Special Collections in the Classroom

“We engage students in active learning with a wide variety of rare materials that spark their curiosity, foster attentiveness, develop critical thinking, and immerse them in experiences with the power to transform. Through our instruction workshops, we connect the world of ideas with material cultures, and we connect our students with the limitless possibilities of original research.” — Rachel Wen-Paloutzian

This semester alone, over 38 LMU classes will have the opportunity to directly engage with archival and special collections resources. This is slightly higher than average and illustrates the growing desire for faculty to incorporate primary materials into the classroom experience. Since the William H. Hannon Library opened in 2009, the number of Archives and Special Collections instruction sessions has doubled from 42 sessions in 2010 to 85 sessions this past academic year. Over 1,000 students per year since 2012 have had the opportunity to explore and interact with materials ranging from medieval manuscripts and early modern printed works to civil war diaries, 20th century postcards, and archival documents related to the history of Los Angeles, California, and the Ignatian religious orders.

Most often, the faculty requesting instruction come from the departments of Art History, English, Theological Studies, History, and Theatre Arts, but recently we’ve seen an increase in requests from First Year Seminar and Rhetorical Arts instructors. Much of this is due to targeted outreach to new faculty over the past 2-3 years. “Once that partnership is established,” says Archives and Special Collections Instruction Librarian Rachel Wen-Paloutzian, “the relationship continues to grow.” In one particular Rhetorical Arts class, students examined our modern advertising postcards related to animal rights, politics, and social justice themes. By the end of the 1.5 hour session, students were asked to give a brief presentation about what they discover: how the postcard represents the cultural, social, and even communications trends of its time.

Students examining vestments
Students enrolled in summer research classes meet with Special Collections librarians

Every instruction session in Special Collections is unique to the course. “There is no one lesson plan that applies to all classes. Every session is customized specific to the instructor’s objectives and learning outcomes.” When preparing for a class, Wen-Paloutzian considers the key concepts, learning objectives, and subject materials of the course. She tries to determine what students might be interested in at their level of experience (e.g. whether students are first-years in a mixed-major class or seniors in a major-specific seminar). Preparing for each class also requires working closely with each faculty instructor–some of whom are intimately familiar with our collections and thus more involved in the selection of materials–and reviewing the course syllabus ahead of time.

“Students are mirroring what scholars do,” says Wen-Paloutzian, “when they engage with these materials.” For example, students in this semester’s Visualizing Literature (ART 333) class are learning how to translate fictional stories into visual representations. So when they visited Special Collections, Wen-Paloutzian had them focus on visual learning: how different artists have visualized literature, specifically examining the style, technique, and materials as well as the cultural influence from which the artists draw. “It is a practice in attentive viewing, something that is especially important in this digital age when images come by us at such a fast pace.” Wen-Paloutzian encourages students to slow down, to focus on the experience of looking deeply, and to pay attention to their emotional responses in order to understand what drives their own artistic interests. “Our attention determines our experience and so the more attentive we are to these materials, the more we will get out of each one.”

Regardless of a student’s major, working with Special Collections materials helps them to develop metaliteracy skills: techniques for analyzing and critiquing objects according to their textual, visual, and historical characteristics. Working with illustrations, images, and artwork of any kind from the past encourages students to utilize the rhetoric and articulate the principles of visual literacy. One visual analysis exercise that Wen-Paloutzian uses asks students to consider the presentation of an object (shape, color, size), what the object portrays (scenes, characters) and the visual expression of the object (style, imagery, symbolism). Moreover, she also encourages students to consider the social and cultural context in which an object was created and what pressures and freedoms may have made the creation of these materials possible.

As librarians and archivists, we want students to know that the library is here to help them connect to these materials and to answer the question: “why does this matter?” For Wen-Paloutzian, part of the enjoyment of her job comes from the ability to make new discoveries every time she prepares for a new class. Currently, she is working with M-School students utilizing Special Collections artifacts to explore and create 3D storytelling in virtual environments. As we are pushed to carve out new interdisciplinary pathways, we hope to explore more ways to connect the humanities, the sciences, professional programs, and the arts via the nexus of Archives and Special Collections.