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Northwestern University

Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries

A new exhibit at Deering Library showcases many of the oldest books at Northwestern

Andrew Keener suspected something was amiss.

As the English literature PhD student explored Northwestern University’s Special Collections catalog and scoured its holdings of early books, he noticed many of the university’s oldest printed tomes were not listed in the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), the premier scholarly database of English-language books printed before 1801.

“This was frustrating to me as a researcher, but even more as a Northwestern graduate student,” Keener says. “I wanted our university’s stamp to be on this comprehensive guide.”

Rather than lamenting the fact, Keener launched the “Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries” project, a cataloguing effort to report Northwestern University’s copies of early printed books up to 1700.

With Mellon-based funding in hand, Keener began assembling a team of collaborators in early 2014. Special Collections staff at Deering Library helped Keener navigate a list of the university’s nearly 2,700 ESTC-eligible prospects; three English department undergraduates — Hannah Bredar ’15, Erin Nelson ’14 and Nicole Sheriko ’14 — provided research assistance; and conservators and faculty, including Keener’s dissertation advisers, Professor Jeffrey Masten and Associate Professor Susie Phillips, provided guidance and insight.

Though Northwestern had 188 items listed in the ESTC, Keener and his team brought an additional 1,231 Northwestern-held titles into the database.

“Andrew’s work brings Northwestern’s Special Collections in early printed books to a worldwide audience,” Masten says.

Eager to showcase some of the university’s earliest bibliographical riches in a public forum, Keener then led the curation of the “Midwest Renaissance” exhibit. Running until June 21 on the top floor of Deering Library, the show features 43 of Northwestern’s most prized early books, including a once-waterlogged 1595 Geneva Bible, Ben Jonson’s First Folio, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and a significant collection of printed playbooks from 1620-1660.

“Looking at these books excites a kind of curiosity and wonder, so it’s thrilling to see them come alive in a visible public space,” Keener says.

In the era of smartphones and tablets, Keener hopes that the exhibit and the increased access students and scholars have to Northwestern’s collection of early printed books underscore the written word’s rich and important legacy in the world.

“These books are not just shelf decorations, but an uncommon opportunity to track literature and the history of books and understand what readers would have seen centuries ago,” Keener says.

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