The University of Alabama
For Instructors: Best Practices for Special Collections Assignments
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The following suggestions will help instructors create assignments and support student work in special collections. 

While special collections assignments can often require more time on the instructor's behalf and a greater investment and learning curve on the part of students, both instructors and students benefit from workign with primary source materials. Instructors faciliate projects which are innovative, exciting, and plagiarism-proof while students learn how to do primary source research, conduct themselves in a special collections reading room, and create new interpretations of historical materials. 
  1. Select a diverse range of items for the students to consider working on, but do not require that everyone analyze the same materials. This practice will contain the amount of angst related to the learning curve of first-year students who have never encountered special collections research. It also allows students to become more invested in the project because they can choose the topics that are of most interest to them.
  2. Create a calendar of appointment times to ensure that the reading room of the repository is not slammed with students at the same time. Remember: reading room staff often serve as reference for everyone present that day and they cannot give everyone adequate attention if too many people are there at once. That said, appointments are not required, just suggested.
  3. Talk to students about the SIZE of archives. Some collections are just one or two items. Some collections contain thousands of boxes. "I want to see everything on X" is not a proper reference request. Tell students that contacting special collections reference is like writing a thesis statement: you need to know more or less what you are looking for before beginning.
  4. That said, still tell your students not to be too prescriptive in their ideas. A "thesis statement" approach to reference will get them to start looking, but they can always develop and change their ideas and topics later as they get more experience looking at the materials.
  5. Students should always budget two hours when visiting the reading room. It may take less time, but it can often take longer than expected, especially if they do not find what they are looking for or if they have multiple reference requests that require locating new items.
  6. Consider including visual analysis alongside textual analysis (close reading). Archival items are to be appreciated for both what they say and how they say it – the form is just as important as the function. You might ask your students to look at unique bindings on 19th century books or the postcard as a form in 20th century America.
  7. Consider allowing special collections assignments to build on one another. This scaffolding of difficulty within different assignments allows students to become more comfortable. Students are required to return to the archive multiple times, which gives them familiarity with special collections procedures. This approach will also integrate special collections more thoroughly into your teaching throughout the semester.
  8. When in doubt – ask. Special collections staff are here to help you design projects, find suitable items for use, and workshop how to handle student learning curves. You are not alone!
  9. You must tailor these practices and the following sample assignments to the content of your class, the level of your students, the amount of revisions you want to require, and the type of learning objectives you have identified.