Supporting teaching in Special Collections

Supporting academic colleagues with teaching is an important part of our work in Special Collections. Semester 1 has been a busy time for us, with visits from students on eight different courses at the University of Leicester and one from our friends at De Montfort. In an age where so much primary source material is available online, the role of physical collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives is sometimes unclear. Over the last couple of years we’ve been developing an approach that emphasises the parts of our collection that are unique, such as the Joe Orton Archive, and highlights the value of studying original rare books and manuscripts.

HS1005: From Renaissance to Enlightenment – Early Modern Europe, c.1450-1715 (History, 1st year)

During 2013/14 we launched a new collaboration with the School of History to support teaching on the first year survey module on the late medieval/early modern period. We repeated this during 2014/15, and in November welcomed no fewer than 13 undergraduate tutor groups to Special Collections to work with a selection of our medieval manuscripts, incunabula, vernacular Bibles, and other books from the Reformation period. Students received a short introduction to Special Collections covering our holdings, handling best practice, and how to use the collections. They then spent 10 minutes at each of four tables containing collection items arranged to highlight different aspects of the Reformation. Each session was attended by a lecturer, group tutor and myself and we circulated around the room to ask and answer questions, and help students to understand the items they were looking at.

First page of Henreich Eggestein's 1466 Latin Bible (SCD 0193).

First page of Henreich Eggestein’s 1466 Latin Bible (SCD 0193).

Hs2001: Group project on the University of Leicester and World War I (History, 2nd year)

Special Collections has supported Dr Sally Horrocks’s second year group project for a number of years. Prior to 2014-15 the focus has been on the University during World War II, but in this centenary year of the outbreak of WW1 we switched to the earlier conflict. Our archivist, Caroline Sampson, led the Special Collections contribution to the course with an induction session to the whole group (16 students), followed by more focused introductions to the sources for smaller groups. Students then identified a research topic and visited individually or in pairs to conduct research. Their work was then assessed as a group oral presentation, written report and group diary. As a new initiative this year, we digitised a selection of material from the archives and made them available via our Special Collections Online to support the module.

The 5th Northern General Hospital during WW1 (University of Leicester Archives)

The 5th Northern General Hospital during WW1 (University of Leicester Archives)

HS7005: Historical Research Methods (History, postgraduate)

We were first invited to contribute to this History MA module last year. Following discussion with the course convener we devised a seminar on ‘Institutional Archives’ to complement other sessions on government records and personal papers. Student feedback from in 2013/14 was fine, but we felt the class could be improved so this year we cut down on the amount of talking from Caroline and myself, and devised an expanded document handling session. This used the University’s own records as an example of a typical institutional archive. We asked students to think about the strengths and weaknesses of different types of record such as minute books, press cuttings volumes, annual reports, copies of Ripple and correspondence files. So that the records we used told an engaging story, we focused on the 1960s: a period of expansion for the University with some eventful student politics. This approach was successful, and could easily be adapted to provide practical training on working with archives at different levels of study.

EN7001: Bibliography, Research Methods and Writing Skills for Postgraduates

Colleagues from the School of English have been using Special Collections for a number of years as part of the introductory session for this module. The use of rare books and archives for this session has taken the form of a ‘show and tell’, with lecturers requesting items that relate to their research and explaining to students how they use them. We now follow this up a few weeks later with a hands on class split between an IT room and the reading room. Caroline provides an introduction to literary archives, followed by an exercise to locate source material using online databases such as Archives Hub and the Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters. During the second half of the session, students receive hands on experience with the Joe Orton and Sue Townsend archives, and items from our rare book collection. Although the specific materials we use may not reflect individuals’ own research interests and plans, we encourage students to think about the type of material they are looking at as well as the specific items themselves.

There will be plenty more teaching in Special Collections during Semester 2, and we are particularly looking forward to welcoming all 1st year English undergraduates to Special Collections as part of their module on Variation and Change in the English Language. We’re always pleased to hear from academic colleagues interested in using our collections in their teaching, and happy to discuss new ideas and contribute to curriculum development. Visit for further information and contact details.

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Simon Dixon

About Simon Dixon

I am Archives and Special Collections Manager within the University Library. My role is to manage and develop the Library's and other University research collections and exploit digital technologies to reach new audiences for these collections. I also advise to staff and students in the humanities on the use of digital technology in their research.

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