I’ve had one graduate student who completed a dissertation under my direction. So, yeah, if you know who I am you can find out who my student is, I know: I have nothing but good things to say about my student, and I don’t think I’m going to say anything that violates Stu’s privacy, and this has general implications.

My student will be in the UK this summer, and wants to visit some manuscripts. I am totally in favor of this, of course. Love the lovely manuscripts! And I’m happy to write a letter of recommendation to assert that Stu Dent did indeed complete a dissertation under my direction, blah blah knows how to behave in libraries blah blah please extend all courtesy to Stu etc etc. Stu has questions, of course, about how all this works. So I have gone with Stu to a local Rare Books Room (that is, not LRU’s) to demonstrate how this sometimes works. I also try to provide guidance like “send an e-mail that says when you will be there and ask if you can have access to what you want to see, using shelfmarks.”

“Ask” is a key word, and it’s polite to use the library’s method of referring to their holdings, rather than the nickname scholars may use. I have known snowflake-students for whom I might have found it expedient to dictate the e-mail, for fear of an overly-entitled demand to see restricted material, but this Stu is not one of them. (Come to think about it, if someone acted that entitled, I might not write in support. I’ll have to think about that.)

But at a certain point, I say “Here’s the URL for the website; poke around and find the address for the reading room you need, and the information about applying for cards.” Or even, “I haven’t been there myself, so do a web search for the library and see if you can find the information you need.”

I think this is appropriate. Stu is now Dr. Stu, after all, and is perfectly capable of doing web searches. It’s not that Stu expects me to do Stu’s work; it’s more that Stu is awed, excited, and nervous at the prospect of seeing Actual.Real.Six Hundred Year Old.Manuscripts!! (as one is), and wants to be sure nothing happens to ruin that prospect. So I want to be helpful and calming, but there is a limit to what I can or should do for Stu. Dr. Stu is going to have to go through the same process the rest of us go through.

I guess what worries me, a little, is that Stu thinks I’m someone special and important because I have been in these libraries and seen these materials, and I’m not. I mean, obviously I have a Ph.D. and certain training, but it’s not as if my name means anything at all to Bruce Barker-Benfield. I have no “pull.” I’m just one more obscure American scholar who has gone through the interviews with the gatekeepers to achieve a reader’s card at various Significant Libraries.

In other words, to borrow from dear Miss Austen, I am a gentleman and Stu is a gentleman’s daughter, and thus far we are equal. It’s not as if my professors went with me anywhere but our own Ivy Library; they wrote letters of recommendation, but I don’t recall any other specific advice about how to approach libraries and librarians.

On the other hand, their names and that of my alma mater opened more doors than my name and LRU’s can do, and so, given that I do not personally have any particular clout, perhaps I do owe my students more individual help than my professors offered me.


6 thoughts on “More about graduate students

  1. Me, I'm just surprised that any library requires more 'clout' than a verifiable Ph.D. to obtain access to most documents, and demonstrated interest in a particular document for the more specialized stuff. (Okay, I know the BL will shoot most people before it hands them a Shakespeare first folio, but if you have a compelling reason to look at it, you can wrestle it away from them.) I've certainly never encountered such a draconian measure (and not-yet-past-candidacy-exams I have even sweet-talked my way past the Ph.D./ABD requirement at one or two places). Can you say a little more about that?

  2. I already think you've gone above and beyond, and it's very kind of you.And *I* always think you're special. 😉

  3. Moria, it depends on what you want to see and why you need to see it. Some medieval MSS are restricted-access: the Vernon, for example; and then there's (I think I'm remembering this correctly) Bodleian Arch. Selden B.24, which is badly mold-damaged and lives in a freezer, off-limits to everybody. I don't need these, and neither does my student (there are good facsimiles, anyway, and the Vernon is being digitized), but there certainly are books that are not available without some clout, and I think awareness of that is contributing to my student's anxiety. Documents are another matter; many depositories are rather cavalier about non-literary documents.Does this help?

  4. In my experience, God on high holds no clout over Bruce Barker-Benfield. (I did get to see Junius 1, but only after a three-hour grilling that surpassed my orals in grad school.)

  5. I think my director's letter basically said that I knew enough not to chew gum and put it between the leaves of books.

  6. Perhaps rather than "clout" I should have said "highly specialized knowledge, and the ability and preferably publications to prove it," but that's a bit long-winded. I don't mean like being a major donor; more like being Ralph Hanna.

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