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A Different Form of Experiential Learning at a World-Class Library

Published: February 23, 2018

A Different Form of Experiential Learning at a World-Class Library

Newberry Library President and Librarian David Spadafora shows some items from the collections to Newberry Seminar students during a tour of the stacks, which are closed to the public.

Scholars from around the world go to the Newberry Library in Chicago to conduct research in its world-class collections related to Europe and the Americas over the past six centuries. Each fall, that community of scholars includes a group of students on the ACM Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities. They are among the few undergraduates to have such broad access to the collections, as well as daily interactions with the expert staff and opportunities to be involved in the inner workings of the library.

“The Newberry Seminar is central to what we do,” said D. Bradford Hunt, Vice President for Research and Academic Programs at the library. “The Newberry has amazing collections of material that are unique to the world and are very rare. Our mission and our goal is to have people interact with these items, learn from these items, and learn from each other. We do that at multiple levels, and one of those is at the undergraduate level.”

Led by two visiting faculty co-directors, the students engage with a broad topic in a seminar setting, hone their research skills, explore the library’s vast collections, and work with primary sources. By the end of the semester, they’ve complete a major independent research project that’s equivalent to a senior thesis.

It’s a different form of experiential learning compared to most study away programs, according to Hunt. “The experience for students at the Newberry is being in a scholarly community, where everybody around them is also doing something very similar. They can have conversations with any of the other 40 or 50 people who are here at any one time as scholars-in-residence or fellows and there’s a strong interaction between them.”

In addition to the seminar faculty, the Newberry’s librarians and curators play a key role in guiding students in their research, such as assisting them in finding relevant source materials and refining their research questions and approaches. Hunt and Mary Kennedy, Program Manager in the Research and Academic Programs department, help students connect with staff who have expertise in their areas of interest.

Kennedy is also instrumental in placing students as paid interns in part-time positions in the library’s departments — a unique opportunity to get an insider’s view of a major archive that few of the students pass up. For example, they might work on public events at the library, or in the digital services department, or going into the library’s closed stacks to bring out rare books for one of the reading rooms.

Read more about the program and living in Chicago in the Newberry Seminar student blog!

“To the extent possible, we try to match according to the student’s interests,” Kennedy said. “The students get work experience and often use their Newberry supervisor as a reference after the semester. I’ve certainly written a lot of reference letters over the years.”

An internship can also lead to an unexpected discovery, as it did for a student working in the conservation department. She spoke Spanish, and one of her tasks involved a book from the early 17th century, written in Spanish, about a court case in Peru at that time.

“She couldn’t find evidence that anybody [on the Newberry staff] had really taken a look at that book,” Hunt recalled. “She turned it into her research project, to figure out what the case was about and to put it into context. Were there other court cases? What else was going on at that time? What was significant about this one, and why would this book have been preserved and passed on?”

“This was a 400-year-old book she was working with,” he said. “It was a really good project, the core of scholarship that we like to think about at the Newberry Library.”


Fall 2017 Newberry Seminar spotlight

Anh Nguyen

Anh Nguyen

Anh Nguyen

  • History major at Earlham College
  • Project title: The Identity Spectacle: Performing and Interpreting Identities in the Columbian Exposition of 1893

To me, world’s fairs were very intriguing phenomena because they witnessed the intersection and negotiation of seemingly opposite themes — nationalism and internationalism, modernity and tradition, elitism and populism. In an attempt to comprehend the dynamism of the Columbian Exposition, I utilized a wide range of primary sources, including reports, posters and pamphlets of the fair administration, booklets and tourist guides independently published by different entities in the city, materials of exhibitors, and comments about the exposition in different forms.

I am profoundly grateful to the encouragement and respect I received from library staff, as well as the opportunity to discuss my topic with other scholars, which gave me the confidence and courage to fully engage myself in the intellectual exploration.


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