‘Book Unbound’ initiative promotes idea exchange in classes, lectures

As the Stetson-Sawyer library nears completion, professors from multiple departments have been collaborating to organize the “Book Unbound” initiative. The College-wide program will include new classes, lectures, exhibits and performances throughout the 2014-15 academic year that aim to explore the role of libraries, books and information in a variety of contexts.

The program will celebrate “the role the library will play in intellectual life at the College and also use it as a portal to think about information and conveying culture,” Christopher Nugent, associate professor of Chinese and one of the organizers of the program, said.

Nugent first thought of the idea at a lunch with colleague Edan Dekel, associate professor of classics. Because “the new library is opening this fall, we thought it would be a great opportunity to not just create one course, but instead, we decided to have a bunch of different events and courses across the whole college that deal with these types of questions,” Nugent said.

After proposing the idea to President Falk in the late fall, Dekel and Nugent reached out to the chairs of all the programs and departments to provide information about the initiative and encourage faculty to think of ways to get involved. “We asked that they [courses] engage in some meaningful way with books or issues of information more generally,” Nugent said. Professors have taken this challenge and have interpreted this theme in different ways. For instance, students in “The Body as Book Memory and Reenactment in Dance and Theatre” will examine interpretations of the body as a “book”, while students in “Protecting Information” will study cryptography and the ways in which people hide and protect information.

The initiative offers a total of 32 courses across a wide range of disciplines, half of which are new or have been significantly altered, while the other half of the courses have been taught in the past.

According to Nugent, there is nothing mandated by the initiative itself that requires classes to adhere to a certain structure. Instead, “classes connected to the initiative will be engaging with a connected set of issues and questions, but in a broad sense.”

Throughout the year, in order to ensure that there is some discourse about the initiative, students and faculty from different classes will come together to engage in cross-disciplinary discussions about the issues covered in classes and how they relate to the overarching themes of the initiative.

One of the notable features of these classes is the focus on the use of collections and exhibitions at the Chapin Library, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and other venues to create an additional hands-on component to courses. For

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example, “History of the Book” will spend some class time in Chapin Library examining collections of manuscripts and early printed books. In addition, Jessica Fisher, assistant professor of English, who is teaching “Documentary Poetry,” will work closely with “Publication Studio,” an exhibit that is coming to WCMA this fall. This exhibit will allow students to physically print and bind books in the museum.

Furthermore, in “Field Botany and Plant Natural History,” students will explore an interactive exhibition about the book as a mechanism for presenting botanical information. The class will start out by looking at classical texts on plant natural history in Chapin library. According to Henry Art, Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, who will be teaching this course, the library’s “collection of antiquarian botanical published works is exemplary.” Throughout the course, students will also work in the College’s Herbarium and use several digital resources including the Smithsonian’s “Leaf Snapp” iPhone application and the USDA. “Plants” web site.

As part of the initiative, the ’62 Center Performance Series, WCMA and the Oakley Center for Humanities and Sciences will also host a number of lectures and performances throughout the year. For instance, during the first semester, the Oakley Center will host the head librarian from Baghdad in addition to a number of book historians. These lectures will relate closely to the “History of the Book” course.

In the spring term, well-known Chinese cookbook writer Fuchsia Dunlop will deliever a lecture, which will specifically complement the course “The Cookbook through History,” but will be open to anyone who is interested in attending the event.

“Whether or not individual faculty will ask their students to participate in an especially pertinent activity or event is up to those faculty,” Nugent said.

In the upcoming weeks, the planning group aims to reach out to student organizations to coordinate and share ideas. “There is a tremendous amount of potential for really interesting stuff there,” Nugent said.