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Civil War Research Gives Students “Experience of a Lifetime” in Wilson Library

Imagining the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1900 will be on view in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room of Wilson Library through July 20, 2014.
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On a Tuesday morning at the end of March, students Hannah Wallace, ’16, and Sarah Rabon, ’14, hover over a glass-topped exhibit case in the middle of the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library.

Librarians have retrieved several Civil War-era books and pamphlets for today’s visit and propped them open with foam holders. Nearby, two laptops display records for the items in the Library’s online catalog.

As the final weeks of the semester approach, Hannah and Sarah are facing more than just the typical academic deadlines.

They are two of the 21 students in Associate Professor Eliza Richards’s American literature seminar “Imagining the U.S. Civil War.” This morning they are working on the class’s semester-long project: a student-curated exhibit drawn from the rich collections of Wilson Library.

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Wilson Library staff member Rachel Reynolds (center) helps students Hannah Wallace (left) and Sarah Rabon prepare for their exhibit about the Civil War.

In less than one month, friends, parents and the general public—likely including Civil War historians and professors—will show up for a reception and “gallery tour” where students will talk about the various Library materials they’ve chosen to display.

“Many classes do activities and research assignments where the students work hands-on with our materials,” says Rare Book Research Librarian Emily Kader, who guided the students through the project. “However, few work collaboratively at such length the way these students have done. And fewer still get to produce work that will be shared with real readers and viewers, rather than remaining in the classroom.”

For some students, the class and exhibit provided their first introduction to the Wilson Special Collections Library and the Rare Book Collection. Just as importantly, the project revealed the transformative power of research.

“After this experience, my entire perception of working with library materials has changed,” says Corinne Goudreault ’15. “The idea of research is far less intimidating.”

However, as the end of the semester approaches, the pressure to complete the project remains. As Hannah says, “This was an unknown for all of us. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I don’t think any of us did.”

Laid out on the table is a brown book with gilt decoration—Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Sarah Emma Edmonds’s 1865 memoir about fighting in the Civil War disguised as a man named “Franklin Flint Thompson.” That hundreds of women cross-dressed and fought in battle is just one of many surprises that students encountered. “It’s a whole different side of the Civil War that you don’t usually get to see,” says Hannah.

Students are also facing other unfamiliar pressures, such as writing labels in a style distinct from academic writing in order catch the attention of the visitors who will circulate through the exhibit. Shrinking 1,000-word texts down to the 80 or 100 words that are customary on exhibit labels is a challenge, and students were helped in this task by Special Collections Exhibits and Outreach Coordinator Rachel Reynolds.

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Student Chris McGrath (left) and a visitor during the opening of the exhibit “Imagining the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1900.” Student curators received red roses to celebrate the exhibit opening.

As Sarah says, the name of the game now is “condense, condense, condense.”

“It took a village”

The collaboration was long in the making, with the idea for a student-curated exhibit first emerging out of discussions between Eliza Richards and Curator of Rare Books Claudia Funke about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Richards and Kader worked intensively over the summer to create themed bibliographies that would aid students in finding and selecting exhibit items.

Student teams coalesced around topics with strong representation in the Wilson Library collections, such as Confederate pamphlets, African American accounts of slavery and freedom, and early “dime novels,” which were read by soldiers on the front as well as civilians.

Several exhibit sections highlighted frequently underrepresented aspects of the war such as poetry, memoirs, and fiction by women, and propagandistic literature written for children in both the Union and the Confederacy.

Other teams focused on:

  • Prison memoirs, life on the frontlines, and Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas;
  • Literature of hospitals and the wounded (In addition to Walt Whitman’s poems about caring for the wounded in Washington hospitals, this display includes an amputation kit from the Health Sciences Library Special Collections.);
  • Literature written after the war that remembers and reimagines the crisis: Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, for example, and North Carolina author Charles Chesnutt’s “conjure stories” about African American experience before and after the war.

“The students understood the crucial importance of representing various viewpoints and getting their information right” says Richards.

After making their selections, students met with Tommy Nixon, librarian for classics, dramatic art, and English and comparative literature in Davis Library. Nixon showed students how to use print and digital resources, such as biographies and nineteenth-century newspapers, in order to research and identify many of the fairly obscure real-life characters and their writings that appear in the exhibit.

“This is a great opportunity for them to take an idea from conception to execution,” says Nixon. “They’ll probably never look at an exhibit the same way again.”

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Student Wan-Ting Lin (right) discusses her portion of the exhibit “Imagining the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1900″ with a visitor on opening night.

The collaboration between the class and librarians was extensive. In addition to working with Kader and Nixon, the students met with conservators to understand safe handling and display of library materials. (To ensure the items’ long-term health, conservators Jan Paris and Andrea Knowlton cleaned books and mended minor tears, created supports, and talked with students about “what was physically possible” in terms of safely displaying materials in exhibit cases).

Paris, Knowlton, and Reynolds counseled students on the use of space in the exhibit cases, and Rare Book Collection Assistant Alia Wegner advised on visual design. A range of special collections research librarians and staff—including Funke, Jason Tomberlin, and Matt Turialong with Leslie McAbee, a graduate research consultant with the Office for Undergraduate Research, shared expertise and served as sounding boards.

“They got help from everybody,” says Richards. “It took a village. It really did.”

The Big Night

It’s April 24, and the opening night of the exhibit is here. It’s just one day before LDOC—the Last Day of Classes—and the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room is packed with students, family members, friends, and the general public.

To mark the previous day’s “World Book Day”—a date celebrated in Spain as “The Day of the Rose”—students presenting on their exhibits each receive a single red rose.

The flowers crystallize something about the night and the project. In an increasingly digital age, students have spent their semester immersed in the materiality of the items. They were moved by the letters written to and from soldiers during the war; prison diaries; and a small battered and well-used 1864 book titled Hymns for the Camp, which was carried around in a backpack and sung from in the field camps.

“This has been through a war with a soldier,” says Hannah Wallace. “You wonder what comfort that brought him.”

While the project involved all manner of the Library’s resources, including secondary source materials only available through digital databases, it’s still this physical form that offered the students something unique.

“This project has helped me to realize that books are living creatures,” says Sam Bondurant, ’15. “Some of these works only exist because UNC and the Wilson Library spent an immense amount of effort to collect and then restore them.”

And so this is how the night ends—with students standing in front of glass-fronted exhibit cases full of rare materials, explaining a semester’s worth of work to friends, family, and complete strangers.

“It’s not just another class for them,” says Eliza Richards. “It’s a lifetime experience.”

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Story by Doug Diesenhaus. Photos by Kelly Creedon.

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