Hi! My name is Alex Wingate and I’m an M.A. student at the Institute of English Studies for the History of the Book. I hail from Fairfax, Virginia on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. I have a B.A. from the College of William and Mary (2nd oldest college in the U.S., go Tribe!) in Linguistics and Hispanic Studies. My primary interests in book history lie in the medieval and early modern, particularly the Hispanic world. For example, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about the intersection between private libraries and identity in 16th and 17th century Navarre. My ultimate goal is to be a rare books librarian, so to that end, I will be completing a Masters of Library Science back in the U.S. after the M.A. I plan to eventually pursue a PhD after that. The subject area isn’t clear to me yet, but it’ll be somewhere on the spectrum between library science and book history!
What led you to enrol on the M.A. course in the History of the Book?
I enrolled in the M.A. course because it was a way to further my training and study in book history beyond my undergraduate experience. I was first introduced to book history through a class in my first year of university called “The Medieval Book” with Prof. George Greenia where we learned palaeography and codicology. That led to taking a class where we went for a week to do research in the royal and diocesan archives in Pamplona, Spain. I wanted to somehow incorporate book history into that class, and so I ended up investigating private libraries. Two years later, I expanded that initial project into my final-year thesis that covered 35 private libraries of clergy, legal professionals, and women. As part of that research, I also created an interactive catalogue of their libraries so that other researchers could have access to the information. I hope to continue this research, though I will likely focus on women’s libraries.
Additionally, being in this program is an important step along the way to becoming a rare books librarian because it means that I will be able to more deeply understand the collections I eventually work with. That ability to look at a book – manuscript, print, or digital – and be able to recognize the work that went into its creation (the materials used, the style, whose hands it passed through, etc.) is really special to me. The other day in the Wellcome Library we looked at a health manual from 1390 and I was so excited that I could identify it as French from the little ivy leaves in the border. At William & Mary’s Special Collections Research Center, I was once invited along with one of my professors and another student to examine a newly acquired Quran from West Africa. Our professor told us to check for a watermark on the paper. Lo and behold there was one, and after a bit of research, it turned out to be the coat of arms for the Christian Missionary Society Bookshop in Lagos, Nigeria. There is such a wealth of information in a book beyond the text it holds, and I want to know how to better find, understand, and analyse that information as a librarian and a scholar.
How has the London setting contributed to your experience so far?
In a word, libraries! I dearly love Earl Gregg Swem Library at William & Mary, but now Senate House Library, the Institute of Historical Research Library, the Warburg, the British Library, and the Wellcome Collection are all within a 10 minute walk since I live in the heart of London. I have amazing access to manuscripts, early printed materials, and reference collections in my area of specialization. We get to go have class at all of these institutions and handle their materials. As a result, I’ve seen what is purportedly the most beautiful book of the 14th century at Lambeth Palace Library, and I’ve seen an incunabulum printed in Pamplona by Arnao Guillén de Brocar, who would eventually print the Polygot Bible for Cisneros, at the Wellcome Library. I was definitely starstruck by both books! For studying, however, I think the Institute of Historical Research’s Library is my favourite library so far.
How is the M.A. different from what you expected?
It’s a lot more independent than I expected. I’m used to being given a list of reading for each class every week. Now it’s a case of being given a bibliography and choosing sources to read. It requires a good deal of self-discipline, but it does have the advantage being able to choose what you want to read versus it being assigned. The flexibility should come in handy for the final essays for each module since I will be able to direct my readings towards the topics I have in mind.
Which module/topic are you most looking forward to?
I’m really enjoying “The Book in the Ancient World” this term because I knew almost nothing previous to starting the class. So far we’ve covered cuneiform in Mesopotamia, Egyptian papyrus and hieroglyphics, and Greek books. In one of our sessions on cuneiform, we even tried writing in cuneiform using clay and chopsticks by copying from reproductions of cuneiform tablets. I was very proud of my attempt, so now it sits in my room with my other books!
In the spring term, I’m looking forward to our class on early modern books since that is the period I know most about.
What would your advice be for any prospective students of the MA in the History of the Book?
I think the biggest thing to remember is to not be worried about knowing everything about all types of books before you start the program. Everyone is going to have their area of specialization that they know a heck of a lot about when they come into the program. For me, that’s medieval and early modern books in addition to books produced in the Spanish-speaking world. For other students in our program right now, it’s ancient history, children’s literature, 19th and 20th century books, and digital books. It’s a taught masters, so the lectures and readings should be designed to teach you what you don’t know.
The other key, told to me by a wise professor, is to read as much as you can. We have so much time to read in this program, so it’s essential to make the most of it. It could be reading secondary source material, but it also could be going to one of the numerous libraries in London to examine their manuscripts or print materials. It’s the best way to expand your horizons or to delve more deeply into a topic.
You can follow Alex on Twitter (@alextheknitter) and Instagram (@thatrarebooksgirl).