Undergraduates in the Archives – Taraba 3
3What has been your best experience or greatest success?
Head of Special Collections and University Archivist – Wesleyan University
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 From 50,000 feet up, my greatest success is developing our program of outreach and teaching, and sustaining it over nearly fifteen years. In 1997-98, seven classes visited Special Collections & Archives. Last semester, I taught thirty-one class sessions. The numbers document the faculty’s growing interest in bringing their classes to SC&A and the success of our outreach. The value and enrichment to the curriculum and the students are, of course, harder to quantify.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The best, most rewarding experiences for me personally are those in which I can see the collections really come alive for students, when they come back to use our materials even when they are not required to do so, and when their enthusiasm for archives and special collections is clearly evident. There are many examples. At the most basic level, I know that students are engaged when they show up with their parents during our open house at Homecoming/Family Weekend, and they tell their families enthusiastically about their visit with an introductory astronomy class in which they saw, among other items, some of Einstein’s manuscripts and artists’ books with astronomical themes. This is a perfect example of how even the “dog and pony show” can reach students and provide a memorable experience. At the other end of the spectrum, some students find materials first encountered in a class visit so intriguing that they spend a full year (or sometimes more) researching them as the focus of a senior thesis. In recent years we have had excellent theses centered on a sixteenth-century German prayer book, a Shakespeare folio with eighteenth-century annotations, Civil War letters written by a Wesleyan alumnus, and the papers of a faculty member from the 1930s-50s, to name a few. In all of these cases, students have done high-level, truly original research that was sparked during a visit to SC&A.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 There are non-curricular peak experiences as well. From time to time, students use the University Archives to research family members who attended Wesleyan in the past. These projects are often exciting in a deeply personal way for both the students and their families. Perhaps the most memorable search for a Wesleyan ancestor ended up with a student weeping in our reading room. She had found yearbook pictures and evidence of a vibrant social and intellectual life of a grandfather she had never known because he had committed suicide before she was born. It is hard for me to imagine an archival experience more moving than this. Still, there have been many times over the years when students’ connections—intellectual, emotional, or both—with our holdings have been deeply gratifying to me.