Special Collections and the COVID-19 Return to Campus

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Paul Doty, Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives, St. Lawrence University.

With the Coronavirus Spring of 2020 behind colleges and universities, the time to reflect on a semester compelled online has immediately rebooted to planning for an uncertain fall. Attention turns from helping students cope with the dashed expectations of a sudden physical disconnect from campus to a tangle of financial and health and safety concerns. Assessing the situation has prompted some in higher education, notably the California State University System, to announce (or argue) for a continuation of remote learning. Some campuses, notably Wells College in New York State, have suggested their continuance depends on having students back on campus. As the practical matters of dorm life and classrooms play out amidst the ongoing pandemic, there is also going to be a need to articulate why a community should be on campus. Within this, special collections and archives can be restorative as academic life returns to its quality of sanctuary by providing tangible hands-on materials that demonstrate re-acclimatizing to the life of the mind anew.

A very useful summary of questions that librarians will need to address is “Now and Next: What a Post-COVID World May Bring for Libraries” on the IFLA Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. Two questions that are specially apropos for special collections are, ”Many of our activities have ‘pivoted’ to online – will they stay there?” and “Education has been disrupted and delayed – can we limit the scarring effects?”

Addressing the first point, the post asserts, “Nonetheless, the possibilities of digital – for learning, researching and accessing all forms of culture – will be clearer for all, and convenience may well replace necessity as a reason for using online tools” (Library Policy). This is doubtless true, and certainly how libraries have provided online services in a climate of necessity is an opportunity to assess future services, but life online does not life make. Much of the discourse in the media suggests a high level of student dissatisfaction with the unexpected online curriculum; one PBS study pegged this near fifty percent (Krupnick).

A university archives can reconnect students with the tangible manifestations of the institution wrought over its history. Of our relationship to information technology Neal Postman wrote, “Unlike television or the computer, language appears to be not an extension of our powers but simply a natural expression of who and what we are” ( 124). The relationship of language to the identity of the institution can be made clear in archival collections. Particularly, if students can see the papers of university professors or presidents, or correspondence related to the important work of the university—if they can hold those materials in their hands—then students have an ability to see the genesis of where they are in a very real way. This is a way to reorient from being online only—a lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making online courses, but universities have to reckon with reestablishing community identity. Certainly, institutional identity will be revived within many social circles, but here is also an avenue for people to connect with the college through its archives. In so doing, it is also an opportunity to encourage faculty and administrators to reconsider the archives as a critical teaching tool for a university curriculum working to make academics bespeak the post-COVID-19 future students will need to consider.

The concern about educational delays and disruptions is addressed in another post on the Library Policy and Advocacy Blog titled “Storytelling in Difficult Times: Accessing the Past During a Pandemic.” The post tackles a number of questions related to technology and archived materials, and suggests that “In our modern, hyper-visual era, we are inundated with media…[though] stories don’t seem entirely real until we see visual evidence of them” (Library Policy, Storytelling). As academic communities regather there is a clear-cut need to again argue the case for the intimacy of our relationship with primary source material. Bombarded as they have been by news from medical and elected officials filtered through endless online spin, a post-COVID-19 student body will be hungry for the challenges in seemingly simple materials they can see for themselves and hold in their hands. How to identify handmade paper and to what aim watermarks work are investigations well recast as exercises interacting with the real. Having materials in hand to examine reasserts agency over events—obviously examining a book by Kelmscott Press is not going to mitigate the lasting effects of the events of March and April 2020, but it demonstrates creativity within the detail, that you can regain a sense of proportion and inspiration. Clues to whether paper is handmade or what watermarks on a flyleaf signify demonstrate that there is a story in the details which anyone, if they are willing to try, can decipher. These are discrete projects and discrete questions to reinstill a sense of agency in young people who have likely felt at the mercy of events.

Finally, as academic communities regather, archives are uniquely positioned to make the case for the essence of what a library is within the academic setting. Of course, how they will gather when they return according to yet to be articulated social distancing guidelines is still an open question, a prickly question when you would like to see classes forming as communities of readers to consider books. Alberto Manguel explained it this way when thinking back on the most legendary of all libraries, “as a public space the Library of Alexandria was a paradox, a building set aside for an essentially private craft (reading) now to take place communally” (31). Being a visible (visual if you will) argument for the primacy of reading within everything else a library does is a great role for an archives, a special collections department. This primacy will be asserted through the necessity of training critical skeptical readers, and this training can be greatly aided by studying original texts. Attempts by interested parties at major media platforms to try to create controversy over COVID-19 mortality data brought to the fore the need to know how to read data. One can find great explanations—a beautiful example here by John Burn-Murdoch, Valentina Romei and Chris Giles writing for the Financial Times—that underscore the need for experience with primary source material if one wishes to read to debunk (Murdoch). Special collections can emphasize the process through which students reinvent themselves in reading’s mental demands. According to a quotation widely attributed to American President Harry S. Truman, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” The physicality of reading demonstrated via studying old books and manuscripts can get the consideration of reading where it needs to be; it can inspire our post-COVID-19 student leaders.

Works Cited

Burn-Murdoch, John, Valentina Romie, Chris Giles. “Global Coronavirus Death Toll Could Be 60% Higher Than Reported. Financial Times. April 26, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/6bd88b7d-3386-4543-b2e9-0d5c6fac846c

Krupnick, Matt. “Forced Off Campus by Coronavirus, Students Aren’t Won Over By Online Education.”  PBS Newshour, March 27, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/forced-off-campus-by-coronavirus-students-arent-won-over-by-online-education

Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. “Now and Next: What a Post-Covid World May Bring for Libraries,” Blog, April 6 2020. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2020/04/06/now-and-next-what-a-post-covid-world-may-bring-for-libraries/

Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. “Storytelling in Difficult Times: Accessing the Past During a Pandemic,” Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. Blog. April 2 2020. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2020/04/02/storytelling-in-difficult-times-accessing-the-past-during-a-pandemic/    

Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Postman, Neal. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992.

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