Experiencing History at the Bancroft Library

March 23, 2017

Lee Ann Titangos shows students a page from the Nuremberg Chronicles.Consumed by our present reality, it can be difficult to imagine history as anything but words and dates: abstract notions of the past. History majors, however, seek to bridge the gap between past and present. Recently, the faculty for Berkeley Connect History facilitated this discovery process by bringing students to the Bancroft Library.

Located at the heart of campus, on the east side of the Doe Library, the Bancroft collects manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials. Instruction Coordinator Lee Ann Titangos described the library as “a special collection, distinct from Doe or Moffitt.” Titangos directed the visiting students to a table displaying a variety of documents: books, letters, currency, and pamphlets. Titangos explained that she had prepared the documents to allow the students to travel the “table through time.”  

The first document the students observed dated back to medieval times. The manuscript, titled The Great Chronicle, followed the histories of prominent figures, beginning with the King Brutus of Troy and ending with King Henry V. Titangos explained that the manuscript was handwritten onto a material called vellum, created from the hide of cows. Given the variable of natural human error, no two manuscripts were ever alike and only a few copies were produced.

Prior to the 1450’s, book-making was an expensive, tedious process. With the introduction of the printing press, however, writing began to spread into the public domain. The Nuremberg Chronicles demonstrated this change. The chronicles contain a comprehensive account of biblical history from the beginning of time, as represented by Genesis, to the Last Judgment.

Shifting from Europe to the Americas, Titangos introduced the students to four court dockets from the Mexican Inquisition. The thickness of these dockets represented the person’s rank. After showing students several other documents around the table, Titangos concluded with records documenting California’s history. She explained that Hubert Howe Bancroft, after whom the library was named, was an avid collector who sought out original documents and drew from many resources to uncover California’s history. When documents were not available for collection, Bancroft sent assistants to copy the original sources by hand.

Within the span of a single hour, students were exposed to many hundred years of content. Seeing and feeling the documents from ancient times and comparing them to modern documents helped students make sense of the technological variables which affected each era. The Bancroft visit was an amazing opportunity for students to observe how historians preserved stories in the past and to realize the difficulties of the present.

posted by Gloria Choi

Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant