History of the Book seminar featured in Inside MSU

By: Patti McDonald 

Recently, during National Library Week (held from April 7th through 13th this year), Inside MSU showcased a photograph from Professor of History Dr. Liam Brockey’s seminar on the History of the Book in their newsletter. For World Book Day, celebrated on April 24th, 2024, the Department of History at Michigan State University is featuring Brockey’s class on its website and social media channels.  

In the History of the Book seminar, students delve into various facets of book history, such as printing, publishing, bookbinding, ownership, and conservation. 

“There’s lots of different ways to get into the history of the book, which is not just a history of books as physical objects, but also the history of reading and book culture,  production, selling,   graphic art, all of these different ways of thinking and about how readership influences what people take away from books and what they want in a book,” Brockey said.  

“I request 30-40 books for each session that are out on the tables, and the students are leafing through and looking at, not just feeling the pages and the bindings, but also looking at the layout to understanding how the text is presented to the reader. Over the semester we cover the spectrum from scrolls and manuscripts to photography and comics, something that really drives home the richness of books and MSU’s collections.”  

The seminar takes place in the conference room of the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections department of MSU’s Main Library.  There, right next to the rare books reading room, students engage in a major class project focusing on the provenance of books held by the MSU Library. By utilizing book plates and other marks left on the books, students investigate the books’ previous owners while tracing their journeys to the MSU Library. 

“We answer various questions in class: Can we identify the owners, where they lived, what their library was, who they sold the books to and who they gave the books to? How did the book get from the publisher to all these other owners? How was the book printed and how did it get to MSU? Students build the steps of ownership over time and we’re adding to our own MSU library history by doing this.” 

Dr. Brockey mentioned that students also develop a deeper appreciation for the professional librarians who teach them and assist in presentation throughout the course. 

“Sometimes the work of librarians can go unnoticed by students, and even professors. Librarians are the crucial glue of the academic enterprise. Without them, the university wouldn’t work, all the organization of the knowledge we do on campus would not exist without the folks who organize and maintain the books, shape and expand the digital catalogs and other reference tools, and acquire the physical objects that help us expand our knowledge.” 

Each semester, a host of librarians contribute to the course, including Tad Boehmer, curator of Rare Books, and Leslie McRoberts, head of Murray & Hong Special Collections. Andrew Lundeen, Ruth Ann Jones, Joshua Barton, Jason Larsen, and Devon Davidoski, from the same library department also contribute their expertise each semester. From across the library, Xian Wu in East Asian collections, Kathleen Weessies in the Map Library, and Garrett Sumner in Conservation & Preservation, also demonstrate other facets of librarianship of which students are often unaware. As a result of the course, some students in the seminar have chosen to pursue further education in library science. 

Professor of History Dr. Liam Brockey’s “History of the Book” seminar is held at the MSU Library.  

Dr. Brockey mentioned that students develop a deeper appreciation for the diligent efforts of librarians through the course.