Jane Maxwell, Assistant Librarian at TCD’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, discusses the way students are interacting with Beckett’s work at the institution

Dr Julie Bates

Trinity is a target destination for Beckett scholars because of the size and variety of original Beckett manuscripts held here. However, because of the physical fragility of the manuscripts (Beckett always used the very worst quality paper), few people get to handle the originals. This creates an obvious problem when it is considered that there is an almost indefinable, special ‘something’ to be experienced from being in the presence of an original artefact – think of Jane Austen’s spectacles or the Ardagh Chalice. Are our students being denied an experience which could be of signal benefit to them? All special-collections repositories share this tension between access and preservation but the issue has been thrown into high relief in the context of Trinity’s development of the Trinity Education Project, which seeks to encourage more original research among undergraduates.

Interested in examining this problem more closely, in 2017 the Library agreed to a project proposed by Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing in the English Department, which would permit Dr Bates’ students more liberal access to elements of the Beckett Collection. This was hoped to be a mutually beneficial agreement – the students would have a rare and (we hoped) useful exposure to world-heritage level original literary material; and their teacher and Library would ask the students for feedback on their experience.

In Dr Bates words’ ‘The ‘Beckett: Afterlives’ module ran over 12 weeks in MT 2017 for final year undergraduate sophister and visiting students in the School of English. I coordinated the module and delivered all the sessions. My monograph Beckett’s Art of Salvage was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2017. In my teaching, as in my research, I am keen to dismantle the forbidding reputation that often makes Beckett an inaccessible figure for students, especially undergraduates. The module focused on those aspects of literary form altered by Beckett’s writing, and explored a group of contemporary writers and artists who have inherited Beckett’s iconoclastic engagement with form.’

The project started with an agreement about which parts of the collection could be made available in this manner. Some things are simply too fragile to be issued with any regularity – the prompt copy of Godot being a case in point – and some things are just too spectacular not to be included in such a trial – the Imagination dead imagine notebook with its doodles and diagrams. A class was held in the Library with Dr Bates and her students, and a manuscripts curator, to explain the rationale behind the different access rules for unique materials, the handling protocols and the particular research insight that might be expected to arise out of the experience. The class was subsequently invited to select the items they would like to access; they were not given any preferential arrangements in regards to ordering the material because the experience of finding where the Manuscripts Reading Room is (the attic) and how to get here (complicated) was considered to a useful element of the experience.

In the aftermath of their visits the students were then invited to give feedback. This was a where things got really interesting. The reactions were so varied, and well-thought out, so personal and unexpected that it was agreed that they must be disseminated more widely.

Read the complete article at the official Trinity College Dublin website.

Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website RhysTranter.com is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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