Faculty Success with Lisa Surridge and Mary Elizabeth Leighton: The library as a lab for hands-on teaching

Lisa and Mary Elizabeth sitting at a table with Victoria publications in front of them
Lisa Surridge and Mary Elizabeth Leighton

UVic Libraries is pleased to celebrate faculty success with a series of interviews featuring researchers and their recent collaborative projects

Professors Lisa Surridge and Mary Elizabeth Leighton from UVic’s English Department have recently published a new book, titled The Plot Thickens: Illustrated Victorian Serial Fiction from Dickens to Du Maurier based in part on material from UVic Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives. This duo of skilled archival researchers has received several research grants to dig into UVic’s extensive collection of materials related to Victorian literature. They are passing their love of the archives on to their students by designing assignments that allow students to work closely with rare and unique archival objects.

What is your favorite place in UVic Libraries and why?

The classrooms associated with Special Collections! They have simply revolutionized our teaching. Students get to hold book history in their hands, to feel the periodicals and newspapers that the Victorians touched. They get to see flowers pressed beside a poem by a Victorian reader, a child’s drawing of Cock Robin in a book of rhymes. That kind of hands-on learning is irreplaceable.

What is your favorite LC subclass (the first two letters at the beginning of a call number range) and why?  

The PR section is where I learned my love of literature, at Queen’s University as an undergrad, at Oxford as a visiting student, and then at U of T in my grad studies. It became my home here at UVic too when I first arrived. It holds a special place in my heart because it is what transformed my love of reading into a career in research and teaching.

- Lisa Surridge

Mary Elizabeth: I have always loved the PR section, where I would set up on the floor or in a cozy carrel to read literature as an undergrad at Trent University. I also love the AP section, which houses the periodicals where so much 19th-century literature first appeared in serial form. I have fond memories of a summer almost twenty years ago when Lisa and I began our collaboration in the AP section (then largely housed in the stacks), huddling over volumes of Punch Magazine as we paged through six decades of Victorian cartoons and culture.   

What is the most exciting or interesting experience that you’ve ever had in a library or archive?

Lisa: Every year in my children’s literature class, we learn about what Andrew Stauffer calls “book traces” and we go off in a treasure hunt in the stacks. The challenge is to find Victorian books that bear traces of their users. I never fail to be thrilled by what students find! Dr. Stauffer started this tradition when he visited UVic Libraries from the University of Virginia and challenged his audience to do this. That presentation changed my teaching life. He asked us to go out into the stacks and bring back copies of books bearing fingerprints, dead insects, drawings, letters, book plates—anything that would tell us something about how the book had been used by its owners. His point is that each book bears the imprint of its own reading and every library is a treasure house of book history.

One of my favourite library activities is sitting students down in front of a 19th-century magazine or newspaper volume in Special Collections and asking them to record what they discover, whether that’s a surprising clash of fiction and news coverage on the same page, intricate illustrations, some reader’s hand-colouring of a black-and-white image, or the faint odour of tobacco. This activity yields excitement for students (and for me) every time: I set out the volumes—big and small, serious and satirical—and students are captivated by the 19th-century world that opens before them. They linger over their volumes, coming alive as researchers—and becoming alive to the research possibilities that the library holds out for them.  

- Mary Elizabeth Leighton

Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us?

We are so lucky to work at UVic, where the librarians are our research and teaching collaborators! The UVic library is our lab for hands-on teaching as well as student and faculty research. 

Our new book on Victorian pregnancy takes us into another aspect of Special Collections, as we explore advice manuals for pregnant women, pop-up pages of gestational stages, and books that display or conceal the pregnant form.  Already some of our most exciting discoveries come from Special Collections. We can’t wait to share these with students and library afficionados.