Why You Should Get to Know Olin Library’s Special Collections and Archives, Part II: A Student Writer’s Experience and How-To Crash Course

Special Collections and Archives has served as an incredibly useful resource for my writing career at Wesleyan over the past two years, since I was first introduced to the department in English 201. Many of you reading this blog have probably been to SC&A for a class but may not be aware that, in addition to what the archivists pull from their shelves for professors to show students, Special Collections has a wealth of material available for student use, including some items that no one has even looked at in depth yet. In this post, I’d like to give a brief overview of my experience with SC&A, and provide some basic nuts-and-bolts information about how to best use the department for your next source of inspiration.

When I visited Special Collections for the second time, in Lisa Cohen’s Advanced Nonfiction workshop focusing on biography and profile writing, Head Archivist Suzy Taraba pulled samples from collections of notable Wesleyan figures whose materials are housed in SC&A. I was particularly drawn to the papers of Fred Millett, Professor of English at Wes from 1937 to 1958, whose name you may recognize from the Millett Writing Fellowship. Millet was an incredibly meticulous keeper of his own archival material, including correspondence, clippings, essays–and a prodigious collection of ceramic cats–all of which he donated to Wesleyan upon his death in 1976. Yet despite this prodigious amount of material, I was most intrigued by what was missing: Suzy Taraba also told our class the story of some possessions that didn’t make it into SC&A, which included a large collection of gay pornographic material. What’s more, the magazines were about the only concrete “evidence” of Millett’s homosexuality, which by his death was known to those close to him but never spoken about, and were destroyed by his family before they could be moved to Olin.

The story of Millett’s archive and the ghost of the destroyed magazines seemed to me to be the makings of the most exciting writing project I had encountered as a student, and it has proved to be so as I take on the topic for my thesis next year. The Millett Archive has not been processed, meaning that I will be the first person to look at most of the materials (without the hand of a finding aid, which outlines the contents of processed materials). Working with primary source materials is thrilling in a way I never expected it would be: I have become familiar with everything from patterns in Millett’s letter writing to the shape of his signature. The amount of care he put into shaping the textual body he left behind, a dedication his love of English literature must have imbued, is extraordinary to witness and experience in an age when most of what we write down is only stored digitally.Special Collections and Archives 101

Some important things to know:

  • Most of the contents of the Archives are navigable online, so you can prepare beforehand and get in and get out quickly, which is useful given the limited hours SC&A is open.
  • SC&A includes extensive Wesleyan archives, great for Argus reporters, creative writers, and history majors, to name a few.
  • SC&A staff members want to help you use the archives for your project, so don’t hesitate to establish correspondence with them early on in your writing process.

Contact: www.wesleyan.edu/schome, sca@wesleyan.edu, 860-685-3864

Location: Olin Library, to the right of the main lobby

Hours: Monday through Friday, 1pm–5pm and by appointment

Make an appointment for a personal research session with an SC&A staff member by emailing sca@wesleyan.edu with your information (i.e., name, class year, area of interest/type of assignment, and availability). You can set up an appointment during regular hours, or try to set up an outside time to meet (staff members prefer mornings, but will also sometimes stay after 5pm). Remember that the more information you give a staff member ahead of time, the more they can help you during your meeting.

Preparing for appointments:
If you are visiting SC&A for a class, gather all of the information you can about the assignment and what you will need from the Archives to complete it. If a teacher has given you explicit instructions for what you need to accomplish in the SC&A, let the archivist know ahead of time.

If you are visiting SC&A but don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, browse the finding aids online for a collection that sparks your interest. Email the staff member with whom you’re meeting with any inklings you have regarding what sort of material you’d be interested in (e.g., Wes history, WWII, Queer Studies, Science writing, Poetry, etc.). Most importantly, keep an open mind, because often what will end up yielding a great project is something completely unexpected.

For regular reading room hours, make sure to request the materials you want look at before you go in. Email the staff member you’ve been working with or sca@wesleyan.edu to request materials, or, if you’re in Olin, fill out a paper request form. You can also stock up on request forms and slip them under the door when SC&A is closed. If you are looking at materials for a class after a visit, they will probably be available without request for the duration of your assignment.

Reading Room:
All materials from SC&A must be looked at in the reading room under the supervision of a staff member. Once in SC&A, you will be asked to sign in with what materials you’re using, and to leave all of your personal items in the coat closet. You may bring pencils to write with (no pens), and any other paper materials.

Read the first installment, Why You Should Get to Know Olin Library’s Special Collections and Archives, Part I, here.

-By Bridget Read ’12

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