Special Collections and Social Justice at the Library

At the William H. Hannon Library, we engage in sustainable stewardship of our physical and digital collections to support student academic excellence, local and global citizenship, and the Jesuit intellectual tradition. We collect in a number of archival and special collections areas that directly connect with the character and social justice mission of Loyola Marymount University so that we can utilize these materials in our special collections classroom. (pictured above: one of the post-it notes collected from our community)

Teaching with Intention: Critical Inquiry and Expression

Through active learning and artifact analysis, we engage LMU students with race relations materials from our special collections, especially those related to civil unrest in Los Angeles, such as the Watts Uprising, our Catholic Human Relations Council collection, “ethnic humor” (aka racist) and ethnography postcards, and materials from the Civil War related to enslaved peoples. As a result of the necessity to move instruction online during COVID-19, we digitized a number of these materials related to the Black American experience for an African American history course.

Currently, we are working with Rhetorical Arts classes to co-curate a spring 2021 exhibition on social justice. Each section of the class is focusing on a different collection: our Venegas Family Papers (Mexican immigration to Los Angeles during the Cristero Rebellion), our J. D. Black Papers (related to the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Owen Valley water wars), and the Robert Singleton Papers (Freedom Riders). We plan to introduce the students to some of the donors of these collections (or their descendants) to learn about family histories and understand how these collections are connected to real people. It’s an extremely exciting venture for our first-year students.

We aim to develop and implement primary source literacy instruction using the library’s special collections to advance undergraduates’ information literacy proficiencies. (Library Strategic Objective 1.1g)

We have also utilized our Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection with undergraduate classes to help them create digital scholarship projects based upon the images of Jewish refugee life in Shanghai during World War II.

The experience of faith is part and parcel of LMU’s social justice mission. This semester, we are working with a class called “Meeting Christ in Faith and Art” to build a stronger connection between religious experience and justice via our special collections. In collaboration with theology faculty, we are pairing art objects with historical artifacts, each “expressing a profound statement on justice.” For example, pairing a Genesis image of an African Adam and Eve in our Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition with an 1838 slave bill of a 17-year-old named Molly; or our Last Supper multi-piece sculpture by Japanese netsuke artist Kodo Okuda with the 1942 Civilian Exclusion Order (Japanese-American relocation order broadside). Students will then be asked to explore the connections between these two objects through the creation of art objects of their own making.

Acquiring with Intention: Social Justice Collections

This past year, we received a donation from Robert Singleton, retired professor of economics at LMU and Freedom Rider. Highlights from the collection include newsletters from groups involved in the civil rights movement, such as the “CORE-later,” published by Congress of Racial Equality; fliers and pledge cards regarding boycotts and protests; and professional publications and reports written by Singleton. These materials will directly support the just-initiated “Black at LMU” program that aims to bring more Black experiences into the curriculum.

We also acquired a significant collection of papers from the Honorable Anthony L. Coelho in order to support LMU’s Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation. Coelho is a former six-term United States Congressman from California (1978–1989) and the primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These materials will directly support Loyola Law School’s goal to center disabled voices, to foster students and practitioners interested in working with the disability community, and to provide training to enhance campus-wide efforts to improve a positive climate at LMU for people with disabilities.

Escape from the Archives: Primary Source Materials as Puzzles

Students in our archives escape room trying to solve a puzzle
Students in our archives escape room trying to solve a puzzle using reproductions from our collections.

In summer 2019, a history professor contacted us with an intriguing question: Could we create an escape room experience for her students as a fresh approach to engaging with special collections artifacts? We were instantly hooked. We developed a dynamic escape room that pitted teams of 6–7 students against one another and the clock. Their goal was to solve puzzles set within a fictional story related to the history of enslaved peoples in the United States. Students had to solve a series of three puzzles and in the proper order to complete the assignment. We tasked students with examining real and modified artifacts from our collection, including bills of sale, historical almanacs, and fugitive slave advertisements. Solving the clues required textual and materials analysis, historical knowledge, and a bit of deductive reasoning.

Viewing the original artifacts during a follow-up visit, the students discussed how the game engaged their literacy skills—textual analysis, understanding relationships between documents, and historical empathy —that are crucial to a historian’s research. This also provided a springboard for a broader discussion of archival work, preservation, and representation in the archives.

The library collaborates with a variety of individual faculty to build archival experiences that support their curricular needs. Students are able to access collections and artifacts that are historically, culturally, and locally relevant, understanding that archival work is an active and intentional practice. As a result, our faculty and campus administrators recognize the library’s central role as the unit most responsible for the preservation of our shared historical record.

This article was first published in our 2021 ACRL Excellence in Academic Libraries Award dossier. For more information about the William H. Hannon Library, please contact John Jackson, Head of Outreach and Communications.