During his Hamilton years, Michael Lang ’67 was a habitué, maybe the only habitué, of the Rare Book Room (then known as the Treasure Room), which saw little use by students. That seemed a shame to Lang.

“It’s been my experience, not only personally, to observe that when students are given the opportunity to physically handle and study original source material, there’s some sort of magic that happens; different connections are made, and a greater depth of under-standing is achieved when working directly with real historical artifacts — which books and manuscripts are — rather than digital facsimiles, surrogates, or modern reprints,” says Lang, a lifelong bibliophile.

Michael Lang ’67
Michael Lang ’67

These days, Hamilton students and faculty delve deeply into the Lang Special Collections and Archives, and thanks to Lang, access to the trove is greater than ever. He recently made a $3 million gift to create the position of a Special Collections education and outreach librarian. His gift also established an innovation and acquisition fund to promote the study and use of original source materials.

Even before the Lang gift, Christian Goodwillie, director and curator of Special Collections, was working with professors across disciplines to incorporate the treasures of the collections into coursework. Here’s a look at what students have been working with this academic year.

In 2018, Margaret Thickstun, the Jane Watson Irwin Professor of Literature, took a class at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School in preparation for a new course she was developing, Introduction to the History of the Book. Along with tips on teaching the subject, the instructor offered a caveat: You’re not going to have access to most of these books. Immediately, Thickstun thought, “That’s precisely what we have available in Hamilton’s collection.”

Thickstun and Goodwillie co-taught the class for the first time last fall, drawing from dozens of items to tell the story of the book — how books were constructed over time, how they moved throughout the world, the kinds of information shared and from whose perspective. Students then each selected an item to research in depth.

“So much of book history is about the materials used over time, what a book feels like, smells like, notes made in the margin or warping in parchment made from animal skin or holes where bookworms have eaten through,” Thickstun says. “There’s no substitute for this hands-on experience.”

Of Monsters and Prodigies

Produced in 1649, The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey is an example of how letterpress printers developed creative solutions to facilitate the printing of images, rather than hand illustrating texts. The earliest printed images were woodcuts, a relief printing process originating in East Asia. European printers laid woodcuts into the form and printed them alongside text, according to Goodwillie.

Of Monsters and Prodigies

Examining early Qur’an manuscripts and their evolution — with new styles in scripts, decoration, and illumination — helps students in Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Usman Hamid’s Everyday Islam course understand the experiences of Muslims trying to live according to Islamic tradition. “In the Special Collections we have a number of Qur’an manuscripts — both of the entire text and some of just parts of it,” he says. “One recently acquired manuscript tentatively dates from the 17th century and may have been in the royal library of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. I am currently working on correctly identifying this manuscript.”

Students in Hamid’s Art of Devotion: Islam class also look at objects such as Qur’an tablets. Although the ones in Special Collections are contemporary, these objects have a long history in Islamic Northwestern Africa, where they are used to teach young children to read and write Arabic letters and script, and eventually learn to write and recite Qur’anic verses.

Dew Drops of Wisdom
Dew Drops of Wisdom

In their Communal Societies seminar, Professor of History Doug Ambrose and Goodwillie supplement discussion of various religious groups by taking students to visit the Shaker Museum in Hancock, Mass., and introducing them to resources from Special Collections. One example is the Shaker book Dew Drops of Wisdom, a miniature volume of Christian aphorisms, one for each day, used to teach children. Printed by Elder Henry C.

Blinn at the Canterbury, N.H., community, it includes such Shaker sayings as “Hands to work and heart to God” and “Do all your work as you would if you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” “Blinn followed a growing practice of producing miniature books as a way to interest young readers. Our students found these items fascinating and, as with many of the less-than-conventional materials that Christian [Goodwillie] brought to class (songbooks, badges, clothing), the items enriched their understanding of the groups we studied,” Ambrose says.


For her Feminist Research Methods course, Stina Soderling, the Elihu Root Postdoctoral Fellow and visiting assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, took her students to Special Collections during the unit on archival research. “[Hamilton’s] collections of materials on women’s and lesbian rural communities of the 1960s and 1970s is especially strong,” she says. “It’s important to me that students understand just what an amazing resource we have right here on campus — these are materials that I would travel across the continent to access when I was in graduate school.”

For Soderling, it’s also important that students see how knowledge is shared in multiple ways — not just through academic journals. An example is Kaliflower, a magazine created by a gay commune of the same name with roots in the Beat movement. It served as a clearinghouse for news and advertisements from communes throughout California’s Bay Area. According to Goodwillie, Hamilton has one of the most complete runs of Kaliflower, and each handmade issue is a work of art in its own right.

Repertorium Utriusque Juris

Repertorium Utriusque Juris is a book on Roman law printed in Latin in 1476. An example of an incunable, a book produced prior to the year 1501, it features beautiful capital letters created using gold leaf and vibrant colors. “Pigments used probably include malachite, lapis lazuli, vermillion, and white lead,” Goodwillie notes, “and some pages include marginalia, small notes or drawings handwritten in the margins.”

Harmonia Macrocosmica

Adam Lark, assistant professor of instruction in physics, regularly introduces his astronomy students to pieces from Special Collections. Examples range from 400-year-old texts from the collection of Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters, who led Hamilton’s Litchfield Observatory from 1858 to 1890, to Harmonia Macrocosmica (above), an atlas of the solar system written primarily in Latin in 1660. “This edition has handcolored illustrations depicting cosmological theories from Claudius Ptolemy through Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Copernicus,” Goodwillie notes. “It features 29 copperplate engravings and is considered to be one of the most notable works of Dutch cartography, as well as the most beautiful celestial atlas in existence.”

Nuremberg Chronicle

I’m an early modern art historian, so when I bring students to look at objects, we spend time describing what we see, try to transcribe some pages, but mostly, look closely at images and think about what stories are being told, and how the book tells those stories,” says Laura Tillery, assistant professor of art history. For her course Race & Racism in the Middle Ages, she introduced students to 15th-century incunabula/early printed books, namely Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle.

Liber Chronicarum (also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle) presents the history of the world from creation until 1493 using both text and illustration. The book features more than 1,800 illustrations of cityscapes (32 of which were drawn from life), Biblical events, historical figures, and more. It is one of the most heavily illustrated and technologically advanced incunabula.

Special thanks to Christian Goodwillie, director and curator of Special Collections, for providing information on each of the pieces included in this feature.

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