Andrew O’Sullivan at the Folger Institute

Andrew O’Sullivan spent this past 23-27 of May at the Folger Institute in Washington, D.C. He attended there the Institute’s Orientation to Research Methods and Agendas with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the textual environment in which early modern readers began to re-learn and engage with Old English and Anglo-Saxon studies and the kinds of books those readers would have read to do so. While there, Andrew met Dr. Owen Williams, the Assistant Director of Scholarly Programs, who served as the groups’ primary guide through the busy week’s program. Extremely knowledgeable of current scholarship concerning the Institute’s library and materials, Dr. Williams engaged the attendee’s interests and provided them with the names of scholars with connections to the library whose work overlapped with those interests.
With this guidance, Andrew and the attendees each chose one or two books or manuscripts from the Institute’s Rare Books collection as the focus of their studies. Andrew picked Richard Verstegan’s 1605 history of Anglo-Saxon England and first printed Old English wordlist, Restitution of Decayed Intelligence; and William Somner’s Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum, a trilingual Old English-Latin-English dictionary printed in 1659. Andrew’s time with the books provoked new questions about their genesis and how their readers used them prompted in large part by the daily workshops and discussions during which the Folger Institute’s staff and other visiting scholars presented aspects of book production and trade.  As an example, Dr. Thomas Fulton, a Milton researcher on leave from Rutgers University’s English Department, observed in one presentation that the paratextual elements of the King James Bible, such as the frontispiece and its caption, may have shaped the structure of Paradise Lost. Inspired by this, Andrew spent that day paying extra attention to the paratext of Verstegan’s Restitution, noting a number of dedicatory poems written by, among others, Richard Stanihurst, an Irish historian, and Cornelis Kiliaan, a Dutch lexicographer. This wide array of scholars with an interest in English language history crossed national and confessional lines in ways that Andrew believes “defy easy explanation.” At the end of the week, Andrew and the other attendees presented the highlights of their individual investigations to the group so that they might inspire new methods of analysis or insights.
Andrew came away from the program with a richer understanding of the complex social context from which the books he chose emerged. Additionally, the experience of researching the Anglo-Saxon past at the Folger Library provided an opportunity to reflect on how each age places itself in relation to its past. Books like Verstegan’s were written to commemorate the English past, but they were also meant to demonstrate that England’s origins lay outside itself, much as the Folger Library seeks to remind us of our own nation’s extraterritorial origin. But the monumental aspect of the library and even the city around it work to consolidate history and create a unified image, meant to stand against time and dissolution. As a result, attempts to memorialize the past can have the effect of sealing it off rather than opening it up for engagement. Making the past visible and vital to the present requires constant work from its students; Andrew, and the other participants had the privilege of learning from the Folger Institute’s staff, who were able to show how the books in the library’s collection pointed to complex historical realities. To avoid presenting a rigid and brittle image of the past, institutions need people like those at the Folger Institute who can respond to the questions and interests of the public and present the objects they preserve in a way that invites further investigation.