Published: June 3, 2024

Three new displays will be on the second and third floor of Norlin Library sharing unique materials in the University Libraries’ Rare and Distinctive (RaD) Collections. Each exhibit was curated by undergraduate fellows in RaD—Kathleen Elli, Braedan O’neil and Vanessa Shell—based on what interested them most in the collections. 

Learning about Rare and Distinctive Collections

The students were first introduced to historical materials through their classes, which inspired them to pursue fellowships to dive deeper into the collections.

“I had no idea the library even had a Rare and Distinctive Collections until I was brought there for an English class,” said Vanessa Shell. “I'm an English major and have always been interested in historical things. I just thought it was so cool that they had all these documents from centuries ago.”

Kathleen Elli came in with the same English class and echoed Shell’s experience. “I ended up being absolutely captivated by a signed edition of Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter. Holding a piece of literary history, knowing the famous author himself once laid his hands on the copy, made me feel so much more significant. As a creative writing major, it solidified my belief that an author’s work is never truly done until it speaks to its very last soul.”

After the class visit, Elli and Shell returned many Fridays to RaD Collections’ drop-in hours to see what materials were being used in other classes. “That eventually turned into talks of applying for the fellowship,” Elli explained.

Braedan O'neil was introduced to RaD through a Museum Studies course, Gender in Museums of the Americas, taught by Cultural Heritage Librarian Dulce Aldama.

“[Dulce] inspired me to pursue a future in either library science or museum studies,” explained O’neil. “This led me to look for opportunities here on campus that would potentially assist me in the future, and Dulce helped me apply for the undergraduate student fellowship.”

Students learning in the RaD classroom

Rare and Distinctive (RaD) Collections’ Instruction Coordinator Sean Babbs teaches a class in the RaD classroom.

Selecting exhibit topics

The goal of the Libraries’ undergraduate student fellowship is to mentor students and introduce them to the wide variety of careers in academic librarianship.

“Throughout the fellowship, we work one-on-one with the students to develop their interests,” said RaD Collections’ Instruction Coordinator Sean Babbs. “At the end of each fellowship, the students have a choice of what kind of project they would like to work on involving materials in the collection. This year, they were all interested in developing exhibits.”

“When I got to explore the collection, I was really interested in the pieces that were not books,” said O’neil. “RaD primarily has a lot of books in its collection, but also houses other tangible cultural artifacts that shines light on a lot of historical contexts that in many ways books cannot do.”

The subject of O’neil’s exhibit centers on the board game Gay Monopoly. “It is a silly, yet really cool piece of queer history,” explained O’neil. “I thought it would be a fun item to display, highlighting the diversity that the RaD collection has to offer, but also felt that it was important to show with a lot of anti LGBTQ+ legislation getting passed, reminding onlookers that queer people have always existed and will continue to in the future!”

For Elli’s exhibit, she was drawn to the Bakelite purses in RaD. Bakelite is one of the first plastics and was often used for fashion accessories, art, home appliances and many other practical uses.

“I’ve always been incredibly drawn towards aesthetics and the role fashion has played throughout history,” shared Elli. “Whether as a status symbol, a form of self-expression, or an artistic representation, fashion transcends culture and time as a depiction of the human spirit and our creativity. The moment I discovered the purses in our collections, I felt as though I was holding a piece of history that told so many stories.”

Shell decided to take a different direction on her exhibit to focus on slavery documents and indentured servitude after Debbie Hollis, head of Instruction & Outreach Section in RaD, showed the students a recently acquired group of documents about Portuguese ships that brought people from China to the Caribbean to work. 

“I was drawn to these documents because I hadn't known that any of that happened and the history of it just interested me,” said Shell. “[For my exhibit], I picked a document from 1857 that had a list of enslaved people, an departure manifest from a Portuguese ship in 1867 that was bringing people from China to work as indentured servants on sugar farms in Havana, Cuba, and an indentured servitude contract from 1805 for a minor named Sarah Smith.” 

Gay Monopoly board game

Gay Monopoly board game from RaD Collections.

Indentured servitude contract and list of enslaved people documents

Departure manifest for Portuguese ship listing the information of 309 Chinese contract laborers, 1867 (left), indentured servitude contract for Sarah Smith, 1805 (middle), list of enslaved people for sale, 1857 (right). RaD Collections.

Assembling the displays

The next stage after selecting their materials and topics was to work with Conservator Hillary Morgan to assess the condition of the materials to ensure they were fit for display and librarians in RaD to set up the display cases.

“So much goes into setting up displays, from item assessment, getting approved to use and fill display cases, setting up and positioning those cases within the library, how the item is displayed and what information is given to the viewer,” said O’neil. “I initially thought that the process of setting this up would feel like a boring research project, but it was actually a really refreshing creative project that I enjoyed doing. It helped reinforce my ideas about how spaces like libraries and museums should display their collections to the public in ways that engage their interest while still being educational.” 

Elli faced a unique challenge with the Bakelite purses. 

"Unfortunately, one of the purses was damaged in storage, so that’s when I began working with Hillary in preservation who was eager to get involved,” said Elli. “She had never worked with Bakelite and the decision of whether to mend or attempt full repair required lots of research on Bakelite and chemicals that would be best suited. After she decided to maintain as much of the original structure as possible, she proposed that creating custom supports for the lids and broken handles would be our best attempt.”

“Considering the purses are quite different from paper/published works in our collections, I was sometimes in slightly uncharted territory of how to proceed and who to look to as mentors,” said Elli. “This added yet another layer to the display I’ve learned so much from. Despite the challenges, Dulce, Sean, Debbie and Hillary have all been amazing supporters, and I’m extremely grateful for their willingness to help.”

Bakelite purse with broken handle

Bakelite purse from RaD Collections.

Taking advantage of opportunities

Before vitisting RaD for class, the three students were not aware of what a unique resource RaD offers and because of the fellowship opportunity, they were able to dive deeply into the collections, exhibit curation, preservation and historical research.

“I've definitely taken away the fact that the library has a lot more to offer students than I think anyone knows,” said Shell.

“Overall, I have learned to take advantage of any opportunity that arises in my CU experience because you truly never know what will come of it,” said Elli. “I’ve made many incredible connections and had the privilege of learning about many niche areas of librarianship I’ve never considered. The community within the building and the unique learning opportunities have helped me expand my studies and become more involved in other aspects of the Boulder community. I hope that by installing these displays, we can help RaD reach a larger demographic of students and show them all that Norlin and its employees have to offer.”

O’neil’s exhibit showcasing Gay Monopoly is on view now on the east side of Norlin Library’s second floor. Elli and Shell’s exhibits are still in development and will be on view on the third floor of Norlin in the coming weeks.

Gay monopoly display case in Norlin Library

"Isn't That Queer? Representation of Gay Men in Popular Culture" exhibit on the second floor of Norlin Library.