Where have all the books gone?

Students hunt for books in Baltimore

By Brigid Darragh

“What is the place of the book? And what are the places that foster reading—in the past, and in our digital present?”

These questions were posed to students of “The History of the Novel in America” course, taught by Jean Lee Cole, Ph.D., last fall.

Students formed small groups and defined “categories” by which find answers to these questions by exploring the place of books and of reading today through a semester-long project.

The project culminated in an exhibit called Book Places, which opened on Jan. 14 and runs through Feb. 5, 2014, at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library.

Students investigated and profiled various places like airports, waiting rooms, independently-owned bookstores, and several neighborhoods in Baltimore City to document the presence of books and readers in each.

At an opening reception for the exhibit visitors had the opportunity to meet the curators and hear more about their project, as well as inscribe a book for Loyola’s very own Little Free Library, which the students helped build, paint, and then started with books donated from their own collections.

An interactive map of bookstores past and present invites visitors to mark their favorite bookstore and see where others are located in Baltimore.

The students’ research led them to discover that some places, such as the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center, have a greater presence of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, while others, such as Hampden, are full of people reading and selling and talking about books at every turn. Still other places, like the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, for example, showed a greater presence of e-readers and handheld technology than paperback novels. In fact, there were no books to be found.

“What was neat was the project evolved as we worked on it,” says senior Peter Hadjokas.

“I was familiar with Hampden and Atomic Books, but as our group went to visit the neighborhood, we started making these connections between past and present and seeing how books and reading have been there all along—more so in this part of Baltimore than others—since the Enoch Pratt Library was founded by Robert Poole… and so we adapted our project to be more of a chronicle of the history of the book in Hampden, right up to the bookstores that are alive and well there today.”

The students further explored how reading communities have responded to changes in social interaction and technology over the years as they pertain to the way we read and talk about what we’re reading.

One group of student curators met one-on-one with members of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center’s book club to discuss the graphic novel Contract with God. They kept journals to log their conversations and the perspectives of book club members, which led to insight on both Jewish culture and the reading community at Levindale.

Cousins worked with two other students to chronicle the history of book clubs in Baltimore, which included the Loyola Literary Society, the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women’s book club, and present-day book clubs organized and run by bookshops in the city.“What I learned in doing this project is that you don’t have to be one ‘type’ of reader. I am always readying… I read e-books, and I paperbacks. It just depends on what it is and how I can access it,” says Courtney Cousins, a senior who chronicled the history of the Women’s Literary Club in Baltimore (1891-1920) for the project.

Cousins worked with two other students to chronicle the history of book clubs in Baltimore, which included the Loyola Literary Society, the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women’s book club, and present-day book clubs organized and run by bookshops in the city.

“I spent a lot of time digging up historical archives, and what I saw firsthand through this project was how a historical course in American novels can fully connect with the present,” Cousins said. “I had never had the opportunity to delve into Baltimore’s history like that before.”

“It was also really interesting to read notes and journals from the members of the Women’s Literary Club about books and themes that we were discussing in Dr. Cole’s class more than a hundred years later, like William Dean Howells.”

When asked what prompted the idea behind this project, Dr. Cole said, “In several of the courses I teach, the idea of “place” is important—whether it is the American West, the natural and urban landscapes of the U.S., or cities like New York.

“I knew nothing about Baltimore before I came here, and I find this city remarkable. I thought it would be interesting for students, most of whom are not from this area and don’t get off campus much, to think about how something they love—reading—evidences itself in a place that many do not find particularly literary. Baltimore, of course, has a long history as an intellectual and literary center, and I thought it would be fun for them to discover that.”

See more of Book Places. Visit the exhibit’s website.

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