Three Questions with Laura Forsberg
Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and others in the UNT community derive from using The Portal to Texas History at UNT Libraries.
How important are Unique Collections in your teaching, learning or research?
The Unique Collections play a vital role in my research by opening up a new dimension of nineteenth-century culture. I’m currently completing a book that is tentatively entitled Worlds Beyond: Miniatures in the Victorian Age, which examines a widespread Victorian fascination with miniature things, including paintings, microscopes, fairies, toys and books. The Unique Collections at UNT and other archives around the country have allowed me to examine hundreds of nineteenth-century miniature books – including some of the 2000+ volumes in UNT’s miniature book collection.
The miniature books in UNT’s collections include works that reflect the extraordinary craftsmanship that was required in miniature book production. In order to print the extremely rare Galileo a Madama Cristina di Lorena (1615), an 1896 book measuring just ½ by ¾ of an inch in size, typesetters handset 2 ½ point type (remember that our normal font is 12 point). In the process, both the compositor and the typesetter ruined their eyesight. The question is: why make a book like this? As I held the volume in the palm of my hand, one answer became clear: the reduction in scale renders this volume an object of pure enchantment. Galileo’s letter about the nature of the heavens has been condensed to half the size of a postage stamp.
Libraries are digitizing more and more of their resources. In general, this is a great thing and it has been helpful for other parts of my research. But my work also testifies to the continuing importance of physical resources and spaces like the UNT Special Collections, where researchers and students can see and encounter rare materials first-hand.
How have Unique Collections changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?
I started graduate school with a textual approach to literature; I read books and poems and analyzed the relationship between content and form. Discovering the Unique Collections was part of a larger shift in my thinking, in which I began to focus on how literature fits into broader patterns in culture. In my current research, I not only analyze literary texts, but also “read” Victorian objects.
Miniature books are particularly interesting objects to study because we can read both the text and the object – and sometimes they say different things! Miniature reference volumes, like The Little Lexicon, or, Multum in Parvo of the English Language, often explain how useful they are to readers. When I hold the object in my hand, however, I can see it’s very inconvenient to use; I struggle to turn thin pages, to hold the book open without blocking the type, and to read the tiny font. The book is, in fact, much less useful than it claims to be. This suggests that buyers probably purchased it because they were enchanted by its form and not because they found it useful.
These insights are helpful not just for my research, but also for my teaching. All of my English courses now incorporate elements of visual and material analysis; my students spend time thinking about how we can interpret the material qualities of objects that we typically take for granted.
What do you want others to know about your research, teaching or learning?
Many of us, when we see a miniature object or thing, automatically respond to it as “cute” or categorize it as a curiosity. I hope that my research causes people to look beyond this instinctual response – especially when the object is historical or hand crafted. How was it made? Why? What labor went into its production and why on earth would someone devote so much effort to making such a tiny thing? By describing an object as cute or by categorizing it as a curiosity, we dismiss the oddity of things rather than seeking to interpret it. I hope that my project inspires others to look more closely at miniature objects and at material things more generally – including both books and artifacts – and to discover the often-overlooked richness of the material past.
I also hope others draw from my project a sense of the excitement of working on materials that have rarely been discussed. In my own case, lots of individuals collect miniature books and a few bibliographers have written authoritative guides to the subject. I am, however, one of the first literary critics to think about these materials at length. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do so – and I hope many others will follow in thinking about marvelous collections like the one held by the UNT Special Collections.
Laura Forsberg is currently a long-term National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Huntington Library. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2015 and has taught at Concordia University Texas since 2014. Her articles on Victorian literature and culture have been published in Victorian Studies, SEL: Studies in English Literature 1600-1900 and Papers of the Bibliographical Society.