‘Book Learning’ in Special Collections and Archives

Special Collections and Archives has assembled and cared for a remarkable collection of rare books in a variety of subject areas, with creation dates spanning several centuries. As a department in a teaching library, our rare books are preserved in order to be used. Researchers are always welcome to request books from our collection to consult in our reading room, but students often benefit most from carefully planned instruction sessions, with a curated selection of books made available for them to handle and examine with the guidance of their faculty and Special Collections and Archives staff. Special Collections Librarian Nora Epstein, who joined DePaul in SeptemberNora Epstein with Karen Scott’s History 323 course in the Special Collections and Archives Reading Room 2015 straight from her graduate work at the University of St Andrews, St Leonard’s College (Master of Letters, The Book: History and Techniques of Analysis), has shared her enthusiasm for the book as artifact with several classes this year.

With Nora’s and the faculty member’s guidance, students examine the physical properties of the books, and not just the text or story within. Questions of binding, paper type, format, and font are all clues about how and why a particular book was produced, and what this says about society at the time, and about the author and contemporary readers. ‘Book Learning’ in Special Collections and Archives moves beyond theory to a multi-sensory examination of the books. Megan Heffernan, Assistant Professor and Director, Combined BA/MA Program in English, offered this observation about a recent class:

“Strangely, this class was obsessed with the smell of the books, which makes me happy. They were tracking the kind of sensory information that is available in person but not in facsimile or modern editions . . . they didn’t quite have the vocabulary to make sense of these observations, but Nora was very very helpful in supplying them with historical context.”

Special Collections and Archives seeks to provide a laboratory for students, to allow students to develop and strengthen their abilities to analyze information sources, and to ask (and answer) questions about unfamiliar sources.

Special Collections and Archives instruction (with books, archives, or a combination) can be designed to meet a variety of learning objectives, from the University Learning Goals and Outcomes to disciplinary and course specific objectives, and scaled to course-level expectations. An early course (such as those offered through the Chicago Quarter program, or a 100-200 level course) may just introduce how to locate and use Special Collections and Archives materials, and include a brief hands-on, in-class assignment using primary sources or rare books. Upper-level and graduate courses generally use Special Collections and Archives materials to complement and extend concepts already introduced in the course or the discipline, and to provide an opportunity for deeper exploration and research with items that resonate with individual students’ interests. Special Collections and Archives relies on collaboration with faculty to create meaningful learning experiences, and while instruction requests submitted well before the start of the term are appreciated, we’ll accommodate all requests as best as we can, based on staff and room availability.

A selection of Renaissance texts for students to examine

Special Collection and Archives materials are discipline agnostic; while they’ve often been considered the domain of History and English scholars, the intellectual and educational uses of the materials are open to the creativity, curiosity, and specific interests of faculty and students. Of the 67 instruction sessions conducted in the 2014-2015 academic year, half were with English and History courses, but the Anthropology, Catholic Studies, College of Computing and Digital Media, Latin American and Latino Studies, Liberal Studies, Modern Languages, Music, New Media Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies programs also provided opportunities for their students to interact with Special Collections and Archives materials in a class setting.

I invite you to learn more about our collections and our research and instruction services. We are always happy to answer questions, discuss ideas, and plan an instruction session that will best support student learning and faculty teaching. For more information on our instruction program, please contact Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts, or submit a request for instruction.

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