RBMS 2016 Blog


Four Lists of Ideas


This is the second in a series of posts summarizing the RBMS 2016 Participatory Session: Mixing Hands-On and Do-Not-Touch: Workshop Session on Teaching with Special Collections. Discussion leaders: Melissa Barton, Yale University and Molly Schwartzburg, University of Virginia

The following suggestions came from groups attending a participatory session at RBMS on teaching with special collections.

Planning Introductory Sessions

  • This group identified the problem as the need to balance procedures with maintaining the wonder/aura of special collections
  • Demonstrate how you found the materials on view through catalogs/finding aids
  • Use the TouchTalkFind paradigm: let students TOUCH materials, then TALK about them, then FIND them themselves with help
  • Always explain why the library exists and why we care about the materials. This helps students to understand why we go to such lengths.
  • Consider using video and/or humor or online tutorials to demonstrate proper handling.
  • Keep in mind that flipped classrooms and other activities will require faculty support
  • Have students throw out topics and then demonstrate a search on that topic. Or use your expertise, your enthusiasm
  • See if you can tailor use of discovery resources to an assignment (work with faculty to determine goals of session)
  • Group size matters.
  • Multiple sessions with a group can work better than one alone
  • Introduce the idea of a one-on-one research consultation

Building Rapport with Students

  • Humor can often help
  • An unexpected artifact can capture attention
  • Ask students questions and give them authority to speak about materials
  • Acknowledge the privilege that inheres in special collections
  • Consider passing materials around. If policies don’t permit this, consider building a teaching collection meant for physical engagement (bonus: a teaching collection may be able to travel TO classes instead of requiring students to come to special collections)
  • Give handling guidelines by demonstration and showing, not telling
  • Talk about why you like the materials—show your enthusiasm
  • Ask direct questions
  • Assuage fears that students will hurt the books by touching them. Tell them “I trust you” and also remind them that everyone can use handling reminders, even faculty
  • Engage outliers and teach to the entire room. Try to think of yourself as meeting each student where he/she is.
  • Acknowledge students’ potential and intelligence. Praise them when appropriate.
  • Put some of the burden of engagement back on students. Have them prepare in advance: for example, ask students to submit three questions before the session addressing what they want to get out of it.
  • Challenge students to defend their attitude. If they think there’s no point to their visit, why? Can they make a good case?
  • Encourage them to choose one item that excites, surprises, delights them, and explain why. Alternatively, ask them which one item they would save from a fire, and why.
  • Use pop culture parallels, such as comparing selfies/phone photos to 19 c. cased images

Making the Most of the Show and Tell

  • The S&T is an opportunity for us to share our expertise, so let’s be happy about that!
  • S&T can work well as the first of multiple sessions
  • Also for introducing non-English language materials or other materials that are difficult to interpret in a “self-guided” way
  • S&T can present a variety of options for potential research topics
  • S&T can be followed by a close-reading of a single item or group of items
  • If the opportunity arises, a member of the antiquarian book trade can present about provenance and/or the antiquarian book market (Bonus: you can ask students which item they would buy, and why)
  • S&T is the best format to tell stories about the items/explain the importance of each item—lectures are sometimes great!
  • Try pairing items with printouts of their catalogue records and/or finding aids to give context and also show bibliographic framework
  • If a group is very large, consider using Think-Pair-Share to engage students individually and push students to engage with materials
  • Compare digital surrogates to the individual objects to show surprising differences in size/format (note from MB: I do this all the time with the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass)
  • Ensure proper “density” of materials; make sure everyone can see items; display and presentation should be appealing
  • Reveal closed/restricted items
  • Include a paleography lesson
  • Include production materials (e.g. animal skin, binding waste)
  • For archival materials, show materials with their finding aid description, allowing them to see things like interesting enclosures within a correspondence series in their arrangement/structure

Active Learning Exercises

  • Before planning, find out the goals of the class. Work with faculty to determine a goal that is manageable and productive
  • Create a lesson plan and pull list. These can be saved/shared both externally and internally
  • Students talking to each other is the most important thing we can do
  • Organize students in small groups by topic. Each group has to make notes on an item/items and then report out to the large group.
  • Ask students to pick one item that interests them and explain why
  • Get students to investigate the items with very little explanation—they can try to figure out what the items are, or they can just explain what they notice about the item
  • Building a narrative from the pieces of an archive: each student gets one document and must report out about that document. Students realize that their documents fit together into a larger narrative.
  • Encourage students to ask each other questions
  • Have students find material in the catalogue, request the material, and look at it when retrieved
  • Have students organize the materials into an imaginary exhibit and justify the arrangement
  • Have students hypothetically organize an archival collection and explain why
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Listen to student discussions to learn what they do and don’t know so that you don’t waste time teaching them known information
  • Worksheet: Have students write answers to a series of questions. What do you see in the document? How is the document different from one you would see today? What surprises you the most? What do you wish you could ask the person who created this?

–Melissa Barton, Yale University & Molly Schwartzburg, University of Virginia