As the caretakers of Special Collections, staff work diligently to preserve the integrity of materials for future researchers. This includes reducing materials’ exposure to light and preventing fluctuations in temperature and humidity within carefully controlled environments. Interaction with collections usually occurs in the Reading Room to ensure these conditions can be regulated. Sometimes, though, materials leave the Special Collections vault in order to venture into the wider world. Class instruction sessions are a way to bring collections directly into the hands of students who might otherwise never know of their existence.
Recently I led an instruction session with the Manuscript Archivist for the course Travel in the Ancient World. The class was held in the Special Collections instruction room where students observed several types of ancient texts, including cuneiform tablets, papyrus fragments, and Greek and Latin ostraka. For many students, this was their first experience with Special Collections materials; as some of the oldest items in the library, the ancient texts arguably offered one of the more dramatic introductions to our holdings. The 2,000 year old papyrus fragments, for instance, were previously used as mummy cartonnage – layers of linen or papyrus covered in plaster as part of Ancient Egyptian funerary masks. Seeing these objects up close allowed students the chance to create tangible, meaningful connections to otherwise distant ideas.
When collaborating with professors about class visits, it’s often helpful to communicate in advance so Special Collections can provide the best supporting materials for the course. In this case, a course on travel meant we wanted to highlight letters and other mobile documents. Preparing for the session involved studying translations of the materials to cultivate a selection that would match this need while also representing the collection as a whole. Class sessions offer the Special Collections instructors just as much opportunity to learn about the collection as the students – and perhaps even more so. In an effort to prepare for any questions that arise, we study the stories and context of our materials as diligently as possible. That way, if a student wants to know how our cuneiform tablets compare to the Flood Tablet, or why some ostraka were written in Latin instead of Greek, we can provide the answer.
So while teaching assistants teach and research assistants research, graduate assistants get the best of both worlds. We not only learn more about our collections every day, but we then get to teach others about the incredible histories behind our objects, hopefully inspiring students to visit us again after class lets out.