By Carrie Phillips
In a perfect world, archivists aspire to partnerships with instructors to promote archival literacy and the beautiful practices of usage with our collections. We strive for best practices, and we dream of measurable outcomes and assessment goals. Even so, there are days when the phone rings, and we’re asked for a “novelty act” – a one-shot instruction interaction, one-off tours, and the dreaded “show and tell.” How should we respond? Rather than relish in disappointment, how can we leverage this experience toward our aspirational pedagogical goals?
For me, one such opportunity surfaced during fall semester 2016 when I was approached by the faculty member teaching two large sections of an Introduction to Biblical Worldview course. This was a required, general education course taken by all Bluffton University students, and all class levels were represented in the class population. She explained that the course examined the Bible through four lenses: biblical studies, ethics, theology, and spirituality. However, the course did not explicitly include content addressing the Bible as an artifact. She wondered, could I create a lesson that would fill this particular curricular gap using Bibles from our Special Collections… AND could I do it on a day when she would be away at a conference and needed a guest speaker.
At first, I briefly hesitated. The instructor had suggested a demonstration approach – the ol’ “show-and-tell” – and I had reservations about that. If I would glovedly remove from the custom-made storage box the giant, centuries-old, folio-size Bible, printed in a language students couldn’t read, show it to them on a table but make them stand back and crane their collective necks to see it, and then put it away after five or ten minutes of me talking at them about it, what significant amount of discovery would really occur? But if I would turn them loose for 50 minutes to explore freely and turn the pages of a seventeenth century book while the sophomore over here finishes his oatmeal that he brought from the dining hall, then there’s no reverence involved. I wanted to create a guided, carefully prepped and framed experience with just the right amount of fear-mongering and awe-inspiring lead-up to make for a memorable learning experience for all involved. I saw an opportunity to interface with the general education curriculum in a way I’d not yet attempted, and the prospect was compelling. So we met for coffee, like good collaborating scholars should, to review more details and see what could be done.
Teaching with rare materials is admittedly scary. So I asked my communities of practice for their wisdom. I queried colleagues from the Ohio Preservation Council, a group of conservators, preservation librarians, special collections curators, and archivists from across Ohio. I checked in with my parallel counterparts from Bluffton’s sister Mennonite institutions. I examined my collection – what raw materials did I have to work with? How was this going to happen in a tiered lecture hall with shallow tabletops? What did I need to bring with me to make this run smoothly? And how could I leverage methods like group work and guided examination and classroom technology?
After considering feedback from a number of colleagues, I chose folio- and quarto- sized Bibles of stable condition which also represented a wide publishing timespan. Since an alternate space was not an option, I considered how best to utilize the tiered classroom space to arrange small groups of students around each Bible. I anticipated needs and props, like pencils, a worksheet to guide the exploration, cradle cushions, and visual aids – bringing everything along so we could isolate the students’ belongings away from the Bibles. I scripted my remarks, and devoted space in the introduction to explicitly emphasize care and handling, demonstrating those techniques (and even so, my colleagues warned me that I should expect some wear). I felt I was aware of potential risks I couldn’t eliminate, and the benefits continued to outweigh those risks. Everything for this roadshow lesson was loaded onto my largest flatbed cart, and I ventured off with the Traveling Rare Bible Petting Zoo to the academic center, where the course met.
To break the ice, of sorts, I’ve employed two different introductory activities to the session. Option A involved asking the students to watch three short, relevant YouTube videos prior to class and using a Kahoot quiz to assess their understanding of those videos. Option B steered the class into a discussion of how a Bible is recognizable by methods other than having the letters BIBLE on the cover, followed by watching a short YouTube video which showed the process of printing and binding a book using methods similar to what created the Bibles the students would examine.
Then I provided a very deliberate care and handling demonstration, showing exactly how the book should be handled for the activity we were about to begin. Students removed all of their belongings from the desktops to their bags or the floor, excused themselves (if necessary) to wash their hands with soap and water in the restroom, and then formed small groups. Pencils, a worksheet, and a Bible were distributed to each group. Students were encouraged to document interesting features using their smartphone cameras, and some shared those images on Instagram, tagging @blufftonuarchives in their posts so that I could see and comment.
Students began their guided examination by looking at the outside of their Bible. The worksheet offered a checklist of possible materials used (or not) in the construction of the Bible (e.g. paper, plastic, wood, leather, brass, etc.). Students were asked to note any interesting decorative features of the cover boards or spine. Before moving to Part 2, students were asked to make a guess as to the Bible’s age.
Using the handling techniques I demonstrated at the start, students next located the Bible’s title page. Their task here was to discern when and where the Bible was printed. I hadn’t anticipated that students would struggle to read Roman numerals! Students were also asked to make note of any interesting or surprising findings along the way to the title page – handwritten notes, bookplates, and the like. They were eager to report damage they observed, which sometimes led to interesting tangent discussions.
Perhaps in homage to all the standardized tests I’ve ever taken, I placed a large red stop sign graphic at the bottom of the worksheet’s front page. A note there reminded the students to catch my attention so that I could come to their workspace and open their Bible for them. The Bibles were supported with homemade stuffed sock tubes – easy to transport, and sized to help cradle the Bibles to protect their spines and joints.
Once the Bibles were opened, students were encouraged to explore the contents using proper handling techniques. Students were asked to guess the language of their Bible, and to make note of any interesting illustrations. We discussed how there are parts of a Bible which may be recognizable to them even if they’re not able to read the language present. Some students discovered clippings or pressed plants and flowers between the pages. All were encouraged to note at least one interesting, surprising, or confusing feature to share with the class.
For the final 10-15 minutes of the class period, I displayed slides of each Bible, and asked the groups to share the printing date, printing place, and their chosen feature for their Bible when it appeared on the screen – so that all in the class could see all of the Bibles. I provided an additional piece of trivia for each Bible.
I’ve repeated the experience each semester since, including for students in our Adult Degree Completion program and in our Honors program. Because of the course size, all but two Honors program course students could work alone with a Bible. The level of curiosity expressed by this particular group of students was really surprising, and this time, the instructor was able to be present, which added a lovely layer of subject-matter expertise to what I could offer.
Heidi Buchanan and Beth McDonough, in their essay, “Right on Time: Best Practice in One-Shot Instruction,” note that, “not only is one-shot instruction what academic communities expect from libraries, but it can be highly effective – nimble, purposeful, integrated across the curriculum, and focused on relationships with teaching faculty and students” (85).
Ellen Swain, in her essay, “Best Practices for Teaching with Primary Sources,” suggests that, “The critical component to a successful instruction program is understanding the goals and objectives for the teaching faculty.” Swain continues by suggesting that, “the most successful collaborations are those in which the instructor has buy-in and will work with the students and the archivist to understand and use primary sources in creative ways” (200). While this strikes me as having been intended for a proactive pursuit of classroom connections between curriculum and archival materials or special collections, Swain’s ideas are also useful when planning the “reactive” response to a request for a one-shot instruction session, such as the one I’ve described.
As I reflected on my experiences with this one-shot teaching opportunity using rare books, I culled a list of surprises, adjustments, and successes. The students surprised me with their higher-than-expected levels of engagement and curiosity. They listened and observed attentively my care and handling demonstration, with the exception, surprisingly, of the adult students, who found their pencils to be useful pointing tools – something I had not anticipated and have accounted for since. Classroom management was sometimes difficult; there was only one of me to work the room, opening Bibles when students were ready, and answering questions. This left a fair amount of downtime during which students had to wait patiently, and in larger groups, these students simply tuned out. In the most recent iterations of the course, the instructor was present, and her presence turned out to be more helpful than I anticipated. Lastly, I was relieved and encouraged to see that the wear-and-tear sacrifice of the experience was minimal; I found very few bits of old Bible left behind on the desktops after students finished handling. I remain very conscious of the need to monitor this particular concern, and I have a plan to rotate additional Bibles into the mix to help avoid extensive damage.
To date, I’ve offered the Petting Zoo on eight different occasions, and each instance offers a chance for my remarks, timing, and worksheet to be retooled and honed. The reward is great – students react positively on formal and informal course evaluations – and instructors are beyond pleased. I look forward to bringing the Petting Zoo to Bluffton students in the future – the instructors and I are already planning for Fall 2018!
Carrie Phillips is completing her thirteenth year as archives and special collections librarian for Bluffton University in northwest Ohio. She oversees Bluffton’s diverse special collections, which are grounded in the institution’s Anabaptist – Mennonite tradition, and she enjoys the challenge of developing innovative instruction opportunities with those collections for audiences ranging from first graders to the adult learner. She is the current chair-elect of the Ohio Preservation Council, and some of her favorite days at work are spent at her workbench, protecting and preserving the traces of history in her care. Carrie earned an MLIS from the University of Washington in 2006 and has a bachelor of arts degree from Bluffton University.