During the COVID-19 pandemic, many archives and special collections departments closed their doors to the public. However, many archivists are also instructors. In this blog post, I speak with Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian Meredith Gozo to understand what instruction looks like during the pandemic.
Jamia: As an archivist working during a pandemic, what adjustments did you have to make to have in-person instruction sessions?
Meredith: The teaching that I have been able to do in person has been restricted to courses with students in the medical programs only, which is different for me. In the past, I had classes with students of different ages and educational backgrounds, so this year more emphasis has been placed on serving a student population with a strong background in the academic health sciences.
The biggest challenge in the special collections environment right now is the need to display the rare materials in a way that provides everyone with the physical distancing and air circulation that they need for safety. In my case, this has meant hosting a large class in a bigger reading room than the one adjacent to the archives. The distance from my department to that space required me to secure the help of additional staff to transport the rare materials back and forth securely and to provide additional oversight of the class while it was in session.
Additionally, giving everyone the opportunity to look closely at materials while social distancing has meant taking more time to pause over individual objects. As a result, I’ve had to scale back the volume of materials I like to show. Ultimately, I think that’s OK: the important thing is that the students have a meaningful encounter with the materials that they do get to see.
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Jamia: How do you incorporate the medical archives and special collections into your online instruction sessions?
Meredith: When the classes I had to teach went virtual, my approach to instruction was completely transformed: I had to photograph all the materials that I would normally show in person and put everything into a slideshow format. It was extremely labor intensive, and I think the virtual environment takes something away that one gets in the special collections environment. There’s no substitute for being in the presence of rare or one-of-a-kind documents. The items as physical objects impart something ineffable: they tell you they bore witness to specific moments in history. They have smells and textures… they bear the marks of time… they are fragile… it is not inevitable that they survived… they were sometimes made by means no longer understood by modern people… These are things that are hard to put into words when one is not experiencing them with all one’s senses, and while these indefinable qualities are not fundamental to the lessons I need to convey, their significance is something that can only be experienced when in the archives.
In the virtual classroom, I spoke very intentionally about the physical aspects of the materials the students were seeing. For example, I would mention that the particular book we were looking at is actually over three feet tall and weighs 50 pounds! We would talk about the technology and enterprise of bookmaking in the 17th century to drive the notion home: it’s a feat to make a book of that size today, never mind how difficult it would be in the hand press period. In essence, I would have to deliberately initiate some of the discussion rather than wait for students to drive the conversation through their own observations. The same was true for documents: it can be hard to tell the significance of different kinds of data that are all being mediated in the same way. The virtual environment creates a false “sameness” in its presentation of information: an instructor’s slide with bullet points, a historical photograph screen-shared from a digital collection, a digitized copy of a famous researcher’s notes on an important medical discovery—it becomes important to belabor material significance where it is implicit in the physical classroom. Probing students to think about this has become a crucial part of virtual classroom discussion.
In order to combat the sense of loss I felt from not having the students in the library, I did my best to point out things that might be obvious in the physical classroom that aren’t online. For example: one of our most used collections for instruction is our collection of historic anatomical atlases. In person, they are enormous and visually striking. Once these books are shrunken down to the size of one’s computer screen, however, they just don’t have the same visual/visceral impact as they do when someone sees them in person.
Jamia: As an archivist who is also an instructor, what best practices have you learned during this time?
Meredith: I think one of my biggest takeaways from working as an archivist and an instructor during the pandemic is actually an affirmation of something I think many of us already knew: we don’t operate in a vacuum, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If others in one’s network may help devise a teaching strategy, reach out to them! Many great archivists and librarians have shared their methodologies, approaches, and tools online and on social media. In many ways, we all worked together to transition to a virtual environment—I wouldn’t say seamlessly—but with greater ease, and we found ways to utilize and share one another’s digital resources to great advantage as well. Having a solid grounding in the available online resources that students could use in lieu of in-person, primary source research became completely essential to help them along with course projects throughout the year.
I am someone who loves working with physical materials, which is why I chose special collections librarianship. But we knew, and the pandemic has shown, that a “both and” scenario for rare collections is a necessity for serving our communities in the 21st century. Continuing to develop robust and accessible digital collections for our users is important, and continuing to develop pedagogical strategies that support virtual instruction with archives is essential as well.
Meredith Gozo is the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian of the History of Medicine Section at University of Rochester Medical Center Miner Library. She holds an M.A. in English Studies from Loyola University Chicago and an MSLIS from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
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