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Burns Library Instruction

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Pre-made Special Collections Skills Sessions

We've prepared the following class plans and activities based on the most commonly requested Special Collections skills for instruction sessions. Since we are focused on the skill, not the subject, it is possible to work with materials that aren't necessarily related to the class subject.  Each skill, listed below, includes a link to the materials and activities needed for the online class. This is open for use for anyone, both in and beyond the Boston College community-- and we'd love to hear when and how you're using these!

Boston College instructors can also request for these sessions to be in-person at Burns Library or, if time allows, for them to be customized to meet their specific subject or class needs. To do so, please fill out our Instruction Request Form as far in advance as possible.

Introduction to Special Collections

Special collections can often seem intimidating to students who have never had the opportunity to work with historical formats. There is often a gap between the students’ research skills and faculty expectations. Asking students to locate and incorporate primary or historical sources into their research without context and assistance is setting many up for frustration.

We have developed a series of modules to help students meet the high level learning goal:

  • Become more familiar and confident using special collections / special collections repositories within the framework of an academic discipline or area of study.

This section has been broken down more specific objectives, but if you are interested in developing course related assignments or OCEs that require students to return to Burns Library to practice what they have learned, please contact us or fill out our instruction request form.

Close Reading

Exercises to develop close reading skills are good ways for students to first approach historical materials. After a brief care and handling refresher, they are given materials and some questions to help guide them toward learning goals most suited for this type of activity. After individual time with the materials, students share their individual or group discoveries, and the faculty guides a discussion which weaves together their observations and understandings with class themes:

  • Read, understand, and articulate observations of historical material
  • Integrate their ideas with fellow students’ to interpret, analyze, and come to an understanding
  • Gain a deeper understanding of the class topic/concept by closely examining relevant materials and interpreting evidence presented.
  • Interact with rare materials and identify, articulate, and communicate evidence based research questions

The activities below can be done in online classes, or via in person classes at Burns Library

Determining context through physical clues

In the past, special collections visits were often a passive experience, with treasures on display and experts telling audiences what was important about them. This modern take presents students with a selection of themed items, and asks them to interact with and interpret physical evidence to increase their own expertise. Learning objectives associated with this type of activity can be:

  • Directly interact with historical objects, gather information, and interpret physical and textual evidence
  • Gain deeper understandings of the class topic by closely examining thematically relevant material

The activities below can be done in online classes, or via in person classes at Burns Library

Material vs. Digital

In a digital age, there is a misperception from many that all historical materials of value have been digitized and are universally and equitably available online. As proponents of working with original formats to develop innovative research—and pragmatists when it comes to the likelihood of having everything digitized—we have developed lesson plans that encourage students to explore differences and similarities between physical and digital formats in order to:

  • Contrast the difference between using a historic/original version versus a reprint, photocopy, or digital version
  • Distinguish how the physical format contributes to understanding meaning/use/context
  • Discover that surrogates of primary sources do not provide all the information about a source
  • Gain a deeper understanding of the class topic/concept by closely examining relevant materials and interpreting evidence presented.

The activity below can be done in online classes, or via in person classes at Burns Library

Visual Analysis

Exercises to develop visual analysis skills are a good way for students to learn to "read" an image and analyze and contextualize the information in that image the same way they routinely do with written texts. The exercises here ask students to use their cultural knowledge (particularly around race, gender, fashion, and photographic/art styles) to place images in chronological order even without accompanying written text in order to meet the learning goals:

  • Situate an image in its cultural, social, and historical contexts
  • Evaluate textual information accompanying images
  • Validate interpretation and analysis of images through discussion with peers/professors

The activities below can be done in online classes, or via in person classes at Burns Library

Additional Resources

If you’re curious about what the wider special collections community has been doing about effective library instruction with primary sources in person and online, check out these sites. If you see something you think might work for you, contact us so we can collaborate with you.