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Resources for Instructors in Special Collections: Assignments & Activities

Information for faculty and graduate students who use Special Collections in their teaching. This guide includes printable handouts, assignment and activity ideas, collection descriptions, and links to further resources.

Resources for Instructors in Special Collections

Assignments and Activities

Students get more out of their visit if they are required to use the resources in some way.  This doesn’t mean that you have to make them write a research paper – a 15-minute activity can teach them a lot about researching and using Special Collections materials.    The following are assignment ideas created by librarians for specific collections and materials at the University of Missouri.  Please feel free to use and adapt them in your own classes.

Creative Works

Class Exhibit

Over the course of a semester, as a class, students will curate an exhibition of items in Special Collections and Rare Books on the course topic.  Students will cooperatively decide on an exhibition narrative, select items for display, conduct research, and write interpretive texts. 

Creative Nonfiction

Choose a book in Special Collections, and write its life story.  You could focus on its author and the circumstances surrounding its creation, write about its production as a material object, or explain how it came to be in the library.  Be as historically accurate and as detailed as possible.

Book Arts / Comic Art

After looking at examples in Special Collections for inspiration, students can produce their own graphic novels / comic books / illuminated manuscripts / propaganda posters / artists’ books…  The possibilities for this one are endless, and in fact, we have examples of past student work in the collections.

Short Writing Assignments

The Changing City

Special Collections contains a large collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which document the layout and growth of cities from the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century.  Maps produced prior to 1923 are available in the University of Missouri Digital Library, and those produced after 1923 are available in the Special Collections reading room.  We will visit Special Collections as a class to receive instruction on interpreting the maps, using the digital collection, and using maps in the reading room.

You will be assigned a Missouri town or neighborhood to research.  Use the Sanborn Maps, class discussions, readings, and additional resources to write a short history of your assigned neighborhood.  Note at least three major changes that you can trace through maps or other documentation.  What do changes in the neighborhood say about changes in the town?  How do the changes you see relate to broader trends in American culture?


Meet the Class of 1918 (or 1919, or 1920...)

As entering freshmen, you are the Class of 2018.  During your time at MU, you will become part of the university’s history and traditions, just as the Class of 1918 was.  In 1918, the University of Missouri was 79 years old.  The Academic Hall Fire that left the Columns standing on the Quad had happened only 26 years earlier.  The Journalism School was 10 years old.  Most of the campus buildings east of the Quad were still under construction, and Ellis Library was brand new and state-of-the-art. 

Explore the student publications, yearbooks, and histories in the University of Missouri Digital Library for the years 1915-1918, and visit the University Archives and Special Collections to see publications and materials  that are not yet digitized (including student newspapers such as the Maneater, the MSU Independent, and the Missouri Student).  

Write a short paper comparing student life in 1918 to your own experience at MU.  You may attempt to follow one student, or write about student life in general.  Use the questions below as a guide.

  • What were entrance requirements like?  How were they different from your college entrance process?
  • Where did students live in 1918?  What were their housing conditions like?  If you had been a student in 1918, where would you have lived?  Compare this to your current housing.
  • Did your major exist in 1918?  Did it have a different name?  Where would your classes have been held?  Who would have taught them?  How has this changed?
  • What sorts of activities did students participate in? Compare them to the activities you are involved in now.
  • Women were admitted at MU beginning in 1868.  What conclusions can you draw about their status in 1918?  What changes have occurred?
  • The first African American students were not admitted to MU until 1950. Comment on diversity among the student body and faculty of 1918. How have the university’s values changed?

Adapted from “Vanderbilt Visions: Meet the Class of 1912,” ARL SPEC Kit 317: Special Collections Engagement (August 2010). pp 143-144, or available online.


Food and Culture in the Nineteenth Century

Ellis Library has a large collection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century American cookbooks, nutrition books, and home economics books.  Many of these are in Special Collections, but some are in the Depository.  The class will visit Special Collections at the beginning of the semester to view the cookbooks and receive an orientation and information about research strategies.  Each student will choose a cookbook to investigate.  Write a short paper that addresses the following questions:

  • Who is the audience for this cookbook?  How can you tell?
  • What assumptions do the cookbook authors make about the audience (i.e. what skills or knowledge do they assume cooks to have)?
  • How does the cookbook present food to the reader? 
  • What roles did food play in nineteenth-century American culture? 
  • What can we learn about the history of our present-day diet through this cookbook?


Longer Research Papers

Anti-War Movements in America

Using the Rare Book Collections, the World War I and II Posters, the Comic Collection, the Political Pamphlet Collection, and various related materials in Special Collections, the class will examine the general history of anti-war sentiment in the United States.  The original research paper may perhaps focus on some local event of the past, or may rely on less traditional documents such as anti-war posters, artwork, popular culture, or fiction. 

Adapted from “Popular Protest in Cold War America Seminar, Rutgers University,” ARL SPEC Kit 317: Special Collections Engagement (August 2010). pp 141-142, or available online.


Researching the History of American Comic Art

Using the Comic Art Collection at Special Collections, write a research paper that considers American comics in historical context.  Options for framing your topic include:

  • A critical introduction to one author, tracking the development of his/her work over time (e.g., narrative technique, recurrent themes, design, or style).
  • An essay that addresses a specific social issue, controversy, or historical event and how this topic is addressed in comics.
  • An analytical essay that applies some form of critical theory (i.e. feminist theory, New Historicist methods) to a particular comic work or series.
  • A review of criticism and comment on the reception of an individual work.
  • A comparison of a work of film, drama, or fiction and its adaptation into the comic art form.

Adapted from Hatfield, Charles.  “Comics: Form and Meaning.”  English 495CO syllabus, University of California – Northridge, fall 2001.

Activities and Document Analysis Worksheets