Collaborating with Your Special Collections Librarian

PALS Note: PALS is ecstatic to feature guest blogger Kelli Hansen. Hansen offers us her insights as a special collections librarian at the University of Missouri. This post provides instructors with tips and examples of assignments for incorporating your institution’s library collections into your courses. Interested in doing some collaborative teaching? Read on to find best practices for collaborating with your librarians.


Teaching faculty and special collections librarians have at least one goal in common: all of us want students to become effective researchers and critical thinkers.  Libraries in general, and special collections in particular, are laboratories where students can experiment as we help them move toward that goal.  Teaching with special collections fosters inquiry-based and active learning models of instruction, and it also allows you to engage multiple learning styles at once. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to envision how special collections materials might fit into your course.  Teaching in special collections does take some planning, but it can easily become one of the highlights of your semester.

As Greg Specter has previously pointed out on this blog, the first step is to talk to your librarian or archivist.  We are eager to talk to you, especially about teaching, and we love to get primary source materials into the hands of people who can use and appreciate them.  This post is meant to give you some insight into one librarian’s perspective on teaching and get you started on the process of collaborating with your local LIS professionals.

How Librarians Approach Teaching

When librarians talk about teaching, we often use the term information literacy to refer to students’ knowledge of research skills and techniques. There is no consensus (yet) on how to teach information literacy in archives and special collections (but there is a group of very smart people working on it right now). The literature on teaching in special collections contains a group of similar approaches and key concepts, and I’m outlining a few of the ones that have been helpful to me.

Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres started the conversation about information literacy in special collections and archives in 2003 with the article “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise.” In it, they identify three areas of expertise users need in order to research competently in archives: subject knowledge, artifactual literacy (the ability to read a primary source for both content and physical clues), and archival intelligence (the ability to navigate the environment of the reading room and use finding aids and other search tools). In early 2016, Peter Carini took the work of Yakel and Torres a step further with a set of standards that build on each other, reminiscent of the ways that each category of Bloom’s Taxonomy builds on the last. The standards are to “(1) know, (2) interpret, (3) evaluate, (4) use, (5) access, and (6) follow ethical principles” as applied to using primary sources and the institutions that house them.

Also in early 2016, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) officially adopted the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which re-imagined a previous set of standards as a set of six frames, or general, interconnected concepts with accompanying research practices and mindsets. Educators can use the frames as a flexible way attaching core ideas within their own subject areas to practices that are critical for building research skills. The entire Framework, including practices for each frame, is available on the ACRL website.

Depending on their areas of subject expertise, a librarian or archivist may focus their teaching on archival intelligence, artifactual literacy, and the Framework to provide students with a set of best practices for finding resources and accessing, handling, and interpreting materials.

Frame your objectives

I’m bringing up these concepts because they can be useimg_4234d to define what you want your students to take away from the class visit, beyond an inspiring experience or an awareness that special collections exist. Collaborating with your librarian to come up with a learning objective or two can be the most important part of the class session, because it will inform the materials your librarian or archivist selects and the way those materials are introduced to your students.

Questions for you to discuss with your librarian include:

      • How will your visit to special collections fit with your objectives for the course overall?
      • What type of research would you like your students to do with the materials?
      • When they leave the library, what new knowledge do you want them to have?

I also highly recommend Julie Golia and Robin Katz’s explanation of crafting effective learning objectiveson the website. What is most important is that you have a clear sense of the purpose for your visit, and that you and your librarian are working together toward that purpose.

What to do during your visit

Once you have your learning objectives for the session, work with your librarian to develop an assignment or activity that relates to those goals. In my experience, the most effective assignments either help students to develop artifactual literacy, or they build on archival intelligence to situate primary source material within the landscape of research resources.  As I mentioned above, these are the areas in which your librarian is an expert, so work with them to combine their expertise with yours.

Plan in-class activities. Document, image, or artifact analysis done in small groups is the staple of instruction in special collections, and these types of activities can be an excellent way to introduce students to materials in class. The National Archives offers worksheets that can easily be adapted for use in the college classroom.  If you’re looking for other types of activities, a great resource is Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises, which contains activities that can be used in a wide variety of class settings.

Encourage creativity. Assignments don’t have to mean papers. Small exhibitions, videos, creative nonfiction, artworks, dramatic readings, and many other forms of creative expression can come out of a visit to special collections. At the library where I work, art students study artists’ books in preparation for making their own, theater students consult a playwright’s papers for insights on their latest production, and English students curate small exhibitions in the reading room display cases. Your library may even have programs in place to foster creative work inspired by the archives.  At Amherst College, for example, the library offers creative fellowships for undergraduates to do research in special collections.

Make their work visible. Ryan Cordell states this better than I can. “Students love to build projects that make use of their institution’s collections and contribute to their institutions’ legacy, and these often public projects can energize them to work that much harder, as they can create materials with a chance of life beyond the classroom itself.”

Ask your librarian if your students can publish their work on the library’s blog or social medimg_5272ia presences, or in the institutional repository, donor newsletter, or other library publication. Can they create a digital exhibition or online subject guide? Is there a performance aspect they could show off? Can they share their project with their friends and family? Give their scholarship some social currency and watch them take pride in their work.

Let them give back. I first encountered the idea of student research as service when working with an instructor on a class in which her students transcribed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century broadsides in the digital library to correct problems with OCR. The instructor explained the project to the students as a form of service learning; many of these broadsides were very scarce, and the students knew they were creating a scholarly resource not available elsewhere.  Work that promotes the greater good can be a motivating factor for students, and this type of work benefits the library as well.

Integrate; don’t isolate. Special collections and archives are not curiosity cabinets; they contain resources that exist alongside many other sources of information. Collaborating with a subject librarian and a special collections librarian can help integrate these materials into students’ research.

One of the more effective class sessions I’ve participated in took place outside of special collections. Working together, the instructor, English literature librarian, and I identified a number of printed materials from special collections that were duplicated in online databases. I brought the special collections materials to the library’s computer lab classroom and supervised their use, while the English librarian led an activity in which the students worked in groups and compared the originals to digital surrogates. The students quickly identified the different affordances of each format, and by the end of the session, they clearly articulated various research situations in which they might need to consult one or the other.

Talk to your librarians. We may be using different terminologies, but faculty and LIS professionals are thinking and writing about the same things: how to teach students the processes of research, how to get them asking questions of special collections materials, and how to integrate those materials into the larger research environment. Let’s make sure we’re talking to each other, too, and not limiting these conversations to the boundaries of our own professions. Talk to your librarians about the challenges you face in teaching and the ways your librarians could support you. Talk to your colleagues about where work in special collections falls most naturally into the curriculum. And talk to me about what you think about this post.  I’d be happy to hear from you.

More resources

If you are interested in learning more about teaching in special collections, the first place you should look is This site offers a thorough and extremely helpful resource for faculty, librarians, and archivists looking for help getting started with teaching in special collections and archives. Resources include articles from teaching faculty, archivists, and librarians, as well as exercises you can adapt to use in your own classroom.

Also take a look at the Teaching with Primary Sources Bibliography, maintained on Zotero by the Society of American Archivists. It contains over one hundred articles, book chapters, websites, and case studies that focus on best practices for teaching and undergraduate research in special collections and archives.

Finally, several special collections librarians have put together guides for instructors working with local collections.


Contributor Bio:

Hansen.jpg Kelli Hansen is a librarian in the Special Collections and Rare Books Department at the University of Missouri Libraries, where she teaches and does reference, outreach, and web development.  Her research interests center on the history of graphic narrative, and she is the curator of Beyond Words: Visual Narrative from the Block Book to the Graphic Novel, a traveling exhibition which begins national tour in 2017.  She approaches teaching with hands-on, active learning methods that help students develop research skills through work with special collections materials.  Contact her on Twitter at @BiblioKelli.


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