Forging Spaces of Inclusion: Diversity in Rare Book Studies

Olivia Loksing Moy

City University of New York, Lehman
June 5, 2018

After Trump was elected, a colleague circulated a new grading rubric to be distributed among students – partly in jest, but partly as a coping mechanism to address the fact of our new political reality, and to mark a shift in the values that our country placed on language and critical thinking. It’s quite a funny rubric, one in which repetitious bloviating and bullying merits a grade of “TREMENDOUS” or “YUGE,” while evidence-based reasoning is “loserish” and C material. It’s funny on the one hand, but also genuinely disheartening on the other. A few weeks earlier in a composition class, we had discussed Melania’s speech at the Republican National Convention to consider the dangers of plagiarism, lending a level of urgency to formerly onerous units, like learning the mechanics of citation and bibliographic attribution.

But this all seems so long ago, and for our panel today, I’d like to move beyond post-election grievance or disbelief to focus on positive actions we can take as educators. Under this political climate, what is it that we can do to make this time more bearable and fruitful for those we teach, those we care for, and those we wish to protect? I choose to focus on the problem of exclusion: We are living in a climate when, every week in the news, we learn of more instances through which the government attempts to control bodies and spaces – determining which individuals deserve to be where, based on color or creed or orientation – via borders, walls, paperwork, deportations, and incarceration. These are all a series of exclusion acts, and for me, someone who was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown – an urban landscape of immigrants that was completely shaped by the first ethnic exclusion law in this country – they resonate deeply. The constant barrage of exclusionary acts has created a marked sense of helplessness among my students and colleagues: from our undocumented students called into court or stopped by fraudulent ICE officers on their subway commutes; to transgender students who again have to worry about which bathrooms they can or cannot use; to colleagues who despite holding valid work visas do not feel free to attend conferences abroad for fear of being blocked from reentering our country.

What can we do in our classrooms and on our campuses to help counter this institutionalized exclusion and all the anxiety it produces? My focus is on bodies and spaces, and I’ve found Sara Ahmed’s book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life to be very useful as I think through these problems.[1] Ahmed concerns herself with “how some bodies become understood as the rightful occupants of certain spaces” as well as “how some, more than others, will be at home institutions that assume certain bodies as their norm.” So, what can we do to minimize such experiences of systemic discrimination for our students? We should:

  1. utilize the resources we still have access to to the utmost, drawing on what is fortunately still a robust network of stewards of literature and culture who are indeed progressive, caring, and inclusive professionals. (Let’s not forget about what we have and what we can work with.)
  2. be aware of perceived exclusions and take these into account in our teaching and administration.
  3. combat unintentional or passive discrimination by actively bringing diverse bodies into select spaces in ways that are empowering and inclusive.

What I’ve been attempting to do over the past year is to create opportunities through which my students, almost all of whom have in some way or other been among the Trump administration’s target groups – whether they are our Muslim students, LGBTQ students, undocumented students, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Africans, or women – (hardly any group now remains unscathed) – and make the extra effort to include them in spaces and institutions that might otherwise be assumed too elite or exclusive to accommodate them.

The Activism in Academia Symposium I co-organize at the CUNY Grad Center attempts to do some of this work each year by featuring scholarship that makes direct activist impacts outside of the classroom. But the example I’d like to share today is a bit of a surprising one. It’s a group I started with two of my classes that call themselves the CUNY Rare Book Scholars. The purpose of this initiative is to expose undergraduate students to rare book and manuscript research by bringing them in contact with archival materials, special collections, librarians and curators, book collectors, and antiquarian booksellers. At a time when – yes – we are filled with trepidation about the future of the NEH, and whether such groups will even exist in the coming years – I opt for recognizing resources that are still available to us and making judicious use of them while we can.

Under the CUNY Rare Book Scholars initiative, my senior seminar on “Keats at 200: Archives and Afterlives” visited the NYPL’s Berg Collection and the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and his Circle, as well as Princeton’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and NYU’s Fales Collection. There, they handled Keats’ manuscripts, his letters, association copies to Wordsworth and Haydon, and the poet’s life mask. One student’s encounter with a ragged, mouse-bitten copy of Chapman’s Homer inspired her to write an award-winning essay drawing parallels to her own entry into the world of rare books. For my seminar on literature and art of the Pre-Raphaelites, Decadence, and Aestheticism, we took extended field trips to the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, the Swinburne collection at Georgetown’s special collections library, and the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair.

We are very fortunate that the wards of these special collections and archives are individuals who embody a sense of inclusion and selflessness in their work, actively countering this dismal atmosphere of exclusion that pervades our political life. My students attended private sessions with experts like Barbara Heritage, Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, Liz Denlinger, Isaac Gerwitz, and Charlotte Priddle V, each extraordinarily gracious, generous individuals in their own right. And though it might seem a bit counter-intuitive to choose rare books studies as an entry point for inclusion, I’ve found it to be enormously powerful, precisely because the world of antiquarian book collecting and rare book studies is perceived to be so rarefied, guarded by certain gatekeepers of culture, wealth, and taste.

One important caveat to all of this is that these field trips are academic excursions; in no way are they acts of charity on the part of the host, nor some kind of touristic venture simply for “show and tell.” The students are prepared to the best of their ability to enter these spaces as any other scholar would. I cannot begin to describe how transformative it is for a student to walk into a room, shake hands, and be able to hobnob with an expert collector like Mark Samuels Lasner and joke about the price of a certain volume of The Yellow Book due to an infamous first-edition misprint (“Aprtl 1894” instead of “April 1894”). In this semester’s group, there are two students whose immediate family members have been incarcerated in the past year, one of whose father was arrested just last week. The student who shared this news with me in office hours promptly added that African American males are five times more likely to be arrested than white offenders, spouting off that familiar statistic that had suddenly subsumed her family life. For these same students to be welcomed into the homes and private collections of people like Eric Holzenberg, Director of the Grolier Club, or Mark Samuels Lasner, the foremost collector of Pre-Raphaelite books and art, is a true gift – not because Lasner’s donated collection is valued at $10 million, (which doesn’t hurt), but because of the message that it sends, saying to them, you are respected, you are welcome in my place of work, and you are invited to share in my passions and my professional commitments. In his beautiful home, Eric Holzenberg urged the young CUNY Rare Book Scholars to surround themselves with books and objects they considered beautiful and to stay true to their own tastes rather than ascribe to the values of any imposed authority. He and his collection were an embodiment of the principles they had studied all semester long. Mark Samuels Lasner received the students with the utmost care at the University of Delaware, preparing manuscripts related to their research topics and speaking with them as fellow bibliophiles. A collective gasp filled the room as he displayed his prized artifact – long tufts of Elizabeth Siddal’s red hair.

Within these pockets of literary paradise they have created, folks like Holzenberg and Lasner sent a clear message to students from a public university: that the discrimination and exclusion we see out there should not be normalized; that this is what should be normal, this more capacious and welcoming world that we know is better when it includes them. The message is at once an invitation and inspiration for students to pursue their interests in the library sciences, bookselling and book collecting, or archival research, if they so wish. As instructors, what we can do for our students is to make these nodes of contact possible, and to make them sparkle and glisten; to increase these encounters between the right people and make positive connections; to lend students a sense there are indeed spaces and institutions, public and private, that still function at a respectable level.

Before ending on such a high note, it is important to recognize some of the potential pitfalls with this tactic of promoting inclusivity. For me, the Scylla and Charbydis that I always try to avoid is that of tokenization on one side and blind celebration on the other. Along the way, some local news sources have caught wind of the CUNY Rare Book Scholars and featured them in articles. In these situations, I find myself very protective of my students and the way in which they’re represented. I don’t wish, as mentioned before, for certain low-income students or ethnically-diverse students to be racialized in some narrative of charity or novelty and caricatured as a group of ragtag kids from the Bronx. I also bear the reminder that, as heartwarming and successful as many of our field trips have been, it is not all celebratory. There have been moments of friction; for instance, when one Hispanic first walked into the NYPL’s Rose Reading Room, he mentioned to me that all the security guards were black or Latino, surely because the administrative staff felt that they would most effectively “scare off” any white tourists from misbehaving or stealing books. Or, in Charlottesville, on our visit Monticello, my students and I were mortified to learn that the only area that didn’t require an admissions fee (aside from the gift shop and restrooms) was the African-American graveyard. The small plot of land, a mile off from Jefferson’s plantation, was poorly marked and located just a few paces from the bus parking lot, as if an afterthought to the historic landmark. The class’ attempt to pay their respects to the slaves who built and maintained Monticello was a heartbreaking moment on the trip, for all of us but particularly for the African-American students.

So to return to Ahmed’s consideration of “how some bodies become understood as the rightful occupants of certain spaces” and how “many institutions assume certain bodies as their norm,” I’d invite us to take a look again at some of the spaces and institutions we regularly inhabit, such as this very room we are in this weekend and the NVSA conference we make up. I urge us to honestly ask how welcoming or exclusive it may seem from the outside in, whether we mean for it to be this way or not. I encourage us to take those extra steps in our classrooms and at our conferences, to go out of our way to establish more nodes of connection and fill our spaces with more diverse bodies – because racial exclusion is a stark reality in the field of Victorian studies, and will only continue to be so if we aren’t conscientious about it.

We must convince our students that there are many out there who are not trying to erase them from the nation’s landscape due to differences of race, religion, institutional prestige, or economic class. And I am grateful for the steps that have already been taken in this direction within our own small corner of the profession. Jason Rudy and Tanya Agathocleous, the outgoing President and Vice President of NVSA, have been so receptive to the ideas and concerns I’ve brought up with them concerning the diversity of NVSA as an organization, and I am pleased to report that the Diversity Task Force formed earlier this year has resulted in a three-pronged effort to promote inclusion, diversity, and innovation in the field of Victorian Studies. These include a Minority Mentorship Program for graduate students and early scholars; an Essay Contest soliciting research that expands the bounds of our discipline; and Pedagogy Panels with a renewed focus on diversifying the field in every way. We may perform rarefied work in our Victorianist circles, but we need not be exclusionary.


[1] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).


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