Finding ways to ‘teach the codex’: Outreach, Interpretation, Education in special collections in three public research libraries in Rome

Dr Julia Walworth, Fellow Librarian (Merton College, Oxford), is an art and book historian; with Dr Ann Giletti, an historian of medieval philosophy, theology, and science.  Follow Dr Walworth on Twitter (@JuliaWalworth).


Introduction—library sessions with manuscripts from both sides

One of the most enjoyable and challenging parts of my job is providing teaching sessions with medieval manuscripts and early printed books, giving guided tours of Merton’s historic library space, and various combinations of these activities.  I’m always interested to hear how colleagues in other libraries approach these activities.  In April, Dr Ann Giletti and I visited three libraries in Rome to talk informally with librarians about special collections and education/outreach.  Ann had previously taken groups of undergraduates to view medieval manuscripts at the Casanatense Library in Rome and elsewhere, so together we had the perspectives of both instructors and librarians. Our meetings with librarians were possible thanks to Ann’s local contacts and her willingness to step in when my Italian language skills failed.

Without exception the local librarians were welcoming and inspiring.  We are immensely grateful to them to taking time to share their experiences.

It should be said that the discussions were broader in scope than teaching with medieval manuscript books and what follows are just a few main topics touched on in each visit to highlight particular initiatives or themes; but manuscripts were never far from our minds.

General context

The libraries visited were the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Vittorio Emanuele II di Roma (BNCR), the Biblioteca Casanatense, and the Biblioteca Angelica.

The BNCR naturally has a remit to serve the public as well as researchers.  The two smaller historic libraries we visited (Casanatense and Angelica) have the designation ‘biblioteca pubblica statale’, that is, they are supported by the state and also function as public libraries admitting anyone who registers with official identification.  Both of them have magnificent historic library rooms and international manuscript and special collections.  They take their public outreach very seriously.  Even with limited staffing they provide for a surprisingly wide of range of visitors in addition to researchers and students who are just looking for a quiet place to study.

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Who: Dr Andrea Cappa (Manuscripts, Rare Books, Special Collections); Dr Valentina Longo (Medieval Manuscripts).

Making use of public exhibition space

Drs Cappa and Longo talked about finding ways to bring special collections and people together.  There is great demand from schools in particular to visit the library to see some of the major collections of the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian literary figures.  A permanent exhibition space (Spazi900) provides examples of literary manuscripts, and early editions of the works of writers, along with panel texts which are supplemented with QR codes.  The displays in cases are enhanced with selective inclusion of artefacts and furnishings associated with writers. Imaginative lighting and some areas with audio create an effective immersive experience in a relatively small physical space.  This permanent display, located alongside spaces for temporary exhibitions in the public area of the library, takes a great deal of the pressure off library staff to provide repeated viewing sessions with these materials.

Chance Encounters: Making use of common areas to bring together special collections and general readers

The various reading rooms of the BNCR are all located on the ground floor and open off a spacious common area in which readers can use their phones etc.  The manuscripts and special collections department has plans to use this space to connect readers informally with special collections.  A variety of printing presses (post sixteenth-century machines of different sorts) will form a permanent exhibition—demonstrations of printing may follow.  Drs Cappa and Longo also spoke of the possibilities offered by this space for exhibition cases that could feature special collections, thus providing casual encounters with library holdings.

Biblioteca Casanatense

Who: Dr Simona Perugia and Dr Mariana Amodeo, responsible for educational sessions and guided group visits.  We were warmly greeted by Director, Dr Lucia Marchi, at the start of our visit.

Interacting with the library space, and creating a sense of intimacy with books and manuscripts, even when handling is not desirable and/or possible.

At the Casanatense, encounters with early books and manuscripts can start from as young as three.  Educational visits are held in the vast eighteenth-century library room, which is now used for special events, for instructional sessions, and for group visits. Drs Perugia and Amodeo explained how they employ different approaches appropriate for the age of the visitor, but all of which include some aspect of interaction with the space itself as well as collections. They find ways to incorporate handling even with the youngest.  Pre-schoolers are able to handle a facsimile of an early printed book housed in a special box—unpacking the box is part of the fun.  The encounter with the room is also physical: children are asked to measure the dimensions of the room in their own footsteps.

Manuscripts come to the viewer.  For small groups, manuscripts and rare books may be displayed on a large table, but for those with limited mobility or with large groups, viewing of special items is facilitated by placing items open on book trolleys and bringing the books to viewers.  This approach also prevents the kind of crowding that can happen if groups come to view items displayed on a table.

Special experiences can also be provided by opening the glass-panelled doors of the library shelving so that older children can study shelfmarks and learn about how libraries were organised in the past, without removing or handling items.

With proper invigilation, exhibition cases can also be opened so that those in special groups can view items in the case without the intervening glass.

Biblioteca Angelica

Who: Dr Raffaela Alterio and Dr Claudia Giobbio, both responsible for educational visits and instruction with special collections.

In the case of the Biblioteca Angelica, the historic library room still functions as the library’s main reading room, so educational sessions involving collections are held in a seminar room. Drs Alterio and Giobbio observed that the line between libraries and museums is increasingly blurred, especially for those libraries housed in historic spaces. In addition to the usual viewing and teaching sessions, our discussion at the Angelica focussed on two types of internship involving special collections.


One type of internship familiar to many in special collections libraries are those filled by university-age students who apply for the positions.  They are generally assigned to a particular department with the library, and because they are in post for several months they can contribute to the work of the library and assist with special projects. The Angelica may have ten or so of these interns over the course of a year.

A more recent educational activity came to the library when the Italian Ministry of Education introduced the requirement that all secondary-school students needed to complete a given number of hours of internship before they can graduate.  Performance on these internships contributes to the student’s overall mark at the end of their final year.  Teachers looking for opportunities for their students naturally turn to places they know themselves—such as the Biblioteca Angelica.  Since these ‘interns’ come as a group of c. 25 students, the library takes a team approach to provide 40 hours of instruction and project work over the course of a week.  Introductions to the different departments of the library and different types of material are handled by relevant staff.  The students aim to produce some kind of project such as writing exhibition labels.  In addition to organising the entire week, Drs Alterio and Giobbio are also required to assess and mark students’ work. It sounds like a great experience for the students although it is one that also makes heavy demands on library staff.

As with the other two libraries, the Angelica tries to fill many requests for guided visits to the reading room and for university-level teaching sessions with manuscripts and early printed books.  These requests come not only from academics from local universities but also from groups visiting from other countries.  Academics who visit the library for their own research often wish to bring student groups as well.  The balance between access and preservation is a constant consideration, especially when academics naturally wish to include in their sessions particularly important manuscripts on which they themselves have worked.  (Teachers take note: ask staff to suggest appropriate manuscripts.)

Access for specialist training

Readers of the Teaching the Codex blog who attended the second Teaching the Codex colloquium (2017) session on Continental approaches to teaching palaeography and codicology will remember the enviable in-depth experience of those studying at Italian universities.  All the librarians with whom we spoke took it for granted that university students in these areas needed to spend time with original manuscripts.


Over the three visits, we were received warmly by librarians who generously took time from their day to talk with us about their experiences.  They all had positions that involved a variety of responsibilities.  They are multitasking with energy and dedication to find ways of giving people of all ages and experience contact with manuscripts, early books, and historic library spaces.

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