Thursday, July 17, 2008

RBMS Seminar: Teaching and Outreach in Special Collections

Also on Wednesday, June 25 of the RBMS (Rare Books and Manuscripts) pre-conference (see my previous entries), there were 3 seminars. I attended Seminar C, Teaching and Outreach in Special Collections: From K-12 to Undergraduates and Beyond. Speakers included:
  • Lisa Berglund, Associate Professor of English, Buffalo State College
  • Yolanda Theunissen, Curator of the Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine [see their Outreach at the Osher Library ]
  • Pablo Alvarez, Curator of Rare Books, University of Rochester [updated 2011:  now of University of Michigan]
The moderator was Jennifer MacDonald, of the University of Delaware, who stated that teaching outreach requires creative planning. The talks provided 3 examples: undergraduates, K-12 classes, and the general public. Again, these notes are my own transcriptions, and I am totally responsible for errors of meaning, therefore these notes should not be taken as a fully accurate transcript of the speakers' talks.

Lisa Berglund spoke on "Introducing Undergraduates to Rare Books and Manuscripts." A regular teacher (i.e. not a librarian!) she mentioned how she teaches book history in 2 contexts:
Small classes (like graduate seminars), and with large classes. Buffalo State College library has only 18 volumes printed before 18th century! Many students never realize there is a rare book room at the school and many faculty don't realize as well. Unfortunately many faculty are oblivious or not creative enough to figure out how to use these pre-18th century volumes.
It's important to get any student involved with rare books, especially:
  1. English literature students. Get them to see any 19th century book (at least; if not an earlier example). Remember: most of their visual and tactile experience is only from the Norton Anthologies! Similarly, let them try to experience William Blake in an authentic context.
  2. Communications students. Issues of dissemination can be interesting. [can't recall remainder]
  3. History students. Engagement with texts of the past.

4) Secondary faculty. When such people are in teacher training, their engagement with academic issues can be limited. Focus on this group, who will be flattered with the attention. They haven't had the experience of dealing with rare books. You can suggest ways to break down huge class groups. Think of digitized surrogates as a supplement.
Other concerns: rare book room hours are generally not convenient for students who study at night. If you can schedule classes earlier in the day, then they can visit the rare book room. (They can visit other destinations that supplement rare book study.) Work with faculty to get them to the rare book room, despite its hours.
You might be faced with the attitude: "I'm not here to learn, I'm here to get an education." Most students can't spend lots of time studying rare books, but the teacher or librarian can show that books are more than just texts.
You might want to think about to reaching out to other institutions' students. People at other institutions can excite and interest students. Just getting them to see what's out there can be extremely valuable. Think of community colleges that don't have rare books that will benefit from your resources.

Library tours are great but students need to TOUCH stuff. Let them touch these artifacts. If you hand out the gloves, they'll get really serious about their study. Don't be afraid to show them the fun stuff.

You can get them to recognize the difference between rare books and old books. You can teach so much from anything that's old and interesting. This is the time to use to use primary sources. Students are receptive to what happened to the book, because that kind of transition exists today (i.e. how computers and the web are transforming everything). If you put book history into the context of today's resources, they'll “get” it. They get works they've heard of. Ask questions about things which are different today (e.g lack of street addresses in old publishers' statements).

Lisa has found 3 assignments that work really well:
  1. A 400-500 word report on "what I saw, and what I learned." They can get engaged if teacher encourages student interaction. Think of the collection as a commitment to culture.
  2. Great assignment: Having each student examine a different 18th century book. It gets them looking and touching books. Then go back to library and talk about all their assignments together.
  3. Comparison assignment: Choose a text you've read, and find a first edition (it can be online, or facsimile, or similar surrogate), and write a comparison of the experience of comparing the two. One student wrote a wonderful paper about Uncle Tom's Cabin, and how one is robbed of so much meaning and significant unless you read it in its original context.
Students can gain "ownership" of original research by examining unusual rare books. These will be particularly interesting to students interested in cultural studies, and pedagogy. "Seize the moment!" to get to these students.

Yolanda Theunissen spoke on outreach to the K-12 constituency, as done in the Osher Map Library of the University of Southern Maine. (See her article Developing and Promoting Outreach Services for Elementary and Middle Schools: Case Study of a Rare Map Library at a Public University in Journal of Map and Geography Libraries 3, no. 2 [June 14, 2007]: 5-22). 25% of her time is spent on outreach, including adults, and the general public. K-12 groups are just one part of that program.
It is a challenge to interpret materials to younger children. With few staff available to her, she takes a thematic approach - a gradual, phased approach. Very pragmatic. Have you developed kits or "trunks" that you can ship to schools? Do you have routine class tours?

Step 1: Take inventory of the resources you have. Get in the mindset: What will work with minimal effort for a K-12 class? Get something arresting that will grab their attention. (Think of a Duchamp ready-made sculpture, e.g. the bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a chair, or the toilet seat sculpture).
If you have traveling exhibits, create subsets or activities that will become a teachable activity.
Step 2: Add value. Recruit students with special interests. Some high school teachers wonder what to do with honor students (i.e. high-level students that teachers can't handle). Use them and mine their interests. If you have a publication (e.g. exhibition catalog), analyze it and do a value-added examination. How can you ensure that the books (or brochures) you create will be used? As you start thinking along these lines, it'll become second nature. Ask yourself “Is there something here that the student will respond to?”
Become acquainted with your new constituency. Make time to attend local/regional chapter meetings. Become familiar with the “teaching results” and how they get to be in compliance with the state's guidelines for learning.
Also other ideas: Team up with a teacher. Students will respect you more because they already have gained respect of the teacher. Do teacher training and learning with teachers and librarians together. Do group tours with adults. They're straightforward for high school age and above, but when you deal with below 5tth grade, there are different issues.
When you have a class enter the room, figure out how to engage students to think right away (again, think of those Duchamp ready-mades and their "shock value"). Try to relate to their experience of the objects.
The benefits: to staff, you get recognition from administration. Ultimately, if you reach students, they are the potential donors when they're older.

Pablo Alvarez. We should be teaching history of the the book to a wider audience. They are historical objects. You can't have a text without interpretation. There are an increasing number of courses on the teaching of the history of the book. This encourages greater collaboration between faculty and special collections librarians. How can students do research if they've never been introduced to Special Collection ideas?
Alvarez has been successful with his class on the history of the book at the University of Rochester. He places an emphasis on how a knowledge of bibliography can assist and help collectors. It's learning about the printed word and its evolution - an evolution that takes you from scroll to codex, to the introduction of paper. The focus of the course is on the hand-made period before movable type. Alvarez touches on other topics such as the transmission of ideas, and the reasons why book makers did what they did. For example, in their copy of Copernicus, there are irregularities on title page: What do they mean?
Topics such as “continuity with the past” and “censorship” are good for a class, because students can understand and see how these topics relate to current issues. Having a class in the library presents a unique opportunity for students to handle Special Collections items. A close examination of books can reveal personal stories that can connect to the student (for example, issues of provenance and previous owners).
Reaching out to the community can lead to greater diversity. Take advantage of developments in bibliographic studies to do outreach.

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