A special place for learning

From the historical archives to modern day classrooms, the Division of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Missouri Libraries serves as a rich learning resource.

  • A student studies a manuscript.
    Ashley Butler, a senior broadcast journalism major, studies a manuscript in the MU Special Collections and Archives during an Art History 4005/7005 class. A team of Special Collections librarians help professors integrate rare materials into classroom settings in a number of different ways.

April 27, 2023
Contact: Uriah Orland, 573-882-6212 uriah­.orland@missouri.edu
Photos by Pate McCuien

Most students know the University of Missouri Libraries for places like the Bookmark Café on the ground floor, the group study rooms on the first floor or the quiet study area on the second floor. But few venture up the vast staircases and past the towering book stacks to discover the Division of Special Collections and Archives on the fourth floor.

Here you’ll find a copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” printed by Mark Twain’s own printing company, the Mort Walker Comic Collection and the “Nuremberg Chronicle,” a book that was originally printed in 1493. With more than 90,000 physical and digital items, the Division of Special Collections and Archives serves as home to a plethora of irreplaceable artifacts — and the best part is it’s all free to users to discover.

“We are the place where the library keeps its rare, unusual, unique materials,” said John Henry Adams, a research and instruction librarian for Special Collections. “We have everything from cuneiform tablets that are about 3,500 to 4,000 years old to Cartes-à-figures from the 1500-1700s to artists books from the 21st century. We run the gamut.”

The team of Special Collections librarians help professors integrate the rare materials into classroom settings in a number of different ways, including giving short lectures and guided tours or creating a series of workshops. Librarians can also teach a class session or serve as a reference assistant for student projects.  

“We have an art history class that is coming in every week, where every student has been assigned their own manuscript to study,” Adams said. “So, they are becoming deeply familiar with it.”

By using the collections as a resource for classroom learning, students can think about these objects not as scans on a computer but as physical three-dimensional items that were made to be used in the real world.

“It's a way for us to think about texts and books not as vessels, but as physical objects that people live with,” Adams said. “And that's important and valuable.”

What’s special about Special Collections is anyone can access the material — it doesn’t have to be for a research project and you don’t have to be a member of the campus community. To access the materials in-person, simply set up an appointment online with Special Collections.

“We have manuscripts from the papers of Lanford Wilson, a New York based playwright,” Adams said. “So, theater scholars come in to take a look at those and also to develop new critical editions to see his drafting process.”

Special Collections has more than 30 online exhibits and has published digitalized versions of some of its collection that are available in the MU digital library. Additionally, the staff and interns creates a nine-episode podcast about behind-the-scenes work in Special Collections, as well as subject-specific teaching guides and videos which can be accessed online for classrooms around the world.

Story written by Abigail Durkin

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