30 Sept 2019

Dabbling with the Demonic: Creating Embedded Learning Experiences in the Library

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mutant Enemy, 1997.

The Winning post in the CONUL Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Awards 2019. This post is by Emma Doran working as a library assistant at Maynooth University Library

I’m sure when many of you picture magic, demons and libraries together in the same context, the epic feats of Harry Potter or the acting exploits of Anthony Head in his longstanding role of Giles, on the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer springs to your mind instantaneously. I know I was certainly enchanted by the world of libraries and in particular the special collections department of libraries, mainly as a result of watching these movies and shows where magic imbued the collections and adventure lived a page away if one dared enough to open the book. But imagine if we as librarians could bring this sense of adventure and involvement with our collections to the students we interact with on a daily basis. If we could entice them to actively delve into the usually “restricted section” of our libraries and put these primary sources of information we so lovingly conserve to work. Now that would be magical!

A selection of books from the witchcraft collection laid out for students to explore during the class. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell library

How Can We Do This?

At MU Library we are encouraged as library practitioners to think up ways of integrating and embedding our collections into the learning experiences of our users. This practice not only enables us to meet and contribute to the strategic aims of the institution, but empowers us to develop information-literate graduates and broaden the student experience with hands-on active learning for our users. Very recently I was able to experience my very own “Giles” moment, by utilizing our collection of witchcraft and demonology books when a group of second year undergraduate history students visited our library for an embedded learning experience. By incorporating our special collections early printed books into the module HY283: Witchcraft in Europe c.1450-c.1650, we were not only able to provide the students with access to primary sources they needed to investigate as part of their final assignment. But we were able to use the collection materials to engage with the students and academic staff to provide a ‘hands-on experience, and the act of leaving the classroom to visit a new space.’[1] The module, taught by Professor Marian Lyons, explores the phenomenon of witchcraft in Europe during the era of the Renaissance and the Reformations Scientific Revolution, when thousands were executed for practicing witchcraft and consorting with demons.

De la Demonomanie des Sorciers, by Jean Bodin published in Paris, 1580. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell library

Fortalicium Fidei, by Alphonso de Espina published in Nuremberg, 1485. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell libraryDisquisitionum
During the session students were split into two groups and my colleague Barbara Mc Cormack (Special Collections Librarian) and I were able to speak to students taking the module about the physical makeup of the items in the collection and how they came to be in possession of the library and also the historical context of the items in the collection in relation to their topic of study. Some of the materials we were able to showcase in our class were notable resources such as: The Fortalicium Fidei, known to be the first printed work to contain a description of witchcraft, The Formicarius, by Johannes Nider, the second book ever printed examining topic of witchcraft and a selection by popular authors on the topic such as Jean Bodin and Martin Antoine Del Rio. By teaching the students in this manner and allowing them access to explore the materials, we were able to provide an opportunity for the students to engage with historic primary source materials and contribute to their broader understanding of the history of witchcraft and demonology in Europe, by concentrating on a variety of sources held by the library for consultation.

Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, by Martin Antoine Del Rio published in London, 1608. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell library

In preparation for the class, I also developed a finding aid for the students to help them in terms of navigating the collection, as the books that form the collection are housed in two separate library locations across the campus. In feedback received from the students we learned not only was the experience useful in terms of identifying and consulting sources they needed for assignment work but that engaging with materials such as the early printed books, created an exciting and dynamic learning opportunity that would not be easily forgotten and left the students excited for more.

A section of the finding aid I created for students attending the class

As library professionals we are becoming more progressively aware of the benefits students can reap from the incorporation of our collections into the institutional curriculum and of how doing so can facilitate the development of critical and research skills such as handling, preservation, consultation and the ability to cite accurately.[2] Bringing this class to life with my colleague, Barbara and the lecturer in charge of the module was an extremely satisfying experience both as a library professional, keen on the development of students in my care and as an avid fantasy nut who always dreamed of fighting the forces of evil one book at a time.

De Praestigiis D√¶monvm, by Johann Weyer published in Basel, 1563. Image taken by Emma Doran © Russell

[1] Hubbard, M. and Lotts, M. (2013). Special Collections, Primary Resources, and Information Literacy Pedagogy. Communications in Information Literacy, 7:1, p. 34. [online]. [accessed 15 May 2019]

[2] McCormack, Barbara. (2016). Embedding unique and distinctive collections into the curriculum: Experiences at Maynooth University Library. SCONUL Focus, (68), 77.


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