Special Collections seeks to increase undergrad engagement

By JACOB TOOK | February 16, 2017

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COURTESY of EDA INCEKARA Special Collections hosted a saucy Valentine’s Day event on Monday.

Tucked in the corner of Brody Learning Commons, the Sheridan Libraries Special Collections and Archives, houses works ranging from vintage student life photographs in the 1920s to an annotated Hamlet prompt book from 1676.

Heidi Herr, the outreach coordinator for Special Collections, spoke about their goal of making Special Collections more accessible and known to undergraduate students.

“[We] encourage students to come to our reading room and really explore and engage with all these rare materials,” she said. “A lot of our students really don’t have the opportunity to use special collections because it’s either outside of their studies or they never have a rare books visit during their academic semester.”

Herr emphasized that students, no matter their academic background, have something to gain by perusing the many works housed in the Special Collections.

“Often people who come into Hopkins think that special collections material may not necessarily be for them or they may need to have graduate-level skills in order to engage meaningfully with the books,” she said. “But we really want students to feel empowered by using primary resources and see all the cool ways they can connect these centuries-old items to things they’re interested in.”

Sophomore Sarah Liu, who works as a student monitor in the Special Collections reading room feels that not enough people on campus know about it.

“Students are generally unaware of special collections,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Numerous friends who have seen me through the glass window have asked what the room is for. I think not enough students are aware of it because it’s not really advertised in the school.”

Herr acknowledged how Special Collections could be perceived as “static,” but she stressed that by hosting events, they were generating student interest in the resources available.

“I have been tasked with creating a platform of various programs to engage undergraduates,” Herr said. “We have been involving the students more into the planning of these events.”

Herr further explained these events aim to make a lasting impression on students.

“It’s just our way of trying to form some sort of connection with the undergraduate students here, to create a college memory for them and a tradition,” she said. “It’s just our way of welcoming students back to the semester and wishing them well and making them feel encouraged.”

Special Collections puts on several other events during the year, including the Halloween party at Peabody and an upcoming edible book festival, which will take place on Mar. 31.

Herr spoke about why she thinks these events attract students.

“I know that if I were a student, I would love to be able to attend this haunted, low-key affair at Peabody,” she said. “By opening up the doors on Halloween, we figured this could be one stopping point on their night of Halloween fun... we also do the edible book festival.”

One of these outreach events occurred last Monday when Special Collections hosted “Dirty Books and Longing Looks,” a Valentine’s Day event with several exhibits displaying manuscripts that chronicled the history of literature and sex. It included a section labelled “For Lusty Eyes Only,” a collection of 18th-century pornography and a craft station featuring materials for Valentine’s Day cards inspired by literature.

Freshman Bex Dansereau said that she enjoyed the event and was interested in seeing what else Special Collections offered.

“I got super excited about the Special Collections,” Dansereau said. “I’ve never been there before and now I want to go there again because they seem like have a lot of cool stuff. The lusty books were super interesting. The little I know of Latin helped me read some of the French in it, so I got to pick out factoids about my favorite Roman emperors because I’m a dork.”

She was interested to see things like corset advertisements from the Victorian era, dress up dolls teaching women what to wear and guides for women explaining how they can catch a man. She also found the people she met at the event to be engaging and offered unique perspectives.

“Considering they’re in departments that I never interact with because I’m super humanities, it was fun to talk to these people that I’ve never seen before,” Dansereau said. “They offered some fun perspectives.”

Herr spoke about how their promotion efforts have been effective.

“Students are increasingly using primary sources for their work and to learn more about areas of personal interest that may lie outside of their academic fields of study,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “This is especially apparent in the number of students who apply to either work in Special Collections or qualify for one of [our] research programs.”

As to other strategies for helping to promote Special Collections, Liu suggested that professors incorporate the works into their lessons.

“I first used Special Collections in a freshman seminar about Milton’s Paradise Lost. To be able to touch books from centuries past and see the transformation of a single work from edition to edition was an amazing experience,” Liu wrote. “Professors should always let students know that there is such a resource to help with research on campus!”

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