Outreach to students

Like many special collections at universities across the country, the Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library is dedicated to supporting the research mission of the College, but just as important is its role in enhancing the College's commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching. This year, in addition to my other tasks, I have had a few chances to assist the staff of the Special Collections Research Center with a number of outreach events aimed at College undergraduates.

Archives can seem like intimidating places, but they shouldn't. Their closed stacks, designated reading rooms, and many rules and procedures are in place to ensure the safety of the collections and reflect a commitment to preservation, but if preservation is one side of the archives coin, access is the other. To promote access, the staff reaches out to the William and Mary community and actively encourages students to explore for themselves the many resources at the Special Collections Research Center.

To take one example, throughout the academic year, archives staff meet with various College faculty. The staff bring their extensive knowledge of the College's special collections, and faculty bring their expertise in a particular academic field. Together they select a handful of items  and coordinate class trips to the Special Collections reading room where students get to handle material related to class content.

Students enrolled in Global History, for example, might browse the pages of Diderot's Encyclopédie, a classic expression of the Enlightenment . Students studying physics can explore a first edition of Newton's Principia as they try to decipher the marginalia (in Latin) of its seventeenth-century reader. Students learning Latin might catch a glimpse of what it was like to study classics at William and Mary in the nineteenth-century by looking at the lecture notes scribbled into Edwin Taliaferro's (appointed to the College faculty in 1858) copy of Horace. Aspiring lawyers may want to examine the interleaved copy of Blackstone's Commentaries, compiled by St. George Tucker who taught at the nation’ first law school here at the College of William and Mary.

Staff emphasize that these, as well as many other treasures, are always available for consultation.  Throughout the semester, students are encouraged to return to Special Collections, to conduct research on their own, or to explore a particular book, manuscript, or object in more depth. Often, these students, throughout their years at William and Mary, do return to Special Collections, where they can always discover something new.


Thomas J. Gillan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary and a 2012–2013 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.