Exploring the Wonders of the Bancroft Library


Just about every student on campus has holed up in Main Stacks to cram for a midterm or two, but many students remain unaware of the remarkable resources our libraries have to offer. Recently, Berkeley Connect English students visited the Bancroft Library to view some rare books from its collection and learn about their history.

Two staff members of the Bancroft Library, Lee Anne Titangos and David Faulds, led the students in a tour of literature through the centuries. They brought with them texts they thought would interest prospective English majors. Their selections were spot-on. Students were fascinated by the leather covers, gold lettering, and detailed illustrations of the antique books. They were thrilled to discover they could actually touch and turn the pages of volumes that were hundreds of years old.

Titangos had a student attempt to read aloud a sentence from a history of Britain published in 1450. As one might expect, the ornate style of lettering made it quite difficult to decipher. According to Titangos, this was the source book for several of Shakespeare’s history plays, serving as the inspiration for “Richard II” and “Henry IV.”

Next up was a copy of the First Folio, the first compilation of Shakespeare’s plays, prepared by his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623. The Bancroft’s collection also includes a copy of the Second Folio, which was the 1632 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare. Titangos pointed out an interesting tidbit: this volume includes the first published poem of John Milton, a tribute to Shakespeare, written when he was a college student at Cambridge University.

Another fascinating item in the collection is Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Titangos explained that before the Dictionary was published in 1755, the English language had not yet been standardized. Johnson took nine years to compile this dictionary, pulling examples from all the great English writers. Until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later, Johnson’s dictionary was the primary reference for the English language.

Next, students examined different editions of a Laurence Sterne novel. Titangos pointed out how Sterne personally signed his name on 12,750 copies because he was very concerned about piracy. Students then had the chance to view a first of edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, on which her name didn’t appear due to society’s disapproval of women writers at the time. Titangos explained how it was a common practice in the 19th century for novels to come out in three separate volumes, to maximize profits for the publishers, and how this pressured writers to produce longer works. The students viewed an early copy of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, which came out in monthly installments with advertisements inside, yet another way publishers attempted to make more money. There was also a first edition of Leaves of Grass, in a format designed and published by Walt Whitman himself. The students gazed in wonder at the ornate cover, with small leaves sprouting out of each letter, appreciating Whitman’s attention to detail.

Next, Titangos discussed the tumultuous history of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The copy the library held was too fragile to be rifled through, but Titango’s story brought the text alive. Due to laws banning lewd and sexual content, the book was banned from publication for quite some time, until the Parisian bookseller Sylvia Beach agreed to publish it in her bookshop. There was much controversy and legal battles surrounding the book before it was finally permitted to be published in the United States years later.

One of the final artifacts viewed was the poet Seamus Heaney’s collection Wintering Out, as well as some of his old manuscripts, and a class syllabus from the 1970s, when he was a professor at UC Berkeley. Students also looked at a collection of poems from 1773 by Phyllis Wheatley, a prominent African American poet, and some letters written by Langston Hughes in the 1930s.

With each item presented, the students grew more enraptured by all the history embodied in these pieces of literature. After all, for a book lover, there’s nothing quite like the magic of holding an old book. Students were surprised and delighted by the unexpected resources they found within their very own Bancroft Library.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant