Interview with Dr. Russ McConnell, curator of Grammar-Land, Part II

On Monday, we talked to Dr. Russ McConnell, curator of Grammar-Land, which will be on display in the reading room of Hoole’s lobby through the end of November. He discussed his research and the intellectual background to his show. Today, he will share how he put it together and best practices he’d recommend to future curators.


Marginalia seen on a book featured in the exhibition

What steps did you go through to create your exhibition?

I met Dr. Amy Chen through some other people that I know at UA Libraries, and she asked me if I would be interested in curating a special collections exhibition.  Although I was already interested in exploring the special collections libraries here at Alabama, it had not occurred to me that I might be able to do this.  It seemed like an exciting opportunity, as well as an excuse to spend some enjoyable time in the rare book room.  I met with Dr. Chen formally to learn about what was involved in this sort of project and she showed me the exhibit space and provided me with documents detailing the various aspects of exhibition planning, as well as a standardized spreadsheet that I could use to record the necessary information about the items that would appear in the exhibit.

I started by doing a series of catalog searches to get a sense of the W. S. Hoole holdings, using broad search terms like “grammar” and “writing.”  Of course, this procedure generated very long lists of search results, but I firmly believe that in special collections work it is always better to generate the long list and take the time to work through it: you never know if number 256 in the list is going to turn out to be something fascinating.  Additionally, it does not actually take too long to pare down these long lists of search results into a manageable number of items.  In doing this initial search and subsequent winnowing, I determined that the Hoole Library does in fact have a varied and interesting collection of rare book materials in the area of grammar and writing instruction, although this collection fell outside of the time period and geographical range that I usually study.


Search term “grammar” on Scout, limited by results found at Hoole

The next step was to visit the Hoole reading room and call up all my chosen items at once to have a look at them.  Once I had my items I looked at each of them individually.  Inevitably some of these items turned out not to be relevant at all: I somehow ended up with a nineteenth century anatomy textbook, mixed in with the other items.  It included a very interesting chapter on the insalubrious effects of wearing corsets, but this item nevertheless did not seem to me to fit into any exhibition that I had the expertise to curate.

Continue reading

Interview with Dr. Russ McConnell, curator of Grammar-Land, Part I

By: Dr. Russ McConnell, Instructor in the English Department

This week, we’re talking Dr. Russ McConnell about his research and his process for curating an exhibition with special collections materials. Check back on Wednesday to hear his tips and tricks.

Hello! Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today about the experience of curating an exhibition with the Division of Special Collections. First, could you tell us a bit about your role here at the University of Alabama?


Dr. Russ McConnell

I received my BA in English at the University of Calgary and my MA and PhD at the University of Western Ontario.  This is my first semester at the University of Alabama and I am an instructor in the English Department.  This semester I am teaching English 215, an Honors course that surveys British literature from the medieval period to 1800.  Next semester I will be teaching English 220, an Honors course surveying American literature from 1865 onwards.  I will also be teaching a seminar course on comic books for the Blount Undergraduate Initiative.

What does your scholarship primarily discuss?

My doctoral dissertation was titled Graphic Drama: Reading Shakespeare in the Comics Medium, and was devoted to discussing and demonstrating the power and versatility of comic books in adapting and interpreting early modern dramatic literature.  Doing so involved not only analyzing a wide range of comic book versions of Shakespearean plays, but also developing an analytical method capable of fully drawing out the fascinating complexities of these works.

My current research concerns the history of grammar and writing instruction in early modern England, with a particular emphasis upon William Lily’s seminal textbook, A Short Introduction of Grammar, which dominated English grammar school education from 1548 to 1758.  Thus far, my work in this area has emphasized the poetry of John Milton and Andrew Marvell.

Although these two research areas may seem disparate, they are in fact deeply congruous, as both represent a historical formalist approach to literary interpretation.  This approach focuses on the discursive forms and structures that make meaning possible in a particular medium, and on how these forms and structures are learned, used, and understood by practitioners.

Continue reading

Pedagogy Series 2: “In the Archives” themed Honors First Year Writing, Part II

By: Amy Chen, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow, and Kate Matheny, IT Technical Specialist I

On Monday, we discussed the collaboration between Amy and Brooke that led to this fall’s “In the Archive” themed Honors First-Year Writing classes. Today, we’re covering what Brooke and Amy — now joined by Kate Matheny, the Outreach Coordinator for Digital Services, and Sara Whitver, the First-Year Experience librarian, decided to do to support these sections.


“In the Archives” themed Honors First Year Writing LibGuide

During our meeting in July, we decided we needed to do the following:

  • Instead of creating three different LibGuides — individually authored by Sara, Amy, and Kate — Amy and Kate would simply add content to Sara’s pre-existing LibGuide, which can be seen above.
  • A session on using Acumen was integrated with the students’ normal schedule of library information sessions. In addition to two library sessions dedicated to general information literacy principle, focusing on resources and services available in Gorgas, Alabama’s general collections library, a third library session would be shared by Amy and Kate.
  • In that third library session, Amy would reiterate that in special collections, what is a primary source and what is a secondary source often is defined not by the inherent qualities of the item itself, but rather by the type of question that is being asked; ask students to model creating thesis statements from the sources they found rather than predetermining their argument and then finding primary and secondary materials that matched their ideas; and discuss what special collections is and what the strengths of UA’s repositories were. Kate would then discuss how to discover items in Acumen; lead a “search doctor” activity, showing students how to find materials by refining their searches; and outline the ways in which Acumen differs from popular browsers, such as Google.

Search Doctor, another example from Kate’s presentation

Now that Amy and Kate have taught all their sections of Honors First-Year Writing, we thought we’d take the opportunity to reflect on how this collaboration went, what we liked about the semester, and what we plan to do differently in the future.

Amy’s Perspective

Amy felt that this collaboration expanded the number of students the Division of Special Collections was able to reach. She appreciated that Kate was able to teach her — as well as the students from these sections — the ins and outs of searching Acumen. She was also thankful to Sara for creating such comprehensive and valuable LibGuides for the Honors FYW students and for organizing the scheduling and topics of the three library sessions offered.


Crimson White, downloaded from Acumen

In the future, Amy thinks that using the digital repository is an excellent options for students. She plans to advise professors that are interested in shorter or less challenging assignments that using the digital repository is a way to contain the “overwhelm” students feel when having to learn how to navigate a new type of library — online sources are simply more friendly to our tech-savvy students. However, she will continue to direct professors who are interested in having students get hands-on experience with our collections to come in to the reading room. What she’d like to do differently in the future is to include a learning module on how digital surrogates differ from physical objects and what is lost and gained in this translation. It might also be fun to create learning modules on digitized resources available at other institutions’ special collections repositories.

Kate’s Perspective

Kate thought the collaboration was a good way to introduce the students to primary source research, including digital surrogates. Though they would be using digitized materials, it was vital that they see it in the greater context of archival research, both for their current course and in general. Just teaching how to use the tool would not have been adequate; these students also needed to learn what makes special collections materials so special — challenging but rewarding. There was no better person to approach that aspect of the instruction than Amy.

The co-teaching model worked well. Not only did it put more friendly faces into the classroom, but it allowed us to shore up each other’s lectures with observations and commentary, keeping the mood more open and informal in a setting where there was not much time for extensive discussion. The presentation-heavy nature of the sessions was a bit of a drawback, but in the future it could be mitigated by providing some of the instruction by asynchronous means. Introducing concepts through more in-depth LibGuides, interactive tutorials, or videos before (and after) the session would leave class time for demonstration and practice.


Modeling collaboration

This kind of balancing act between covering the scope of the subject and providing targeted, assignment-based instruction is something the regular instruction librarians are well used to, so it was especially helpful to have Sara’s guidance. Not only could she help us keep sight of the big picture; she also facilitated the creation of our cooperative LibGuide, allowing us to draw on established content and spend our efforts contributing more specialized content appropriate to our focus. Brooke’s input into the session creation process was also invaluable as it gave us an outside perspective on the parameters of the session while simultaneously allowing us an insider’s look at the students, their aptitudes and needs.

Pedagogy Series 2: “In the Archives” themed Honors First Year Writing, Part I

By: Amy Chen, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow, and Kate Matheny, IT Technical Specialist I


First Year Writing at UA

The Division of Special Collections and Digital Services collaborated to provide Honors First-Year Writing classes (English 103) with information pertaining to how best to search and discover material contained in Acumen, the University of Alabama’s digital repository.

Amy Chen, the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in charge of instruction in Special Collections, previously worked with Brooke Champagne, the Assistant Director of First-Year Writing, to provide Champagne’s students with the opportunity to use special collections holdings in their research during Fall 2013 and Spring 2014.Brooke’s project — and two of her students — were profiled on Cool@Hoole’s inaugural Pedagogy series over December 2013 and January 2014. Additionally, Brooke and Amy’s partnership over the 2013-2014 academic school year became the subject of a forthcoming article for Kate Theimer’s edited volume on pedagogy for her series on Innovative Practices in Special Collections and Archives.

But when Brooke and Amy decided to broaden their concept of introducing first year students to archival research to all honors first year sections during Fall 2014, rather than the one or two sections they previously targeted in the previous year, they had to redefine their learning objectives. The Division of Special Collections does not currently have the reference or instruction staff to provide in-depth research assistance to so many students simultaneously. After all, these sections are only one set of students the Division serves; we also work with students from ten other schools and departments! For this reason, Amy and Brooke decided, with the help of First-Year Experience Librarian Sara Whitver, to have students browse digital surrogates instead.


Acumen interface

Using digital special collections did take away students’ ability to interact with objects from history directly and to learn the process of researching in a special collections environment; however, using digital surrogates allowed more students to have training on how to access these unique materials and integrate them into their current and future research projects; plus, using Acumen would allow students to work in their own time from the comfort of wherever they had internet access. Now, students would not have to learn what they could — and couldn’t — bring into the reading room or the difficulties involved in searching through an unprocessed collection.

Changing course to include Acumen, rather than a trip to the reading rooms of either the W.S. Hoole Library in Mary Harmon Bryant or the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection in Gorgas Library, meant that Amy needed to contact Kate Matheny, Outreach Coordinator for Digital Services, the unit of the University Libraries dedicated to digitizing special collections material and maintaining the infrastructure of Acumen. Kate would be the best person to teach students how to use Acumen since she and her colleagues were the ones charged with building and maintaining it.


Example slide from Kate’s presentation

Thankfully, Kate agreed to teach these students how to use Acumen and collaborate with Amy, Brooke, and Sara. So, during the summer of 2014, the four of us met to determine the best way to approach the coming semester. Check back on Tuesday to learn what we decided to do!



Slave Reward broadside from 1833

By: Ashley Bond, SLIS graduate student


Slave reward broadside from 1833 (MSS.3761)

The University of Alabama Division of Special Collections acquired the “Reward Broadside for Runaway Slaves” this year from the William Reese Company’s collection of Americana.

This 1833 broadside is significant in the early history of Alabama printing, which began in the state in 1807 and became more common only after the first Huntsville newspaper was established in 1816. Broadsides traditionally were used as temporary flyers to quickly communicate information to the public and often served as an additional means of income to colonial printers. Because of their disposable nature, broadsides are rare documents today, and this specific reward broadside is the only known copy in existence.

The document begins by offering a twenty-five dollar reward to anyone who can locate Ned, a slave of Isaac Murray of Monroe County, East Tennessee, who ran away on March 12, 1833. Ned is described as being a slim, twenty-three or twenty-four-year-old man about five feet tall with a very light complexion and a very flat foot. He was last seen wearing a blue broadcloth coat, white cotton pantaloons, and a chipped hat along with various other garments not described. He is believed to have run away with Jeremiah Lillard’s slave Fountain, a dark-skinned, nineteen-year-old man of both white and black descent. The two traveled by canoe from Rhea County down the Tennessee River, left the canoe at Ross’s, continued over Lookout Mountain, and then obtained another canoe to travel down the south side of the river. The writer believes Ned and Fountain intended to reach Illinois and urges men traveling by boat to keep watch for the pair. Isaac Murray offers to pay reasonable expenses incurred in addition to the reward amount if the person who finds the runaway slaves delivers them to Murray or securely to a jail where they may later be obtained. The broadside is dated for April 9, 1833 on the same line as Isaac Murray’s name. A postscript at the bottom includes his name as well and asks that any letters containing additional information on the subject be forwarded to Florence A. within ten or twelve days or after to Madisonville, Monroe County, East Tennessee.

The print “Fariss, printer…..Advocate Office, Huntsville” at the very bottom center of this broadside indicates that it was printed by Dandridge Fariss (May 15, 1800 – June 30, 1887) at the Advocate Office in Huntsville, Alabama. Fariss was a printing apprentice at the Intelligence Office in Petersburg, Virginia until 1816. From there he moved to Tennessee and later to Huntsville, Alabama in April 1818, where he was a member of city legislature and a librarian. In 1823, he established the periodical the Alabamian, which later became the Southern Advocate in 1825. He retired from the publication in November 1837.

Halloween updates from Rare Book Cataloging

By: Allyson Holliday, W.S. Hoole Library Complex Copy-Cataloger

In the spirit of the season… there’s something for everyone in the Division of Special Collections! Whether it’s skeletons, haints, headless horsemen, witches, or demons, we have your interests covered.

For skeletons: take a look at Hollick’s Outlines of anatomy and physiology  published in 1846. This text features a “dissected plate” of human anatomy and is extra special due to the signature on the front flyleaf from Thomas A. Cooper. Cooper was a distinguished actor and is recognized as America’s premier tragedian. Cooper was born in London in 1776 and found great success on the London stage as Hamlet and Macbeth. He would later travel to America and make appearances in the theatre scenes of Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, New York, and cities in-between from 1796 until his death in 1849. His repertoire included 2,671 performance nights including 37 leading roles from Shakespeare’s plays (Smith, 299).

dissected plate

Dissected plate of Anatomy and Physiology, Hoole Library Rare Books Collection QM31 .H7

Continue reading

We went viral, Part II

By: Nancy DuPree, Curator of the Williams Collection

w0003_0000165_0000001_0001_2048 (2)

First page of letter written by President Abraham Lincoln to Simon Cameron, November 6, 1863

Despite the excitement over the Lincoln letters covered in Monday’s post, the documents themselves appear rather ordinary. The paper has yellowed over the years, although the writing is still strong and clear. Like his literary style, Lincoln’s handwriting is clear and businesslike, but rather plain — unlike John Hancock or George Washington’s fine aristocratic hand. We might not expect to see letterhead stationery from the 1860s, but  one letter  is written on paper with the letterhead “Executive Mansion,” with a printed line “Washington, ____, 186___.” The blanks are filled in Lincoln’s hand, “Nov. 6” and “1863.”

The two documents, one written by Lincoln to Simon Cameron and one written by Orison Blunt, are not directly related and came into the Collection separately.  The Blunt letter is a single item; the Cameron letter is one of a set of nine letters sent to Cameron by various individuals.


First page of letter written by Orison Blunt to John Loomis, July 23, 1862

The Blunt document dated July 23, 1862, concerns a straightforward item of business: the writer, firearms dealer Orison Blunt, has written to Col. John S. Loomis, assistant adjutant general, to suggest that some British-made Enfield rifled muskets, seized from captured Confederate blockade runners, be turned over to Union units from Illinois, who badly need weapons. Blunt was an expert on weapons, one of the Union’s biggest suppliers of rifles and the inventor of a forerunner of the modern machine gun, as well as a New York City alderman and political foe of Tammany Hall Boss Tweed. On the back of the letter Lincoln wrote an endorsement of the plan, subject to the approval of the Secretary of War.

Continue reading

We went viral, Part I

By: Nancy DuPree, Curator of the Williams Collection


Abraham Lincoln, from President Abraham Lincoln’s Quickstep, a piece of sheet music from our collections and available through Acumen

On the website of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln database, a news release dated August 11, 2014 proudly headlined “New Lincoln Papers Found in the Heart of Dixie.” The article that follows announces the addition of  digitized images of two hitherto unknown Lincoln letters to the Papers project, which is sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. The originals of those letters are held by the A. S. Williams III Americana Collection on the third floor of Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama.

News of these letters reached the Lincoln Library through the good offices of several alumni of the University of Alabama Department of History and the book, From a Love of History, by Stephen Rowe (University of Alabama Press, 2013).  Rowe’s book contains a photograph and a description of one of the letters, and Robert Ritzer, alumnus of the University of Alabama history department and professor of history at the University of West Alabama, immediately recognized its importance.  He contacted another alum, Christian McWhirter, an editor at the Lincoln Library, who after conversations with Nancy DuPree, curator, and Mary Bess Paluzzi, Dean of Special Collections,  came to Tuscaloosa to examine the letters and to have them digitized.

The story attracted some interest, including a print news release; an article in Tuscaloosa News; and several television news segments, including WVUA, FOX6WBRC, NBC Chicago, CBS Atlanta, and ABC 33/40. The actual letters were on exhibit for a week and were viewed by a number of visitors. The Collection continues to exhibit copies of the letters, though the originals are kept in a vault for security and protection from strong lights. Copies of the letters, alongside journalists’ accounts of the find, can also be seen in a small exhibition called “We Went Viral!” on the second floor of Capstone Village.

On Wednesday, come back to read more about the letters themselves!


The Deseret First Book, Part II

By: Ashley Bond, SLIS graduate student


The Deseret First Book‘s front cover (Hoole Library Rare Books PE1152 .U7 vol.1)

In 1868, the Deseret First Book was one of two elementary readers printed in the Deseret alphabet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The University of Deseret, now the University of Utah, utilized the texts to help the community learn this new alphabet. At the beginning of the book is a translation key, followed by reading and numerical lessons. The book also contains many illustrations, with the most intricately drawn images on the front cover and title page. While these cover drawings serve an aesthetic function in framing the title of the work, they also contain imagery significant to the Mormon Church.

The building pictured at bottom center of the cover depicts the Latter-day Saints’ Salt Lake Temple located in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. Historically, it is said that Latter-day Saints President Brigham Young designated the site for a future temple within days of his arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. In July of 1847, while he and a few others were walking through the area now known as Temple Square, Young stopped between two forks in City Creek and struck his cane on the ground. Wilford Woodruff placed a stake in that specific spot, marking where the center of the future temple would be. With the help of architect Truman O. Angell and draftsman William Ward, Young designed a temple with six towers: three on the east representing the President and his two counselors and three towers on the west representing the Presiding Bishop and his two counselors. The building was constructed with granite in addition to symbolically placed ornamental stones throughout the structure. The Salt Lake Temple was completed and dedicated on April 6, 1893, exactly forty years after the day the cornerstones were laid.

Continue reading

The Deseret First Book, Part I

By: Ashley Bond, SLIS graduate student


The Deseret First Book alphabet key, found in Hoole Library Rare Books PE1152 .U7 vol.1

The Deseret First Book is one of four books published in the late 1860s in an alphabet created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This alphabet, known as the Deseret Alphabet, was created when the second president of the church, President Brigham Young, called a committee to develop a new phonetic alphabet that would help simplify spelling the English language.

The story behind this alphabet originates with the initial emergence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. Due to some resistance to this new church, founder Joseph Smith and his converts were driven westward to Illinois. After much persecution and the death of Smith and his brother Hyrum, Brigham Young led the church to settle further west around the Great Basin in the area we now recognize as Salt Lake City, Utah. Over 350 Mormon settlements in the region would eventually form the Territory of Deseret, ruled by Young as president. Congress, however, rejected this area as a territory and created the much smaller state of Utah with Young as its governor. It was in the midst of these developments in the Latter-day Saints Church that Young and fellow leaders proposed a new alphabet be created to aid immigrants and children in more easily learning English. George D. Watt, the first English convert to the new church, had studied Pitman shorthand in England and was chosen along with other church leaders to design the phonetic letter set. On January 19, 1854, the Board of Regents at the University of Deseret, known now as the University of Utah, announced the creation of the thirty-eight character Deseret Alphabet, which contained a letter for every sound in the English language. Critics claimed that the alphabet was the Church’s attempt to isolate converts and prevent outsiders from easily deciphering Mormon literature. However, this notion is unlikely, as each publishing in the alphabet includes a table of letters in order for readers of the traditional English alphabet to translate it. Once the alphabet was formed, Orson Pratt was given the task to create elementary texts that would help the population more easily learn how to read the new letters. In 1868, Russell Brothers Publishing Company in New York printed ten thousand copies each of the Deseret First Book and Second Book Readers to be shipped to Salt Lake City. When errors were found throughout the two primers, however, Orson Pratt, George D. Watt, and R.L Campbell formed a committee and made corrections in the form of an errata sheet to be added to the back of each copy. In addition to the elementary primers, the Book of Nephi Part One and eventually the entire Book of Mormon were also available in print for purchase. Between 1854 and 1870, the alphabet underwent many revisions, including the addition and removal of characters as well as shape and design changes in the letters themselves.

Continue reading