Watch a brief video about the Teaching and Learning Conversation on this topic.

Did you know that TCU houses a yearbook produced inside a Japanese internment camp during World War II? How about unique manuscript correspondence regarding a land dispute between heirs of Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés? Or an edition of Shakespeare’s plays printed just three years after his death—one of only two complete copies known to have survived? Primary sources such as these are more than just TCU’s hidden treasures, they are a resource faculty can tap to take students where textbooks cannot go. In this Teaching and Learning Conversation, we discussed how faculty can use TCU Special Collections as a laboratory for the humanities.

TCU’s small but diverse special collections comprise nearly 26,000 volumes, with materials ranging from a first edition of Imitato Christi of Thomas a Kempis, printed in about 1473, to twenty-first century artists’ books. By visiting Special Collections, students can learn basic tools and vocabulary to analyze the book as an artifact, enabling them to understand how the physical format of the printed word informs the production, distribution, and reception of ideas faculty are discussing in the classroom. Students can experience the works they are reading as the original audiences did, or they can investigate the reception of these works over time by analyzing subsequent editions. Special Collections can lend an experiential component to your curriculum—what Northwestern University rare book curator Martin Antonetti has described as “the closest you will ever come to physically holding hands with your intellectual predecessors.”

I began by providing a brief overview of our collections along with some background about how these collections were acquired. We have special strengths in English literature, Colonial Spanish Americana, early Bibles, Judaica, children’s literature, and historic maps. With the exception of one item (the collected Shakespeare mentioned above) our collection is intended to be a teaching collection. This means that we want our items to be used in hands-on activities that support the curriculum.

Early printed books, defined as books printed between 1450 and 1800, share certain features that students can learn to identify and interpret. Since the materiality of the hand-press book is a broad topic, requiring students to master new concepts and hone their observation skills, we discussed different ways to narrow the focus to something manageable within the scope of a one-hour session. Examples of ways to focus a class include the identification and interpretation of marks of ownership, the development of navigational aids such as indices and running titles, or learning to identify illustration techniques. Many features that students take for granted—title pages, tables of contents, footnotes—were the result of several decades or even centuries of experimentation. Students can reconstruct this development by examining the same feature across many books.

For the purpose of our Teaching and Learning Conversation, we focused on paper as part of a hands-on activity. Paper can seem so commonplace that we often overlook its significance, but there are many reasons to give it its due. Timothy Barrett, professor at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and the foremost expert on European and Asian paper, urges us to take a closer look, observing, “Paper has been the primary substrate for the development and transmission of human culture since the year 1000. But many do not realize that prior to the invention of the paper machine around 1800, every piece of paper in the world was made by hand.” It was a labor-intensive process; paper accounted for the bulk of the cost of printing a work, constituting 60-70% of the total expense.

Understanding this process is not only worthwhile in its own right; it has consequences for understanding the physical structure of the book. We watched a clip from a documentary in which Barrett and his students replicate the materials and procedures of making paper by hand. I passed around sample of the paper that he and his students produced out of hemp and cotton fiber. A paper maker dipped a mould—essentially a sieve made of a wire bottom and a wooden frame—into a slurry composed of water and hemp, linen, and/or cotton. As the liquid drained, a tissue of wet fibers formed against the wire mesh. This tissue was pressed and hung to dry. Paper bears the marks of this process in the form of chainlines —impressions left by the wires of the mould—as well as the more familiar watermarks. Using facsimiles of printed sheets for works of different formats, I showed participants how to examine the direction of chainlines and location of watermarks in order to determine the structure and format of the physical book. A single sheet typically held between four and sixteen pages of texts, arranged, or “imposed,” so that the sheet could be folded and the pages cut along the folds, creating a gathering of two, four, or eight leaves. Within the span of an hour, using loupes and a light source, participants were invited to examine chainlines and watermarks to see if they could determine formats for a number of books from our collection.

Focusing on paper—or indeed any other aspect of the physical book—encourages students to understand that books as we know them did not simply fall from the sky, but were the result of an interaction of materials, labor, and economic factors. These reflections give them a new perspective on intellectual history, encouraging them to consider how the materiality of the book has mediated the creation and dissemination of ideas. If you are interested in discussing how Special Collections can be a laboratory for your humanities class or in scheduling a class session, please contact me at


Martin Antonetti, “Exploring the Archaeology of the Book in the Liberal Arts Curriculum,” Teaching Bibliography, Textual Criticism and Book History, ed. Ann R. Hawkins. London: Routledge, 2006. 19.

Atlas of Early Printing

Chancery Papermaking at the University of Iowa Center for the Book

George T. Abell Antique Map Collection

TCU’s Colonial Spanish America Collection

Julie ChristensonThis article was written by Julie Christenson, Rare Book Librarian, for the Fall 2019 Issue of Insights.