Using Digital Rare Book and Archival Materials in the Virtual Classroom

An old book.

By Katie L.B. Henningsen
Head of Research Services, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

This summer Rubenstein Librarians worked with colleagues across the country to develop remote teaching skills with rare materials and special collections. The Rubenstein has developed a number of activities, assignments, and teaching modules that Duke faculty are welcome to use or adapt for their courses. Below are some of the educational services the library has developed that can support faculty teaching remote or hybrid courses this Fall or next Spring.

Duke Classes 

Pre-pandemic the Rubenstein Library taught approximately 250 classes each year across the disciplines. Remote teaching has necessitated a shift in how we teach. Drawing on best practices for remote instruction, librarians and faculty are continuing to infuse primary sources and material texts into their courses. 

  • First-year students in Amanda Wetsel’s Writing 101 course on Book Arts are using images and videos of several artist’s books from the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture to explore and write about “books as both powerful conveyers of content and sculptural objects with tactile qualities.” For one unit, students are focusing on several pieces by artist Maureen Cummins that use archival sources to explore mental health issues, Crazy Quilt and Anatomy of Insanity. They will be pairing these works with manuscript materials about Serena Katherine “Miss Violet” Dandridge and her experiences with treatment for mental illness at the Enoch-Pratt Hospital in Maryland.  
  • Students from Professor Victoria Szabo’s class, Media History, explored nineteenth-century print technology, dime novels, and other fiction by analyzing a piece of ephemera from the Rubenstein Library’s Tobacco Collection. This Blackwell tobacco promotion from 1897 offered customers of the Durham-based company the chance to redeem coupons for free books. Students used the flyer to discuss the broad range of British and European titles available to readers of series books and the way the Post Office and the American News Service helped readers—in both small hamlets and big cities—gain access to sensational and canonical texts.

Activities & Assignments

Focused on materiality, (the physical qualities of books, manuscripts, objects, and other primary sources, and the information we glean, including sensory experiences, from handling these items in person) this section offers creative activities to offer students embodied, physical experiences with the books, artifacts, papers, and objects in their own spaces while introducing them to the possibilities and limitations of the archives.

Teaching Modules

Teaching modules are single sessions designed to build students’ primary source literacy skills and center on a set of digitized sources from the Rubenstein Library.

Focused on building research and critical thinking skills, each module includes options for synchronous and asynchronous teaching and lists learning objectives to help faculty find the module that best fits their course goals. Each module includes an instructor’s summary, learning objectives, a class activity with discussion questions, and a webpage to facilitate the class activity.

Faculty are welcome to use and adapt these for their courses, and librarians are happy to work directly with faculty to develop custom modules for spring courses.

New modules are added each month.

Video Tutorials

Brief 3-5 minute video tutorials introduce students to the Rubenstein Library and searching Digital Collections. We use them in sessions we teach, and faculty are welcome to incorporate them into their own courses.

Additional Resources

  • The Rubenstein Library is happy to digitize material without charge for Duke faculty and students to support research and teaching.
  • Rubenstein Librarians are available to help faculty design engaging and meaningful synchronous and asynchronous sessions, activities, and assignments that make use of our digitized and born-digital collections in order to meet a wide variety of learning goals. Get in touch and we’ll pair you with a librarian who will work with you to develop an instruction session and/or assignment tailored to your course’s subject matter and learning objectives.
  • This summer Archival Expeditions fellows worked exclusively with digital primary sources to develop teaching modules for undergraduate courses. These modules may be used or adapted and are available on the website.