Teaching without Walls

By Ron McColl

The pandemic and the institutional mandates accompanying it have posed unique challenges for special collections librarians and archivists who teach with primary sources. At West Chester University Libraries Special Collections, our initial plans to host smaller classes and ensure safe handling practices were rendered moot when students did not return to campus in the fall. By mid-year, one thing was perfectly clear: we would directly engage significantly fewer classroom students than usual. Despite this painful truth, we looked and found eager new students well within our reach. 

By mid-year, one thing was perfectly clear: we would directly engage significantly fewer classroom students than usual. Despite this painful truth, we looked and found eager new students well within our reach. 

Our decision to build a Covid-19 Collection, limited in scope to communication about the pandemic, provided the first chance to teach new audiences. When we openly solicited items from select campus offices, we soon found ourselves seated (virtually) at several college and divisional meetings. During these rare opportunities, we presented our collecting agenda, and more importantly shared our larger mission, teaching by example how a primary source could document and illuminate the historical moment. With word spreading that we were acquiring state, system, university, departmental, and union communications related to the pandemic, including born-digital content and artifacts, we soon heard from both the Associate Provost for Accreditation and Assessment, and the Dean of Arts & Humanities, who used primary sources from our collection in reports to the university’s accrediting body. As we described the various series and items in the collection, these administrators, more importantly, recognized the long-term value of such holdings and our role in preserving them.

The university’s imminent 150th anniversary afforded another chance to share our historical treasures with the larger campus community. Visitor restrictions have led us to personally browse our collections to fulfill sometimes vague requests for items from campus offices celebrating the milestone. The extended Zoom meetings to discuss their needs, and the many rare photographs and documents we presented to them, led to many new working relationships. At every turn, we were imparting our university’s history through the primary sources that so richly document it.

During recent library-wide DEI forums, we showcased our efforts to improve access and discoverability for populations we have traditionally underrepresented in our physical and digital collections. The items and stories we shared on the topic elicited the personal story of our supervisor of public safety, whose own encounters with racism when a student on campus brought these painful episodes to life for the entire library staff. His experience reminded us all how painful and necessary such storytelling can be.

Photo of a classroom from the 1890s.
Photo of a classroom from the 1890s

Intending to “teach ourselves” more about our holdings during the shutdown, our staff perused collections some of us have never looked at closely before. In an old, unprocessed cache of photographs, we recently found more opportunities to pass primary sources on to more corners of the university. The first example was the image of a classroom of students from the 1890s, featuring a lone African American young man seated in the front row. His presence predates by more than a decade the earliest known Black student to have attended what was then West Chester State Normal School. The photo resurfaced just in time to enter the text of the university’s sesquicentennial history monograph, which heads to press this spring. This key part of our past, and the deep research we had the luxury of providing for the historian writing the book, will only enhance the presence and popularity of our collections. Two other nineteenth century photographs led us even higher up the university ladder. These images depicted a barn that once stood on the farmstead of what is today our president’s campus residence. One pleasant email exchange later, we had successfully engaged every tier of our university in the same academic year.

Typically, we can only hope the university at large knows how important our collections, and our services, are to students. We can make the case best, however, by directly engaging individual campus stakeholders as students themselves. This year, we served fewer typical students than we hoped, but we also gained advocates, partners, and devotees at all levels of the institution to help us serve students for years to come. In the process, we did more teaching than ever.

Pandemic Lessons That Won’t Expire

To Create More Teaching Moments

  • Join campus stakeholders as they browse your collections, and then share your knowledge with them.
  • Assume potential campus partners do NOT know what you are and what you do, and then tell them.
  • Tell virtual audiences that in-person visits are the best way to experience primary sources, and then exhort them to come see them.
  • Track the various campus partners you engage, plot them in the institutional hierarchy, and then share this data to demonstrate your value.
  • Make time for your own collection discoveries, and then share them with others outside your immediate work circle.
  • Note the interests and expertise of potential campus partners, and then identify an item to show them should the right moment arise.
  • Save the thank you emails of various stakeholders, and then quote from them (with permission) in outreach efforts, future partnership proposals, and annual reports.

Ron McColl is the Special Collections Librarian and Curator of the William Darlington Herbarium (DWC) at West Chester University. He holds an MA in English from Villanova University and an MLS from Clarion University. He lives with his wife and son in Schwenksville, PA.