While assisting with Special Collections & Archives instruction classes as part of my graduate assistantship, I have found the following quote from Michael Suarez, director of the Rare Book School, full of plenty of food for thought:
How is the way that your collections are mediated telling those who are in contact with them about their treasureful-ness? About the power of materiality that’s ritually taken out and placed in someone’s hands (or not)? … If we don’t understand our institutions as places of pilgrimage, as places of material embodiments that have profound effects on community, identity, and the expression of humanities, then we do not understand the vocation of the librarian … a high and noble vocation in which we are the custodians of a materiality that is absolutely intrinsic to the identity of our civilization (as cited in Overholt, 2013, p. 19-20).
If at first this seems like an overly lofty vision, I am happy to report that, as a graduate assistant, I have been lucky enough to catch glimpses of this lofty vision in action. Whether it’s watching students interact with 4,000 year old cuneiform tablets or discussing how a 21st-century artist’s book pushes the boundaries of what we think a “book” should be, I am in a privileged place to help mediate what are many students’ first interactions with rare books and manuscripts.
For FSU Special Collections & Archives, instruction classes are an invaluable means of outreach. By taking materials out of the secured stacks and setting them up in a classroom setting, we are bringing them to students who might not know where we are located, what we have, and what we can offer. Most importantly, we want students to know we exist for them!
When we bring rare books and manuscripts to the classroom, we want to communicate the “treasureful-ness” of these items, many of which are one-of-a-kind. The value of the items means they must be handled with respect and care, and yes, this means rules (no pens, markers or highlighters, no food and drinks), but perhaps these rules can be thought of as part of the ritual of scholarship rather than an imposition designed to make people stay away. Along with the commitment to preservation comes the commitment to providing access, and one of the most exciting things about working in Special Collections & Archives is learning to find the balance between these seemingly polarized goals.
The description of Special Collections & Archives as a place of pilgrimage is an apt one. Students and scholars come to us from across campus, across the country, and sometimes from across oceans; they come from across disciplines. Sometimes they come in person, sometimes they call us, and sometimes they come digitally. During instruction classes, we get to come to them. No matter how simple or complicated their information needs are, Special Collections & Archives has the awesome privilege of putting our unique and distinctive materials in their hands and on their screens.
Katherine Hoarn is a graduate assistant in Special Collections & Archives. She is working on her Master of Library and Information Science degree at Florida State University.
Overholt, J. (2013). Five theses on the future of special collections. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage, 14(1), 15-20.