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In my opinion

The intimacy of original manuscripts

Why special collections can be transformative to the student.


Most of us are well aware that the current generation of incoming undergraduates is the most technologically savvy of any that has gone before it. Never has a group of students had so much information available to them, instantaneously and literally at their fingertips. And yet, over the past dozen years we librarians at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto have been asked by professors to go “old school” and provide sessions for them on the role of primary sources and how to use them in academic research. The main reason we’re given about why instructors want these interactive sessions for their students is personal and anecdotal. For them, the real ‘aha’ moment that set them on the path of academic satisfaction came (in the days when print reigned) when they abandoned the encyclopedias, textbooks and secondary sources and discovered the overlooked manuscript; the first edition; the annotated copy; the marginal doodles.

One of faculty’s biggest concerns with millennials is that the amount of easily accessible information on their electronic devices gives the illusion that “it’s all out there,” that the work has been done, and that everything is discoverable with the touch of a button. They want their students to enjoy the same feeling of accomplishment that comes with examining a manuscript on 200-year old paper and of deciphering it in situ, which means not only internalizing the information on the page, but also in relation to how the text was made, where it was made, and under what conditions. All of this provides meaning, which is conveyed as a totality of parts, and not just as individual bits and bytes, such as words or images on a screen. The instructors who ask us to do these sessions, or who integrate artifacts into their own teaching, believe there is still some virtue in pausing, engaging and training the eye to see so much more than what it takes in at first glance.

As special collections librarians, we know first-hand that when students are given the chance to interact directly with rare books and manuscripts, the experience can be transformative. Slowing down translates into deep looking – an experience that is both sensual and intellectual. At the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, we collaborate with faculty from the University of Toronto’s three campuses, responding to requests that involve teaching with rare materials. Our librarians work with faculty to customize class sessions that complement the time periods, texts and themes covered in their course syllabi. The results rarely disappoint.

For example, when first-year students in “Introduction to Historical Studies” come to the Fisher Library, they are presented with a selection of original materials surrounding themes such as: the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Discovery of the Northwest Passage, and social issues in the history of Toronto. We place the students in pods of four at each table and allow them to interact with the materials, answer questions on their guide sheets, and then move around. Each group spends 10 minutes or so “dipping in” to the resources for each theme.

The Fisher Library prides itself on being “a library, not a museum,” and in all of our work we try to be user friendly and to choose things that the students can touch. Many professors have noted that the most valuable thing about our sessions, beyond the obvious exposure to the primary sources themselves, is the sense of intimacy the students derive from handling these documents. Most of their research is done in the digital realm where information is so ephemeral. The materiality of real artifacts opens up a new world for them. When they have the chance to hold in their hands that 17th-century manuscript from the Glorious Revolution, or the diary of a young seaman who would later sail on the doomed Franklin expedition, students come into contact with strangers who were just like them. Connections occur, a spark is ignited, and they start to get excited about research.

Departments of special collections and rare book libraries are still the best kept secrets in universities across Canada. Students and faculty who make use of them have everything to gain. When we bring our students into contact with these materials, we are giving them something that they immediately recognize as unique and extraordinary – an encounter with the “sacro power” of the original artifact. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Pearce J. Carefoote is a rare book librarian and instructor and Deborah Whiteman is department head of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

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