Tag Archives: instruction

Introduction to Instruction

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.

CraftClass
Dr. Craft’s Travel in the Ancient World class studying translations of ancient texts.

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.

Defining (and Challenging) the Book

The Poems of William Shakespeare from the Kelmscott Collection, published 1893
The Poems of William Shakespeare from the Kelmscott Collection, published 1893

How do you define “the book”?

What functions do books serve?

What are the essential qualities of a book?

How have these characteristics changed over time?

Those are a sample of the questions raised during the Special Collections & Archives instruction sessions for the “Introduction to the History of Text Technology” classes (ENG 3803) and the “What is a Text” class (ENG 4815).  For each class, we pull a variety of relevant materials from the Rare Books Collection, encouraging students to interact with the materials during the class session.  The visit to Special Collections is an opportunity for students to explore in-depth the specific class themes by engaging with the rare and unique materials in Special Collections & Archives.

"Venus and Adonis," from The Poems of William Shakespeare, published by the Kelmscott Press, 1893
“Venus and Adonis,” from The Poems of William Shakespeare, published by the Kelmscott Press, 1893

The concept of the codex (as seen above and left with The Poems of William Shakespeare) dominates initial discussion on the form and function of a book.  But for the “Introduction to the History of Text Technology” class, we’ve placed nineteenth century ledgers alongside Babylonian cuneiform tablets that detail temple transactions from 2350 BCE, illustrating a continuity in the function, if not form of the text (see the FSU Digital Libraryrare booksrare for more information on the Cuneiform Tablet collection).  For the “What is a Text?” class, students’ notions of what constitutes the essential characteristics of a book is challenged by materials from the Special Collections & Archives Artists’ Book Collection.

From the Artists' Book Collection, Fam-i-ly:  a Book by Rita MacDonald, for more information, see here
From the Artists’ Book Collection, Fam-i-ly: a Book by Rita MacDonald, for more information, see here

An artist’s book plays with the form and function of a book.  By reinterpreting the text, images, or the very structure of the codex, an artist’s book pushes at the boundaries of what the essential qualities of a book should be.  According to Johanna Drucker, artist and critic, the artist’s book “interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests, or production activities.”1

Many of the artists books from Special Collections & Archives abandon the structure of the codex entirely (as seen in the artist book, Fam-i-ly: a Book by Rita MacDonald, pictured right and Julie Chen’s A Guide to Higher Learning, pictured below).  Other artists books play with the connection between text, image, and structure, such as in Emily Martin’s More Slices of Pie.

Special Collections & Archives has a rich collection of artists’ books, from a portfolio containing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali to books created in the last decade that expand our notions of the essential qualities of a book.  Each artist book contained in the collection is unique.  Through the artist’s interpretation of text, image, and structure, the question of how to define a book is given new meaning.

For more information about artists’ books, check out this Research Guide here.

From the  Artist's Book Collection, Julie Chen's A Guide to Higher Learning.  For more information,  see here.
Julie Chen’s A Guide to Higher Learning. From the Special Collections & Archives Artists’ Books Collection.  For more information on this book, see here.

1 As cited by Megan L. Benton, “The Book as Art,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, eds. Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007: pg. 505.

Rebecca L. Bramlett is a graduate assistant in the Special Collections & Archives Division.  She is working on her Master of Library and Information Science at Florida State University.

A Place of Pilgrimage

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:

Great Bible
Great Bible, 1541 (Vault BS167 1541**)

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.

Instruction
Katie McCormick, Associate Dean for Special Collections & Archives, discussing printing with Introduction to the History of Text Technologies students.

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.

Sources

Overholt, J. (2013). Five theses on the future of special collections. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage, 14(1), 15-20.