The Heart of Denison: Expanding Your Liberal Arts Education

April 15, 2024
3 mins read

Alexandria Smith ’27
Staff Writer

With its beautiful architecture and phenomenal collection of archives, Denison is a hub at Scripps for learning, diversity, creativity, and the arts. I had the privilege of seeing some of the most special and unique items from its collection with Head Librarian Jennifer Wormser ’95.

Through this exploration, it became clear to me that Denison is not just about books. In viewing Denison’s oldest items and moving beyond to a variety of artifacts, it’s clear that Denison pushes the bounds of the conventional idea of a library. It provides a space for understanding how human beings work to communicate in so many ways across time, and the significance of learning from these diverse works.

Denison’s oldest items are a set of three cuneiform tablets from 2000-3000 B.C.E.. These tablets are made of malleable, dried clay and were used to keep permanent records because of their long-lasting nature and easy accessibility. The library’s collection hails from modern-day northern Iraq where cuneiform was the predominant form of cataloging and coding.

Wormser noted that these tablets’ significance goes beyond a cultural artifact but calls to our similar nature across time as human beings. “A big piece of it is that humans want to carry their information in the palm of their hand,” Wormser said. “They want information to be portable, which could be a book or a laptop. We talk about tablets today, but we have a different idea in 2024. We still want to carry our information with us.”

Denison offers students the ability to touch and examine the tablets upon request or in classes. They reveal how human nature has grown and our shared links, to have a greater understanding of human nature as a whole. “Access to these materials provides students with the chance to hold a piece of history in their hands to get a greater understanding of history, society, humanity, and economics,” Wormser said.

Wormser also invited me to view other artifacts across a variety of cultures. The first was an Ethiopian codex book of the life of Mary where the traditional bound codex form shows the impact of colonization on local life and storytelling. Unique to this book, its cover image depicts Jesus and Mary riding on a zebra, showing the translation of biblical texts across cultures. This unique and incredibly significant piece tells a story of colonization, cultural heritage, and history. Looking at these texts helps students develop what Wormser calls “reader empathy.”

In contrast to the European-style codex book, Wormser also presented a palm leaf book from Southeast Asia made from dried palm leaves. The books were used to write religious texts and catalog information.

The presentation of these two styles of books illustrates Denison’s efforts to create a wonderful holistic and diverse education for students by showing both sides of the story. Often in archives and libraries, there is a dominant emphasis on European cultures over others, and Denison works to alleviate that. Offering students this multicultural education is all the more crucial because Scripps is a predominantly white institution.

“Going back to that piece of cultural heritage [makes us] better people, [helps us] create a better society when we have access to information and can learn more about cultures and lifestyles that may or may not be similar to our own,” Wormser said.

Departing from the traditional library model, Denison features material culture through photographs, toys, and fabric to explore societal constructs and enhance education. One of their eye-catching collections is a set of paper dolls entitled “Perfect Lady Collection.” Hailing from the early 20th century, these paper dolls raise questions about gender identity and femininity, and the way these ideas are pushed onto girls. It reveals a long-standing history of consumer culture, women’s purchasing power, and how that has changed in different eras.

In the photography collection, Denison has something incredibly special: an image of Sojourner Truth from 1864. She had her portrait taken various times and sold to support her advocacy work and travel to give lectures. This modest piece gives a glimpse into her genius. It shows Truth’s awareness of the need to tell her story and advertising as a mode for her to do so. On the back of the image is a quote, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Both wise and haunting, it reveals to us the nature of the early days of photography in which your “shadow” self was exhibited and also the means such an influential figure took to advocate.

Through all of these books and forms of media, it becomes clear how literary education is so much bigger than most of us expect. Denison is a place to be inspired by these pieces, somewhere you can gain something new. Wormser encourages students to be more “willing to stop and look at these materials because it helps to better frame their own experiences in the world today.”

Wormser said her goal is “to see that lightbulb go off, see the enthusiasm, and make that connection between the student and the object and the book. I don’t know what is going to flip that switch for every person … [but] I would love for every student to have that experience at Denison. I want them to walk through those doors and feel a meaningful connection to the place and the stuff here. Never say ‘I should’ve spent more time there.’”

We can all take something away from the beauty of this collection and see how it was never just about the books, but about exploring gender, race, and holistic education within Denison’s walls. I hope this article inspires students to dig deeper into the lesser-known collections in the library. It is worth your time.

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