and arranging them as an alphabet. A third encourages students to understand the nature of manuscript culture by comparing the work of a medieval scribe with the signed draft of a Langston Hughes poem and the verbally different published text of that poem in an anthology. In advance of the arrival of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s traveling First Folio! exhibition this past May, we organized an Archives and Outreach classroom experience around the word “folio” itself, demonstrating by way of a large-format incunable bible, a quarto-sized medieval manuscript, and an octavo-sized page from what was once a fourteenth-century Franciscan theological compendium the kind of literary status—and lack of portability—that folio-sized publication conferred on various authors and texts.

At a time when the material book and book history are being dismissed in certain quarters as outmoded, Tulane’s Archives and Outreach program has been demonstrating how vitally important—and fascinating—they are to students at all levels: graduate, undergraduate, and secondary.

Development of the Archives and Outreach program was facilitated by a generous grant from Tulane’s Center for Public Service, an organization that since Katrina has devoted itself to promoting deeper engagements between the university and the wider New Orleans and Louisiana communities of which we are a part. More recently, Tulane’s Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching (CELT) has assisted in advocating for the program across campus, as a template for introducing students to archival materials in other Tulane departments, such as Anthropology, Art History, and Classics. Tulane undergraduates who take part in the program receive not only academic credit for their work but also service learning credits that, since the hurricane, are a mandatory requirement for graduation.

Members of the society interested in contacting me about the past, present, and future of the Archives and Outreach initiative at Tulane can do so by email at [email protected].

Professor Michael Kuczynski is the current chair of the department of English at Tulane University. He specializes in Middle English literature (especially Chaucer), intersections between religion and literature in medieval and early modern England, and the relationship between poetry and the visual arts. He has published widely on medieval manuscripts, early modern books, and nineteenth-century antiquarianism.