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Historical Ed. Books Speak Volumes

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Washington

If arcane schoolroom history seems irrelevant, be warned--the National Library of Education's one-of-a-kind collections of leather-bound treasures and hefty texts will make the topic absolutely urgent.

The two collections--one of early-American textbooks and one of rare books--hold more than 12,000 volumes spread over two floors of the U.S. Department of Education-run library here, less than a mile from the Capitol.

Arguably the most seductive volumes are found among the rare books and documents, which sit secretively behind an unmarked white door to a room on the second floor--a windowless catacomb that smells of aging paper. Visitors, usually researchers accompanied by library staff, can find a historical treat in just about any volume picked from the dozen or so tightly stacked bookcases that fill the room almost to its ceiling.

The oldest book--a Latin commentary on student instruction--dates back to 1489. A 70-page index provides background on the book and its author, as well as the 400 other foreign-language and English books in the rare-volumes' collection.

"I tell you, it's like the incredible voyage," says John N. Blake, the acting director of the library's reference and information services. "It's amazing how much history is in one place."

The voyage, as Blake puts it, will also lead visitors to the 1795 edition of the New England Primer, the colonial period's most widely used textbook. The diminutive book presents the alphabet in mostly religious verse, illustrated with detailed woodcut prints. The letter H, for example, appears next to a black-and-white rendering of a Bible inside a heart. The accompanying verse reads: "My book and heart must never part."

And today's education students are sure to wince at the Lectures on Popular Education, written to U.S. educators in 1834 by a London professor. The author writes encouragingly that America has the geographic and political attributes "for exhibiting man in his legitimate character, a religious, moral, and intellectual being." But on educating women, he adds: "I regard the great business of female life to be the nurturing of children and the management of the domestic circle. These occupations are equally important to women as professions are to men."

Textbook Examples

The rare-book collection also offers a glimpse into the emergence of early textbooks. Frustrated with the visually bland children's reading materials of the early 1800s, Isaiah Thomas penned The Hieroglyphick Bible in 1814, using more than 500 intricately illustrated symbols that represent words. "This pleasing method of teaching children has been found by experience to be an easy way of leading them to reading," his preface states.

The authors of Lessons on Common Things also found that the day's classroom texts offered "little to attract the attention of children or prevent the formation of habits of idleness and mischievousness."

Though the 1832 book is literally coming apart at the seams, it's easy to make out the lyrical recitals, which students read aloud in response to teacher queries. The paperback-sized book opens as the teacher says: "Children, come and I will teach you, but first you must let me inquire, 'Do you wish to learn?'" To which the students respond: "Yes, if we can understand the lessons."

The much larger (and only slightly less intriguing) collection of early-American textbooks makes its home in a cavernous room down in the library's basement. Textbooks, scholarly education reports, and other curriculum materials from around the world crowd in next to countless college yearbooks, school map collections, and sundry children's books. Many volumes date back more than 200 years.

And even though a lot of the material seems painfully obscure--like the copies of the Ohio School Report going back to 1871, complete with county-by-county student enrollments--it all has an audience.

"If these books could talk about the number of people who got Ph.D.s from them," Blake wonders aloud, his voice trailing off as he contemplates the question.

Uncertain Future

It's a small miracle that this eclectic chronology of education can be found under one roof. The collections got their start in 1869, courtesy of the Bureau of Education, which at that time was part of the Department of the Interior. But in 1953, the books were split up between the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and public and university libraries in the Washington area.

Responding to requests from researchers, the original collections and new donated volumes were brought together in 1985 with the creation of the Department of Education Research Library. And in 1994, Congress merged that library with collections from other federal agencies and established the National Library of Education.

"For many years, the books were sent all over the place. It was like losing good friends," says Blake, who has been shelving books for the federal government since 1968. "It was good to get them all together again."

Despite the popularity of the collections among researchers and library staffers, their future remains uncertain--especially in an era when libraries are increasingly accessed electronically. Surely, retrieving the pages of these weathered books from a computer monitor or dot-matrix printer will never be the same as leafing through the yellowed texts for oneself.

A 12-member advisory board, which convened for the first time last month, has until this fall to recommend how the Education Department should run the library, which includes managing public access to the massive Education Resources Information Center.

"Preserving these books is very technical and very expensive," says Jane Kolbe, the state librarian for South Dakota who heads up the board. "If nothing is done in the next five to 10 years, the problem could probably resolve itself," she adds, referring to the slow but inevitable process of deterioration brought on by the chemical makeup of the old paper used in bookmaking.

"They're beautiful, and they're unusual," says Nancy Cavanaugh, the library's acting director of collection development and technical services. "But some of them will literally crumble in your hands."

Many of the library's books have gone through the costly process of being rebound in new leather covers. But money for such restorations has run out.

As for a cheap way to safeguard old books, one library employee recalls a trick used during his tenure at the Smithsonian Institution: Books were put in a microwave oven to kill predatory pests. "But we only have one microwave here," he jests. "I think the staff would kill us if we tried to nuke bugs in it."

The advisory board members are likely to place that idea low on their list of options. Instead, they could opt to simply let the collections remain as they are today; donate the collections to the Library of Congress, which is better equipped to deal with antiquated material; electronically scan and store the materials; or turn the collections over to a prominent education school.

Chester E. Finn Jr., who oversaw the education library during his tenure as assistant secretary of education in the late 1980s, argues that the library is an important historical collection that should be preserved, and not just as a novelty.

"Given how much new stuff in education is garbage, it's nice to be able to see what people took seriously 150 years ago," he says. "Some of it was a lot better."

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