Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Schoolchildren meet special collections

Today was a first for me - I gave a tour of Special Collections and Archives to a group of schoolchildren aged between 12-15. The tour was organised by SHARE with Schools, SHARE being Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology and Religion. The idea was to introduce them to the idea of studying history at University, through some taster lectures, and visits to sites such as Special Collections and Archives.

Recalling how chronically unimpressed I had been with everything the world had to offer at that age, this was something I considered with more than a little trepidation. My usual approach of pointing at Kelmscott Press books and illuminated incunabula and saying 'look, pretty!' wasn't going to wash here.

I turned to Twitter for guidance, asking 'anyone have any advice on engaging schoolchildren with special collections?' It was unanimously suggested that I introduce them to objects which have a good story behind them, and ideally that story should be macabre, gory, salacious, involve illegal activity... you get the picture. So this gave me a jumping off point to start from. We try to feature items with good background stories on our blog, so this was a good place to start looking for key pieces.

I needed a context in which to ground these items, however. Displaying a bunch of weird stuff and pointing at it is much the same approach as displaying pretty stuff and pointing at it - I needed to show why it mattered. This is something I have never really had to convince anyone of before, my usual audience for tours and presentations being PhD students and academics - preaching to the converted.

How could I explain the difference between our special collections section, and the rest of the University library? It struck me that the key division was between primary and secondary sources. This concept was always hammered home by the national curriculum - I can still recall the photocopied, typed extracts from Samuel Pepys' diary. Imagine if I'd been able to see Samuel Pepys' actual diary? I think I would have been a lot more excited about history.

As I didn't have Pepys' diary handy, I decided to start out with one of our strongest pieces - a bloodstained letter found on the body of the war poet Edward Thomas, when he was killed in the trenches. It was the last letter from his wife Helen, writing how much she missed him and promising him that soon the war would be over... powerful stuff. It had the desired effect of getting their attention straight off. I then held up a copy of a recent award-winning biography of Edward Thomas, and told them how the author had spent hours, sitting where they were now, reading Edward's letters, and this got us into the value of primary sources.

At their age I was only aware of libraries as a repository for secondary sources: rows and rows of intimidating books full of other people's ideas, telling me - this is how it was, don't argue. I wanted to get across one thing - primary sources allow you to argue, to rewrite history, and that's why we have them in a University. I asked them why they think people still keep writing history books - and pointed out that because of libraries and archives, new information is always coming to light, and changing what we think we know. I showed them what will probably be my life's work - a room full of uncatalogued, unlabelled cardboard boxes, waiting to be opened, and their previously unknown contents interpreted and described. Part of the reason I love working with young people - they are all convinced they can change the world. They talked about the possibility that they might find something ground-breaking in those boxes, write a best-selling book and become famous! I pointed out that if they did, we would probably want their papers for our archive, which caused much excitement!

From here, we talked about unreliable sources, where I pulled in some examples such as the book purportedly written by 'Belzebub', and the zoology textbook featuring bizarre illustrations of entirely fictional sea creatures. Finally, I showed them a Victorian copy of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, and compared it with this month's Cosmopolitan. I wanted to emphasise that although we had looked at a lot of old books in the session, not all primary sources are old. I told them there was no difference between the two magazines except their age - they both told us what the women of that time wore, what interested them, their place in society, which products were marketed to them. People in the future would read the issue of Cosmopolitan to find out more about what it was like to be a woman in 2012. We also talked about how this was problematic - did Cosmopolitan represent all women? We know that they use airbrushing, for instance - in the same way, can we trust the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine to be representative of all Victorian women? Which sections of society might have been ignored and why?

We could have talked a lot longer, but before I knew it the time was up. I was surprised to found I had enjoyed myself, and they had too. All thanked me when they left, without prompting (!), and one boy came right up and said 'that was amazing, thanks miss!' High praise indeed!