Holding the Past in Their Hands: How Special Collections Engages the Student as Scholar
One of Miami University’s greatest assets is its extraordinary collection of more than 65,000 rare books, manuscripts, archival collections and other unique items. The resources in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections cover a variety of topics, from the American Civil War and Russian culture to football and Native American traditions. Rare items include a Book of Hours dating from 1450, a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible from 1455, and the first four collected editions of the works of William Shakespeare, the First, Second, Third and Fourth Folios.
These links to the past are a powerful teaching tool that motivates students to learn and discover more about themselves and the world around them. Students who visit Special Collections have the opportunity to transcribe a letter written at a Civil War camp and turn the pages of a book printed in the 15th century. They also work on small group research projects studying primary sources, see examples selected by professors and librarians, and learn skills needed to identify, interpret and think critically. When students hold books and manuscripts from the past in their hands, they discover a whole new world. Incorporate Special Collections into your teaching plans, and see how your students respond.
To schedule a visit or to discuss how we can help you incorporate primary resources into your classes, please contact us:
Kimberly Tully, Special Collections Librarian
Elizabeth Brice, Head, Special Collections & Archives
“I am very thankful to have been introduced to the unique and exciting opportunity of transcribing letters in Special Collections. Not only have I gotten to explore and practice reading the letters as they were written in the 1800′s, but I’ve learned fascinating pieces of Miami history with help from the librarian and the reference materials in Special Collections. Even though I’ve only been transcribing a series of letters written to one person, I’ve been quite intrigued and entertained! It’s incredible to be able to work with these documents, and even make contributions to Special Collections with my own transcriptions.”
-First-Year Student Majoring in Spanish Education and French Education
First-year honors students learning about medieval Germany visit Special Collections to learn about Germany’s role in early printing history and discover how medieval Germany is portrayed in children’s books and other volumes in Special Collections. After their visit, students in the class observed.
“This was a unique experience I may have never had unless we came to see you.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“I had no idea just how special, unique and priceless this particular collection of books actually is.”
-Students from a First-Year Honors Course on Medieval Germany
“Reading about the intersection of Russian folklore and literature is one thing, but cradling extraordinary examples of it in your palm is more rewarding. Visiting Special Collections turns folklore into a hands-on experience for Miami students.”
-Dr. Benjamin Sutcliffe, Associate Professor, German, Russian, & East Asian Languages
“I think Miami students are extraordinarily fortunate to have the resources and the staff support that allows them to engage with medieval artifacts at the undergraduate level. To go to the museum and study the exhibits is what specialists do. Miami undergraduate students join the students at the top universities across the U.S. in having this unique and essential opportunity, thanks to the work and competence of the Library’s staff”
-Dr. Anna Klosowska, Associate Professor, Department of French and Italian
“In Professor Klosowska’s medieval literature seminar, we not only read texts as a medium for the transmission of ideas, but we also took part in the creative process, participating in a tempera painting and gold leaf workshop. We studied this activity in the context of the illuminated manuscript tradition that prompted us to reflect on the way that “text” during this time was an art in itself–more than simply a method of communication. The meticulous attention given to a single letter starkly contrasts our “text” messages, which can seem completely devoid of any human presence. Through this focus on the materiality of communication, the workshop truly evoked the dynamic nature of human expression while reminding us that how we write can have just as much of an impact as what we write.”
-John D’Amico, B.A., 2008, M.A., French, 2010
For three days in April 2009, Miami University students and Latina/o and Latin American poets, novelists, playwrights and performance artists participated in the Translating Cultures: Latina/o and Latin American Writers Festival. One of the highlights of the festival was an illustrated description and review of pre-conquest and early colonial manuscripts available in Special Collections, including the Kingsborough Codex, a 19th century illustrated manuscript providing invaluable information about the language, history, religion and customs of the people of Pre-Conquest Mesoamerica.
“In a very poignant and dramatic way, this visually stunning cultural artifact was a fitting complement to the literary texts and artistic performances that were read and performed during the symposium. As I have found out every time I have taken my own classes to Special Collections to see and discuss the Codex, the participants in the symposium experienced ideal conditions for enriching intercultural dialogue.”
-Dr. Ramon Layera, Professor Emeritus, Department of Spanish and Portuguese
“Where else could a student study an original letter from Abraham Lincoln, leaf through a collection of German primary-school books from the 1930s, or play with a turn-of-the-century dollhouse? Special Collections continues to amaze and impress both me and my students.”
-Dr. Erik Jensen, Associate Professor, Department of History
“As students handle maps and pamphlets, manuscript letters and scrapbooks, lavish folios and tiny, shoddy contraband books in Special Collections, they engage in a kind of detective work. Meanings can be detected anywhere – from the ink splotch on the margin, to the choice of illustrations, to the missing city of publication. When they notice — and interpret –the contrast between detailed and blank sections on a map of French territories, the way illustrations render indigenous peoples, or the ideological slant taught through the A-B-C’s in a French Revolutionary primer, students encounter history. The lesson my students take away from Special Collections is the single most important thing I hope all students learn at college: how to tease out the strong and often subterranean connections between texts, ideas, and ideologies.”
-Dr. Claire Goldstein, Associate Professor, Department of French & Italian