University News

Temporary library closing affects English course

Water damage to local library shifts resources online for ‘Narrating History’ class

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Rhode Island Historical Society library’s closing last December necessitated a syllabus change for ENGL 1180Q: “Narrating History.”

Following water damage to the Rhode Island Historical Society library in December, faculty members and students have been forced to find other archival resources on Rhode Island history while the space undergoes restoration.

The library will remain closed for the rest of the semester and will likely reopen by this fall, said RIHS Executive Director C. Morgan Grefe.

Some materials in the library’s collections sustained limited damage and are currently dried and in off-site storage, Grefe said. While the library is closed, the staff is working to connect scholars with resources, conduct reproduction requests and put materials online, she added.

Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English, had to change the syllabus of ENGL 1180Q: “Narrating History” after learning of the library’s temporary closure. Students will now have to use digital archives, rather than the library’s archives, in crafting stories about Rhode Island’s history, Taylor said.

In previous semesters, students in the class used primary resources from the archives at the RIHS library and the John Hay Library for two out of three narratives they wrote about the history of Brown or Rhode Island, Taylor said.

Students in the course this semester will be doing their research online, in the Rockefeller Library and in the Providence Public Library, Taylor said. She had already planned on having the students conduct some research online because of ongoing renovations at the Hay, she added.

Taylor said she thinks online research will not alter students’ information-gathering or writing processes, but cannot replace the distinctive experience of visiting physical archives. “There is something about the response to a three-dimensional piece in the archives that is unmatched,” she said.

Students who took the course in past years praised their experiences working with the RIHS library’s physical archives.

“Archival research is a viscerally fun experience because you’re dealing with the exact source things came from,” said Emma Ruddock ’13.5, a former student in the class. Compared to online research, “it’s totally different, much more tangible,” she said.

The archives feel like “untouched material that you’re getting to pick apart,” Ruddock said. She added that her experience in the RIHS library’s archives prepared her to complete a capstone project in English, and she would have continued to use the archives if they were open.

Gabriel Lesser ’15, who took the course last year, said his research experience in the physical archives was “cooler than cool.” Lesser added that he found the staff’s knowledge at both the RIHS library and the Hay to be invaluable.

Students currently enrolled in the course said they wished they had access to the RIHS library’s archives.

Selen Senocak ’15, a current student in the course, said she regretted she could not use the archives, but is content with other options. “There are so many resources in other archives that I think we are still able to do an adequate amount of research,” she said.

The learning experience in the course is essentially unchanged because “we are focusing more on what the documents are telling us than on the form — physical or virtual — that they come in,” Senocak added.

The lack of access to the RIHS library is regrettable, said Abigail Ettelman GS, but it also offers students the opportunity to sharpen their skills in online archival research.

Looking ahead, Taylor said she plans to return to using the physical archives at the Hay and the RIHS libary in future semesters.

The impact of the closing of the RIHS library on Brown students not enrolled in “Narrating History” will be limited, said Holly Snyder, curator of the University’s American historical collections.

To further minimize potential disruptions of the research process, RIHS created a page on its website to connect scholars to outside resources, Grefe said.

Administrators originally planned to stagger the closing of the Hay with planned renovations at the RIHS libary, Snyder said. She added that the demand for the archives is lower in the spring semester, when juniors are just beginning research proposals and seniors are focusing on writing theses.