Undergraduates in the Archives – Taraba 2
2What are the benefits of doing so, pedagogically and intellectually?
Head of Special Collections and University Archivist – Wesleyan University
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Engagement is a clear benefit. Many students are visibly excited, even awed, by their first visit to our Davison Rare Book Room, where the class sessions take place. The room is itself beautiful, echoing an eighteenth-century English gentleman’s library with glass-fronted bookcases and walnut paneling. The setting, combined with the intriguing materials presented, often inspires students to focus especially closely on the objects on display. The “wow” factor helps to make the experience memorable. While the visit to Special Collections & Archives (SC&A)and attendant procedures (such as signing in, only using pencils, stowing bags, etc.) could easily be intimidating for some students, we work hard to ensure that the department is welcoming and friendly so that students feel encouraged to return on their own.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Pedagogically and intellectually, first-hand encounters with special collections and archives facilitate students’ thinking outside the box as they identify and pursue research topics. Direct contact with primary sources can fuel students’ interests, and many students find captivating the detective work involved in teasing out meanings from unedited and unglossed documents. Learning about the history and technology of the book opens students’ eyes to aspects of texts that can be far less evident with the ubiquitous electronic sources and secondary readings that fuel so much of their research. Through studying rare books and other special collections, students begin to understand that marginalia, provenance, typography, design, binding, and illustrations—all the physical aspects of specific copies of a book—offer avenues for viewing the book in the context of its own time. They begin to appreciate the many people beside the author who helped create the physical book. Often the study of these aspects of books helps to frame the text in such a way that students can step outside of themselves to evaluate it and analyze it, not just from a twenty-first-century point of view, but within the intellectual and historical context of its own time.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Of course the active use of SC&A by undergraduates benefits the department and the library as well. The deep integration of SC&A into Wesleyan’s curriculum helps to ensure that we are not marginalized, that we are truly part of the University’s academic community, and that the materials are well (albeit carefully) used. As circulating collections and electronic resources in academic libraries become more homogenous, the strengths of archives and special collections holdings are often what distinguish an academic library from its peers at other institutions.