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Matthew Vetter and Sara Harrington with the scrapbook from the George Runnells Kahler Collection, which is housed in the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections in Alden Library.

Photographer: Lauren Pond

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Applying special collections to the classroom

Archives become basis for Wikipedia articles project


In fall 2011, Matthew Vetter, doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of English, was in search of an unconventional writing assignment for his writing and rhetoric class. The idea he came up with: to have his students author Wikipedia articles.

“Traditional writing assignments too often create an artificial writing situation that involves only teacher and student,” Vetter said. “One of the main reasons I like to have students write for public venues like Wikipedia is that they are more likely to engage with a wider array of audiences.”

To give his project momentum, Vetter turned to Sara Harrington, head of arts and archives for University Libraries, for primary source material, such as the scrapbook from the George Runnells Kahler Collection, which a student referenced for his Wikipedia article.

For Harrington, who was named department head in 2011, it was a golden opportunity to link the Libraries’ special collections with University coursework. From the Libraries’ strategic planning efforts, Harrington understood the importance of connecting students and faculty with information appropriate for their research and learning needs.

Harrington’s role in the Libraries is to engage with colleagues, to develop projects and to make connections between special collections and the classroom in order to move in new strategic directions. A major goal is embedding Alden Library’s special collections more fully into the University curriculum.

“We recognize that we in special collections are responsible for being more proactive — to try to reach out to faculty members and to be more engaged with students,” Harrington said.

She aims for the University community to view the Robert E. and Jean R. Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections less as a temple and more as a resource.

“When you think about museum architecture, you think about how often they look like temples, and that can sometimes be intimidating,” Harrington said. “It’s similar with special collections; we have to balance preservation, security and long-term availability with access to our resources and our desire to be a forum for productive dialogue and exchange.”

Through Vetter’s project, Harrington certainly accomplished her goal.

“Sara helped me enormously when it came to coordinating the project assignment with materials available in the Mahn Center and envisioning the different processes students would go through in the assignment,” Vetter said.

Students were required to cover topics related to Ohio University or Southeast Ohio. Special Collections Librarian Judith Connick, Curator of Manuscripts Doug McCabe and University Archivist Bill Kimok offered their research assistance to guide the students.

“All three of them met individually with students to look over proposals and suggest possible materials or research directions,” Vetter said. “Although meeting with the students was time consuming, I think it really paid off in terms of how committed students were to the project.”

The collaborative efforts of Harrington, Vetter and the staff at the Mahn Center gave students hands-on exposure to unique primary resources available in Ohio University Libraries’ special collections, which resulted in innovative research as well as lasting contributions to public knowledge on Wikipedia.

“We have lots of people and lots of professors who use the collections for their assignments, which we are delighted about,” Harrington said. “But this took things in a different direction, as it produced a publicly available product, and this is something that we would like to continue to pursue.”