This Week's Message
Teaching and Special Collections
Hands-on, archival research-the cultivation of traditional scholarly sensibilities-should be at the center of the undergraduate liberal-arts experience (Thomas H. Benton, "A Laboratory of Collaborative Learning," Chronicle of Higher Education)
In this age of instant online information, fewer people-especially young people-have an opportunity to recognize the value of older materials and to develop the skills to properly analyze them. When so many printed documents have been converted to the seemingly timeless and fully-edited online environment, teaching students to examine the context of resources and to evaluate what they read becomes even more important. Most students have not mastered a method of inquiry that allows them to triangulate and interpret disparate resources to better understand a complex issue. Students often assume that a dearth of information about a certain topic is a roadblock, instead of realizing that a gap in the historical record is sometimes more telling than volumes of print. Engaging with Special Collections's resources can greatly enhance the development of these skills.
Special Collections has come to be called "the laboratory of the humanities." "Google will have scanned nearly everything in standard collections," observes Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library and renowned historian, "but it will not have penetrated deeply into rare-book rooms and archives, where the most important discoveries are to be made" (The Case for Books, p. 55). Augustana's Special Collections holds 16,000 printed volumes, ~2500 linear feet of manuscripts in just over 300 collections, and about 60,000 images of various types. Augustana's Special Collections taught 26 class instruction sessions in academic year 2009-2010 for faculty in seven disciplines (the greatest use came from faculty teaching first-year general education courses), and completed 584 reference requests from student researchers, with 815 reference requests overall.
For a number of students, doing research in Special Collections has engendered excitement and provided "aha" experiences. As one Augustana student put it, "I think the most important thing I learned was just how vast the material was in Special Collections and all the possible applications of the information located there....The information I gathered made my research much better and more real." In response to a library satisfaction survey in 2009, several students voluntarily commented that they wished for more instruction in the use of Special Collections. In addition, we often see that when students hold an object in Special Collections, they experience a tactile connection to the past. As Richard Oram and Edward Bishop have written, using Special Collections materials gives users "a perceptual jolt as well as an intellectual thrill. Responding to handwriting, looking at the stamps on letters, feeling and sniffing paper, hearing the flap of heavy parchment pages, you read with all your senses." Such experiences are impossible in a digital environment.
Please join Special Collections Librarians Jamie Nelson and Sarah Horowitz for this week's Friday Conversation to learn about how you might think about incorporating Special Collections into your teaching. Also on hand will be Meg Gillette and Jane Simonsen, who will talk about using Special Collections and be available to answer questions.