By Colleen Barrett
Last fall, I worked with Dr. Regina Hamilton to reimagine a previously in-person rare books active learning exercise for her Introduction to African American Studies course. This in-person activity asked students to examine a variety of 18th and 19th century African American materials in small groups during short periods of time alongside a worksheet that asked questions about the provenance and paratextual aspects of the items, all aspects I sought to bring into the digital classroom as much as possible. This transition from an in-person event to an online, synchronous activity resulted in a self-guided exploration of digitized materials from other institutions and a guided exploration of rare books in the university’s collection. Our approach can easily be adapted for other uses, regardless of the topic or type of cultural heritage institution.
As a white librarian at a predominantly white institution working in one of the most intimidating library departments on campus, it is extra important to highlight collections that represent all people living in the Commonwealth. For this activity, I substituted digitized texts for the rare books I would have used in person, though these digital surrogates originated from copies held elsewhere. I selected two early editions of Phillis Wheatley Peters’ Poems as well as the first American edition of Equiano’s Narrative since they are all held at the University of Kentucky and we could later compare the digital surrogate experience to the physical copy. Whenever possible, I offered multiple digitized versions in the hopes that students could find provenance differences as well as form opinions on the usefulness of different digitization platforms. If your collection database does not contain digital surrogates from other institutions, one easy way to do this is through searching for texts in the various freely available online bibliographies, such as the English Short Title Catalog (ESTC) or the Incunabula Short Title Catalog (ISTC), which often include links to digitized copies in their bibliographic entries.
Much of my planning inspiration for transitioning our “rare book speed dating” online came from a lesson plan for exploring medieval manuscripts created by Kelli Hansen, which caused me to think more fully about the timing and design of this activity. I placed links to the digital items in a Google doc that also asked the students basic questions about the format and physical features of the text and how those features can impact the understanding and reading of it. Day of, we split students into smaller groups in Zoom breakout rooms so they could talk through the activity together. Three sets of digitized texts ended up being too ambitious for a 90-minute class period, so make sure to allot much more time than you think you need for at least your first attempt.
As with any online learning, technological considerations are of utmost importance for a successful session. If possible, I recommend having an instructor in the main session room for technological help alongside multiple instructors going between breakout rooms (or smaller groups) to answer questions. One unexpected challenge was students having difficulty accessing digitized copies behind library paywalls that required them to sign in, so it may be worth considering showing students how to access these types of materials as a group, even if you are using direct links to the materials in your activity.
Beyond having students explore digital surrogates, I wanted to introduce them to the copies we hold locally and reinforce that their experiences and identities are valued in their university’s special collections environment. After all, holding a copy of a work at your institution as a rare book sends a completely different message than just pointing out that someone, somewhere owns a copy of these important African American texts. I was also excited to share the various provenance markings unique to these items. I had originally planned to do this through a webcam in my office where we could discuss the items together, but day of technological problems removed this possibility. Instead, I reached out to the course after the session through a series of tweets with the class Twitter account, which allowed me to highlight various provenance details about our holdings. This could similarly be achieved through videos posted to a class instructional site or a blog post.
With a bit of planning and flexibility, it is possible to replicate both the hands-on aspect of an in-person active learning session and promote the more unique aspects of items held in your local collection, even if your copies of the texts have not been digitized.
Colleen Barrett is the Rare Books Librarian at the University of Kentucky, where she promotes the university’s rare books collection and the study of texts as material objects.