Home » The Place and the People Make the Newberry Seminar a Semester of Discovery

The Place and the People Make the Newberry Seminar a Semester of Discovery

The Place and the People Make the Newberry Seminar a Semester of Discovery November 30, 2010

Newberry Library logoLooking into the Newberry’s main entrance, with the library’s logo on the glass door. Photo courtesy of Emma Sundberg.

What makes the Newberry Library exciting for students?

“The opportunity to discover – new texts and new ways of looking at texts,” said Beloit College professor Diane Lichtenstein. “New things appear all the time at the Newberry.”

“For example, a couple of years ago a student was directed by a librarian to some letters the library had just acquired,” she continued. “The student ended up being one of the first people to take a critical look at those letters.”

Next fall, Lichtenstein and her Beloit College colleague Linda Sturtz will lead ACM’s Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities. A semester of discovery is an apt description for the program, given that the library’s remarkable collections cover the history and culture of Western Europe and the Americas in the half millennium following Columbus’ voyages.

According to Sturtz and Lichtenstein, the place and the people go together to make the Newberry seminar a rich experience for students. That participants are off-campus as they complete a major work of rigorous, independent research and writing is crucial, as well.

Maps by Hernando CortesHernando Cortes, Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico. 1524. Ayer Collection. Courtesy of the Newberry Library.

“When students are on their home campuses they’re often taking several classes, they may be in clubs or student government or athletics. There are a lot of demands on their time, so they’re pulled in various directions,” said Sturtz. “On this kind of program, where students can focus on one thing that matters a great deal to them, they can concentrate their intellectual energy, they can focus their time, they can revise and rewrite, so they’re pleased with the outcome of their project. It’s the kind of opportunity that I think many scholars wish they had.”

With its stately stone façade, the Newberry Library sits in the midst of high rises, vintage residences, and businesses on the bustling Near North Side of Chicago. Close to the city’s lakefront and the shopping mecca of the Magnificent Mile, the library is across the street from historic Washington Square Park – or “Bughouse Square” – famous through the years as a gathering spot for soapbox orators.

One of the world’s premier independent research libraries, the Newberry houses an incredible variety of items, from rare books and illuminated manuscripts to periodicals to personal papers and diaries to sheet music.

Newberry LibraryThe Newberry Library with Washington Square Park in the foreground. Photo by Diane Dillon.

The collections focus on the humanities – history, literature, art, foreign languages and cultures, music, philosophy, and religion – and comprise more than 1.5 million books, 5 million manuscript pages, and 500,000 historic maps.

The first task for students in the seminar is learning how to navigate their way through the library’s abundant resources. That’s where the Newberry staff comes in.

“I’ve worked in a number of research libraries in the U.S., the U.K., the Caribbean,” Sturtz said, “and usually there’s a little reluctance at least to having undergraduates using the materials. Sometimes they’re just forbidden to use the material. That the Newberry people are so welcoming and encouraging is pretty distinctive.”

As a student at Carleton College, Sturtz participated in the Newberry program, and she can attest to the exhilaration of digging into the vast collections. “It opens the door on a wonderful world of different kinds of texts that students don’t normally get exposed to on their home campuses,” she said.

The seminar is organized around a broad topic – “Crossing Boundaries” in fall 2011 – and during the first part of the semester students engage in a set of common readings, explore the library, and choose a subject for their individual research projects.

Field trip to PullmanOn a field trip to the Pullman Historic District in Chicago. Photo by Emily Gaul.

They also adapt to the rhythms of life at the Newberry, which is not the same as on a typical campus. “We keep trying to remind [the students] that the library day is much more structured than college days,” Sturtz said. “The library doesn’t stay open until midnight. You have to be there when they open at 9 a.m. because they close at normal business times.”

Although Lichtenstein and Sturtz teach in different departments at Beloit (English and history, respectively), they have team-taught a course and over the years have found that their academic interests mesh very well. “Basically, the common denominator is American women,” Lichtenstein noted. “Linda started out more colonial, [focusing on the] 17th and 18th centuries, and I’m more 19th and 20th. But we’ve both learned to range over centuries.”

The two professors emphasize that the students themselves play a key role in a vital aspect of the Newberry experience – what program participants have fondly referred to as the chance to “geek out” with like-minded people.

“This is a self-selecting group, a group that’s serious about their work,” said Sturtz. “They can talk to each other about intellectual problems that they’re having as they work through their ideas. I think the advantage of the common [seminar] topic is that there are some reference points for people to talk about issues even as they go off on their own specific subjects. They can come back and make comparisons on how their work relates to the common theme.”

As a Newberry participant, Sturtz got a firsthand view of the program’s longer-term benefits, such as becoming familiar with working in archives and special collections. She and Lichtenstein also have a vantage point from which to observe Beloit students after they return from the program.

Newberry participants at dinnerNewberry seminar participants out for dinner. Photo courtesy of Brianna Buljung.

“There are great opportunities for juniors and for seniors when they go back to their campus,” Lichtenstein noted. “Seniors can turn their research into honors projects or independent study, where they can take another step with the research. At the end of the senior year, they have accomplished a great deal. Juniors come back with three more semesters on campus and really build on what they did at the Newberry.”

For those who have their sights on graduate school, said Sturtz, “the Newberry essay is a wonderful piece of work that will distinguish students who have been on the program from other students, [especially those] from colleges where students aren’t doing as much writing.”

The library itself is clearly the primary attraction of the program. Still, the Newberry’s location in Chicago with easy access to cultural events, nightlife, restaurants, and lots of free activities is a big plus.

“That’s the other side of archive time,” Sturtz noted. “When you’re working at the library, you really need to be there when they open in the morning because they have limited hours. But when they kick you out [at closing time], you don’t have to feel guilty that you have to keep working. You can go to a symphony concert if you want to when the Newberry’s closed.”

“Chicago is definitely part of it for us,” Lichtenstein added, “and, we hope, for the students.”


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