A Curator at California Rare Book School

By Laura French, Curator, Armstrong Browning Library

What is Rare Book School?

Rare book school is a professional (or personal) development opportunity for librarians, curators, academics, antiquarian book sellers, and book collectors to complete an intensive, one-week study of a discrete topic within bibliography and the history of the book. Terry Belanger founded the original Rare Book School at Columbia University in 1983. It has since moved to the University of Virginia.

Attendance at Rare Book School has developed into a sort of rite of passage for librarians working in or interested in working with special collections. Special collections are the research materials that libraries collect which are too valuable, rare, or fragile to leave the library. (The Armstrong Browning Library is made up almost entirely of special collections.) By their very nature of these materials requires additional training beyond what a librarian typically learns in their graduate program. The fastest way to learn the proper way to look after specific types of materials within special collections is to attend a course on that material type or custodianship issue at a rare book school.

Over time several similar institutes have developed. These include:

California Rare Book School

Texas A&M’s Book History Workshop

The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminars

London Rare Book School

Ligatus Summer School

University of Otago’s Center for the Book’s Australasian Rare Book School

Institut d’Histoire du Livre

The Montefiascone Conservation Project’s Study Programme

What Class Did I Attend? & Why?

This past summer I attended California Rare Book School’s course “Better Teaching with Rare Materials”. The class was led by Michaela Ullmann, Exile Studies Librarian in Special Collections at the University of Southern California, and Robert Montoya, Assistant Professor and Director of the Doctoral Programs in the Department of Information and Library Science in the School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University, Bloomington. The course trains librarians and teaching faculty how to design instruction sessions utilizing special collections materials which will increase students’ primary source literacy.

This course provided me the opportunity to spend one full week focusing on instructional strategies prior to my first semester teaching with the Armstrong Browning Library’s collections. I wanted to attend this course, in part, because this past year the Society of American Archivists and the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Rare Books and Manuscripts Section jointly approved “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.” The course also allowed me time to increase my familiarity with the new guidelines prior to the start of the Fall 2018 semester.

What Did We Do?

The five days were broken up into: direct instruction, discussions, and fieldtrips to a variety of special collections and cultural heritage institutions within driving distance of UCLA. The class covered topics such as: setting up an instruction program, special collections pedagogy, strategies for collaborating with teaching faculty, in class assignments and exhibit curation, digital instruction tools, digital scholarship tools, curriculum mapping, and assessment techniques. There were frequent discussions of the instructors, participants, and guest speakers’ successes and failures in each area. Participants were encouraged to envision how they would implement or adapt each of the topics covered for their institution.

The fieldtrips were a valuable component of the course. We visited Special Collections at UCLA, USC, and Occidental College and the Museum of Tolerance. It was so helpful to see the variety of institutions’ instruction space and to hear about the kinds of instruction that they are doing.

What Was the Result?

This course was a great way to prepare for the fall instruction sessions. I came away with plans to create materials which will describe the possible ways the Armstrong Browning Library’s collections can be used by faculty in their courses and new ways to promote instruction sessions to Baylor faculty.

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