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University Libraries’ Special Collections – It’s Not Just for Historians

By BTL on November 16, 2015 9:44 AM | Permalink

Special Collections has been documenting the history of Las Vegas, southern Nevada, and gaming for nearly fifty years. Its collections range from books and journals to manuscripts and photographs to maps, oral histories and other types of historical material, all of which capture the rich story of our region. Historians have typically been heavy users of Special Collections because its resources are the essential building blocks of their work – enabling them to use primary source evidence to craft a narrative and prove a thesis. Yet Special Collections is not just for historians. Instructors from a variety of disciplines at UNLV use our collections both for their own research, and as a way to expose their students to a world of information that does not come from books or databases but rather from original documents such as photographs, correspondence, diaries, and other archival material.


Here are three examples of how faculty worked with Special Collections to integrate the use of primary sources into their courses, teaching important research and critical thinking skills:

Lynn Comella, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies, regularly teaches an undergraduate class in feminist research methods for gender studies (WMST 302), and always includes sessions in Special Collections as part of her syllabus. “I love archives, and I enjoy seeing my students get excited about them, too. During our visits, students have a chance to see the range of materials housed in Special Collections...they learn what kinds of questions they can ask of historical materials and what kinds of evidence they might provide.” A typical assignment might involve a content analysis project examining Fabulous Las Vegas magazine, a mid-century tourist publication, and comparing the content over the span of several decades. This kind of hands on research is invaluable according to Comella, “Students get to see, with their own eyes, how representations of gender have changed over the years and consider why that might be. It's always, hands down, one of their favorite weeks of the course.”


For the past two semesters, Sara Vanderhaagen, assistant professor of communication studies, has made an instruction session with Special Collections part of her COM 408 course, in which students learn how to critically analyze persuasive discourse. The course focuses on Las Vegas public discourse and each student selects a rhetorical 'object' to examine --speeches, advertisements, government reports, and even buildings. “Because archives have so enriched my own work, I encourage students to consider both contemporary and past examples of public discourse. Fortunately for my students, our Special Collections has been a fantastic resource for students who want to dig a bit deeper into key rhetorical moments in Las Vegas history," Vanderhaagen said. Her students were equally excited about their work in Special Collections. Rebecca Hobby, who grew up on a dairy farm in Modesto, California, examined documents on agricultural issues in Nevada from the John Wittwer Collection in Special Collections for her project. Another COM 408 student, Anthony De Felice, commented, “In doing my research, I found the process of looking through a variety of historical artifacts to be the most interesting part. I went into Special Collections with an idea of what I wanted to do for a project, but left with a whole lot more… As residents, we rarely think of Las Vegas’ past and how the town came about, but Special Collections shows you the roots on which this town was built and how far we have come.”


Susanna Newbury, assistant professor of art, recently brought her ART 475 students to Special Collections to examine a number of late 19th and early 20th century photographs selected by curator Peter Michel. Newbury found that viewing original photographs enabled her students to make a historical connection with the physical photographs that they can’t always recognize when their classroom sessions feature PowerPoints and JPEGs. According to Newbury, a visit to Special Collections makes it clear that “These objects were and are physical. Their chemistry is imperfect; surfaces of pictures erode or fade. When they see an album, full of photographs, they can understand physically and visually the experiential power of assembling personal meaning through a collection of images… It's a unique experience, and one they can have even in notoriously museum-poor Las Vegas precisely because of Special Collections.”

Learn more about our collections online or to inquire about scheduling a class session in Special Collections contact Su Kim Chung, head of special collections public services.