Web Exclusives: On the Campus

March 8, 2006:

Student curators; a Fleming sampler

By Elyse Graham ’07

ON THE THIRD FLOOR of Firestone Library stands a vault of bookcases, fenced by chain metal links, that Elizabeth Linder ’07 calls her workplace. Inside, books glare from the shelves in red and blue, or in anthologies in brown variegated bands resembling tree bark. One shelf displays a protruding slip of paper marking Curiosa Filosofia, a recently withdrawn book.

The light is heavy and yellow. The books seem to breathe, an illusion enhanced by the pervasive scent of old paper and cloth, a faint dry musk.

Linder has worked in Firestone’s Rare Books department since freshman year, cataloguing new acquisitions and preparing aids to find volumes so rare that they are fenced off for protection. Over a quarter-million bound volumes, and tens of millions of other items, reside in Rare Books and Special Collections. Readers come to read rare texts, to dig up obscure archives, and to make contact firsthand with the past. “There’s something inspiring about seeing that first volume of a book,” Linder said. “It gives you a sense of time and place, a window into the time frame itself.”

More than 30 students work in Rare Books and Special Collections, roaming behind the shelves to guide the flow of manuscripts between archives and scholars. They work in storage rooms, in cubicles under fluorescent lights, in seminar rooms trimmed with stained oak.

Linder’s favorite workplace is a lower-floor vault, kept chilly to protect fragile holdings. “I have to take a jacket,” she said, but the reward is handling “shelves upon shelves” of extraordinary volumes. With hair pulled back, she works in black pants and shoes. “You do see the dust flying in the air,” she said. Every floor of Firestone harbors such vaults, all secured, fire-resistant, and temperature-controlled.

Like private book collectors, student curators develop individual ways of relating to their material. Linder sees herself as a caretaker of others’ personal cultures. “It tells you what that person valued,” she said, of books preserved from authors’ libraries. “I read books by L. Frank Baum and see phrases and ideas that have come into my own vocabulary.”

Down three floors, in the Rare Books reading room (also known as the Dulles reading room), a group of tall windows casts low, clear sunlight onto a cluster of oak tables. Students read with heads down and shoulders rounded, the walls about them ringed with shelves displaying a chaste rainbow of reference books. A reader opens Curiosa on a foam cradle, and a new world outspreads.

Linder said she’s relished such moments from her first day in Rare Books: “It was so intriguing to sit there and realize that any book that I opened would have led to a world of discoveries I couldn’t have imagined.”

DURING HIS 40 YEARS of teaching at Princeton, John V. Fleming *63 has earned a prominent place in the life of the University. His tall figure and gray wool suits are familiar sights at Firestone library, and at lectures his booming voice plays to crowded rooms. Fleming is retiring this year. The winter semester saw him teach his final two courses by covering the twin subjects of his career, classical heritage and medieval tradition. Each week, his students looked forward to the insight and enthusiasm he brought to class. Generous with his scholarship, he also emitted a steady stream of wit. Quips from his final semester, as recorded in student notes, appear here:

– “So, what did you find interesting? Begging the question, perhaps: Say something interesting about Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.”

– (Closing the door against talkers outside) “We don’t want these people listening who haven’t paid tuition! They might hear one of our ideas!”

– “Although there’s been a large change in human nature since the 12th century, one thing that’s stayed consistent is that people don’t really want to do celibacy.”

– “I’m going to make a really profound remark, so get ready for it.”

– (To a student) “That’s a primitive response, but it’s in the right direction, absolutely.”

– “Well, the duchess died, and the poet sat down and said, ‘Life, love, and death, frightfully ambiguous, what?’ ”

– “This argument won’t hold water. It won’t even hold the smaller pieces of ice.”

– (Advice for reading Middle English aloud) “Just pretend the Great Vowel Shift never happened. Forget the Great Vowel Shift, ignore the Great Vowel Shift, there was no Great Vowel Shift. It wasn’t so great, anyway.”

– (On book jackets) “You never read, ‘This is another hackneyed retreading of a well-worn theme.’ ”

– “The Middle Ages was a lot like the University of Pennsylvania, broken up into a lot of little duchies, deans fighting against each other. Princeton—that’s like the Holy Roman Empire. They’re just two different regimes.”

– “About five texts will tell you half of what you need to know about the Middle Ages: the Bible; Augustine’s Soliloquies, Confessions, [and] On Christian Doctrine; Boethius; and Gregory’s Dialogues. Unfortunately, the other half is about one thousand books.”

Elyse Graham ’07 is an undergraduate fellow at Mathey College.