About this blog

The traditional image of the scholar/professor in the humanities is one of lonely study, accessing carefully selected sources during planned sessions of archival work, or reading and writing in a campus library, and of course teaching in a college classroom.

Things can be very different, though.

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On collaborative research

This is an exciting time.  Preparing to leave for Ostiglia last year, I had absolutely no idea what I would find once there, and I do remember vividly the sense of adventure and apprehension that accompanied my preparation for the trip.  I had met with the students (Karen Stafford, Molly Ryan, Laura Dallman, Carolyn McClimon, and Matthew Leone) a couple of times, and had attended a number of technical meetings with our IT group (Bill Guerin, Phil Ponella, and Giuliano Di Bacco); I had seen and actually tried out the cataloguing template we would be using; and I had gone over the set up for our on-site computer network.  But it all remained rather theoretical, fuzzy, and a bit scary; I was definitely aware that in dealing with the technical aspect of the project I was out of my depth, and would depend on the expertise of the team.

For someone trained as a humanist scholar, this is very much new territory: most of us are not prepared to think as part of a group.  We have the tendency to dream up something, and then own it in its entirety, and often protect it as “our own” domain. We are expected to think up all the questions, work out the answers, and parry all comers’ “challenges.”  Our habits make us soloists, not ensemble players; our models are the “greats” of the profession, who carried out sometimes enormous projects alone (think of Einstein’s The Italian Madrigal, an epic effort if ever there was one). Although this mindset can produce brilliant works, it is not always positive for the field as a whole, as it tends to stifle discourse and produce stagnation, at least in its worst manifestations.  We can all think of examples, both in the profession at large and in our own departments.

The seminar itself proved the value of collaborative work, and it was a pure pleasure to participate in it.  I had been a RISM cataloguer in graduate school, working under John Howard’s direction and cataloguing manuscripts at the Boston Public Library; I felt confident enough about the Greggiati holdings, which are similar to those at the BPL, and looked forward to introducing the students to the task.  The process turned out to be more fluid, complex, and ultimately more interesting than I expected.

First, I had not imagined that we would find the existing SBN catalog so useful; more than that, we had the unexpected bonus of working with the librarian, Elisa Superbi, who had been one of the original cataloguers and knew the collection intimately from a musicological perspective.  She was generous in welcoming the project, helping us figure out just how to shape our work, and being open to the incorporation of our changes and additions into the existing catalog.  Second, it became obvious from the first day that my role could not be that of a traditional seminar leader; having five or six manuscripts in play at once raised unpredictable technical and historical problems, and I found myself being more of a sounding board for the students’ questions and ideas.  It was more often a case of having to work through a problem encountered in a manuscript than of providing answers; more challenging, but also far more fun.

Staying flexible proved to be more useful than being “professorial” — not surprisingly — and in the event the back-and-forth among us all quickly leveled the group dynamics.  Karen brought to the table her experience in library cataloguing, helping to resolve questions of terminology, standardization of descriptions, and other technical issues, and in short order the others became instant “experts” on the questions raised by each of their manuscripts.  We all benefited from this: routinely, each presented his or her manuscript to the others, so we could see the range of issues raised by copyists’ decisions, binding problems, environmental damage (not much, but some is inevitable), and practical musical matters.  I learned a tremendous amount from the accumulating wisdom in the room, and can confidently say that I speak for all of us in this regard.

I am confident that this year’s research team will have a productive and exciting time, and that it will enjoy the warm and generous hospitality that Ostiglia showed us last year.  May the weather stay cool for you, and have a great month!

And don’t forget: you have nothing to fear from the delicious food, save a few extra pounds.  You can always take those off later.

Pre-course Research

I am very excited to be a part of this project. I look forward to being in Italy, doing hands on work with such a large collection of manuscripts, and of course the food.  It also gives me the opportunity to do research in England. The university lets us choose choose the date and destination of our flights before the course starts (provided you get yourself to Ostiglia on 5 May) and after the it ends. This allows us to more easily do research at many important European libraries.

I have chosen to fly to England before the course starts to do research in Oxford and London so that I can be back in Indiana to teach after the course ends. I arrived in London the morning of 27 April and went straight to Oxford. It was wonderful just to ride by the buildings that house the music I’ve been studying on microfilm and some modern editions for years. In Oxford I will study manuscripts of 17th century English viol music and documents relating to it at the Bodleian and Christ Church libraries. I will then go to London to study similar repertoire at the British library and historical stringed instruments at the Horniman Museum & Gardens and Victoria & Albert Museum.

Our preparation for the Ostiglia course during the spring semester has made me think more about collectorship in general.  I’ve started to ask questions about how the different collections I study in 17th century English repertoire came to be, who was involved in this process, and how this can change our perception of the music. I’m excited to begin looking at this more closely when the libraries open on Monday and learn even more about it in Ostiglia. For now I’m going to enjoy exploring Oxford!


One Week To Departure

With one week until boarding the plane for Italy, preparations have sped up and are drawing to a close.  The trip seems all the more real as the days pass.  Traveling to Italy has been a long-time dream and to have this opportunity while working with music manuscripts seems almost too good to be true.  My background is in recorder performance at the Jacobs School of Music, however this summer I will be completing my Masters of Library Science with specializations in music and rare books.  My focuses in this current degree are the cataloging and conservation of rare books and manuscripts, especially in regard to music materials.  This program and the corresponding research fit well with my schooling and interests, however as the only participating student who is not in the Musicology program, I am coming from a different side of things to approach the work.  I am experienced working with manuscripts and cataloging rare materials, however this program will provide the opportunity to focus more on the research and discovery side of music manuscripts.

This past semester, after receiving the official go-ahead for the program, we have been meeting regularly in preparation.  In addition to familiarizing ourselves with the programs we will use and ironing out travel details, we have begun our research, (using the resources of the IU Cook Music Library), of the records for manuscripts we will be working with during our time there.

It is exciting to be a part of such a unique program.  Between the manuscript work and the cultural and travel experiences outside of the library, this will prove to be a trip of a lifetime filled with adventure, delicious food and large quantities of gelato.


Now Boarding

In a few days I will be leaving for Italy to set up all the materials needed for this year’s course; I already know that from the time I land things will be moving very fast—I will be looking at our hotel rooms, setting up a fairly sophisticated workstation with a wireless network but also a continuous connection to a server in Bloomington, and making all the last-minute arrangements. My expectations for the next weeks are very high—I am looking forward to an exhilarating teaching and research experience in the company of younger colleagues, and I will try my best to make it a humanly enriching time as well.

From the academic point of view, this will be a very hands-on course on how to study and describe musical manuscripts. In other words, we will try to improve our competence in dealing with sources from centuries ago, and to study and describe them in a way that will be useful to other scholars. Day after day, we will look for patterns and try to get a fair idea of what the process of collecting this enormous group of music books must have been like.

As far as my personal feelings go, I have been a University instructor for roughly ten years but I can candidly confess that I have never felt less prepared for a class. Sure, I have worked very hard for this course in particular, but I am also aware that this  activity will test the instructor as much as the students. We are not discussing books I have read and thought about, or presenting historiographical topics that I find especially intriguing. In May, the IU students and I will work in real time, looking at material we have never seen before—each of the manuscripts is a unique object that can only be accessed in the original. So much for the twenty-first century and our  delusion of universal access to everything. When I will be there, my instinct will be as valuable as my knowledge. I will make mistakes, and hopefully rectify them. The students and I will collaborate and discuss, and hopefully be able to connect enough dots to glimpse a piece of music history that nobody knew before us. They say teaching is a performing art—it will be especially true in this case.

There is of course more than manuscripts to the experience we are embarking on—this will be an intercultural endeavor, and I expect the non-academic part will be as enriching as the study of manuscripts. But this will have to wait until the next post.