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Rare books and archives instruction resources

Today one of my colleagues asked for resources on teaching book history and teaching with rare books in university classrooms. This is one of my favorite things to do (and something our outreach archivist, JoyEllen, and I do very regularly), and her listserv post got me thinking about our approach to instruction.

When the two of us started, we had enjoyable and (hopefully) useful instruction models to work with, but were concerned about two things: First of all, that our sessions seemed to not fully engage students. It was a lot of talking and show and tell, and not that much hands-on experience or critical engagement with concepts. Second, was that we felt like we were coming in and showing students ‘cool stuff’ but not making it relevant to their lives and scholastic careers.
This was particularly an issue for our freshman seminars, where we felt that having two separate tours and talks (one for archives and one for rare books) could feel boring and repetitive, and didn’t give students the opportunity to synthesize an understanding of what primary sources are and why they matter. To address this, we developed a new freshman seminar instruction model that combined the two, and gave students some experience identifying and working with primary sources, while also thinking about when those sources could be used in their own research.

We also developed a second module for other courses, based largely on my background with book arts and book history, and my experience thinking of the book as a technology. One thing that I think is very important when working with rare books is not to simply think of them in terms of their contents, but to also consider their structure, traces of use (marginalia, etc.–also fun fact, ‘traces of use’ is my favorite term on the planet), and what these tell us about the book’s intended vs. actual function. To do this, we talk students through the development of the book as a technology with a focus on how technological innovation can help or hinder information access, and how that access (or lack thereof) might have broader societal implications.
Both instruction session types are highly flexible–we have a basic idea of what we want to cover, but we adjust what materials we bring and some of what we cover based on a particular course (e.g. spending time at the end to talk about book art for a design course, vs. spending time talking about the publishing history of a given author for a literature course). Both types also include a hands-on component: Our materials were purchased with the intent to be used by students, researchers, and community members, so it’s exciting to get them out of the stacks and into people’s hands.

For the most part, I’ve done these kinds of presentations (particularly the second one) from memory, and have not written down much of my process. Today’s Exlibris thread, however, inspired me to write it down and share it with colleagues. To help more folks who are designing instruction sessions, I’ve put what I have in this Dropbox folder. It includes:

  • Two in-depth handouts covering the history of the book. These were made for my instruction sessions with Common Good’s prison education initiative this spring, and are too detailed for most classes, but I find them valuable to pull from to make smaller, more focused handouts as needed.
  • An outline document giving a step-by-step of how we run our classes for 1101 classes (freshman seminars) and for our technology of the book sessions.
  • Two handouts that JoyEllen brought in to our 1101 sessions for students to use in analyzing primary sources.

I hope these are helpful for colleagues–and if you use our materials, I would love to hear how they work for you! I am always evaluating our instructional offerings to make sure we’re teaching the best classes we can, so knowing what works and doesn’t elsewhere is a huge help.
Next up I’ll be making a standardized handout for our book as technology sessions that I can add to as needed: It will be a timeline that maps the specific artifacts we use to larger historical contexts. I’ll add it to the same folder when it’s ready!

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