This past week, Katherine Hoarn and myself had the privilege of presenting a paper at the 2015 Society of Florida Archivists Annual Meeting in Miami.
Included below is an abridged version of the paper “Adventures in Outreach: A Case Study” by Katherine Hoarn and Rebecca Bramlett.
Exhibits as Outreach
For the first part of the case study, I drew upon the experiences Rebecca and I had while planning, creating, and installing the exhibit “That I May Remember: Scrapbooks of the Florida State College for Women.” When we began this project, my brain was awash in memories of visiting some of my favorite museums: the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the MoMA in New York, and the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. I was envisioning clean, slick exhibits in bright, open spaces, with beautiful signage, perfectly cut object labels, state-of-the-art security systems, and objects that had neatly and safely arranged themselves into cases all through their own volition. Then I came back to reality. Exhibits are hard work. They can be a considerable drain on staff hours and resources, but at the end of the day, we believe that exhibits have an important role to play in outreach at our institutions.
Exhibits are an important means of outreach because they give exposure to hidden collections. As someone wrote in our exhibit guest book, “I never knew this was here.” Those are exactly the types of people exhibits are meant to attract: people who don’t know about special collections and wouldn’t otherwise walk into our research center. In addition to bringing attention to certain collections, exhibits provide opportunities for community outreach. Since the “That I May Remember” exhibit focused on FSU history, it was easy to generate community interest, but it’s important to think of other historical societies and cultural organizations that might be interested in coming to see an exhibit.
Although they can be a lot of work, exhibits are also a lot of fun. They can increase access, promote community involvement, and give us librarians and archivists a chance to flex our research muscles. Exhibits shouldn’t be an afterthought, but rather an intentional part of any library and archive’s outreach strategy. Now I’ll turn it over to Rebecca Bramlett to talk about another important outreach method, instruction.
Instruction as Outreach
Whether it’s a page from the Gutenberg Bible; cuneiform tablets from ancient Babylon created in 2500 BCE; letters from the eighteenth century, or a first edition of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”—at Florida State University’s Special Collections and Archives, classroom instruction engages, educates and inspires. Instruction sessions with Special Collections materials can spark new passion and interest, and transform student understanding of a subject by facilitating interaction with the original, primary source materials.
An instruction session in Special Collections & Archives provides students with the opportunity to interact, engage with, and question topically relevant Special Collections materials under the guidance of their instructor and the Special Collections librarian. It also provides librarians and archivists with the unique opportunity to reach new users, introducing them to Special Collections by granting students the chance to engage with materials outside of a reading room….
One way we approached instruction sessions was by looking across collections. For example, In selecting materials for the introduction history of text technologies, an undergraduate level English class that focuses on the materiality, functionality, and intentionality of the written word, one thing we did was to juxtapose materials—historically and culturally. We didn’t limit ourselves to just rare books, but included ephemera and manuscripts, as appropriate. For example, we explored similar functions throughout time, with ostraka—Roman letters written on pottery shards in the early 2nd century and the manuscript letters and the cuneiform tablets detailing economic transactions with nineteenth century ledgers, also detailing economic transactions.
In this particular instance, the combination of rare books, ephemera, and manuscripts helped deepen the understanding the students were trying to reach. Moreover, different materials engaged different students.