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Teaching Materiality Online with the Rubenstein Library

Rubenstein Library Instruction

The Rubenstein Library can help design engaging synchronous and asynchronous sessions, activities, and assignments using digital collections to meet a wide variety of learning goals. The activities shared on this page are available for use and adaptation with attribution as noted. 

Material qualities

  • Book bindings
  • Paper texture 
  • Printing technology used
  • Weight of item
  • Size of item
  • How it feels to handle an item
  • Sound of pages when you turn them
  • Marks of ownership
  • Writing in margins or annotations
  • Smell
  • Stains or damage
  • Fold-outs or other three-dimensional structures
  • Errata pages or other tip-ins

External Resources

Instructional Videos

What is materiality?

In the special collections context, materiality means the physical qualities of books, manuscripts, objects, and other primary sources, and the information we glean, including sensory experiences, from handling these items in person. This guide offers creative ways to offer students embodied, physical experiences with the books, artifacts, papers, and objects in their own spaces while introducing them to the possibilities and limitations of the archives. These activities from librarians and instructors foster curiosity, community, and practical learning, and may be adapted to apply to a wide range of subjects. 

Invisible histories: physical evidence, memory, and feeling

Use this series of prompts or design your own to help students created their own experiences with primary sources from their own lives and environments. This activity provides a physical experience with a text, and invites students to consider books beyond their intellectual content.


  • Find a book, piece of mail, anything written by hand (letter, grocery list, notes), or artifact in your living space. This will be your primary source.
  • Describe the physical object using as many senses as you can. What does it look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? (Maybe skip tasting it!) 
  • Describe the item like you would for a library catalog or for citing it for a paper you might write. What elements would you use? (Title, author, date, format, etc.)
  • Share something about this item that you know that no one else could tell from the documentation you've already created. This could be a memory of the item or someone related to the item, feelings about the object or people associated with it, or where it came from.  

Gender Artifact Assignment

Assignment created by Professor Sarah (Sally) Deutsch, History, Duke University

For this assignment, find what I call a “gender artifact” from the current year. This can be anything, from Domino’s pizza door-knob flyers to movies, New York Times articles to advertisements—but it should be something that you see differently for having taken the course, something you see as revealing important information about the state of women’s history and gender relations now. If the artifact itself or an image of it cannot be submitted, write a description of it that will allow us to understand how you are analyzing it. 

Each student will have an opportunity to present their artifact and a five minute analysis of it to the class. If you can also put it in some relation to the historical context about which you’ve been learning all semester, so much the better. Please be prepared to hand in a 1-2 page informal analysis of your artifact.

Professor Deutsch comments: “They're often clearer in the short oral presentation in terms of their analysis than in their writing, so it's helpful to have both, if that's possible. I usually show them an example of an ad I found about a decade ago.”

Fold Your Own Zines and Books

Folding zines or one-page books is a hands-on activity to help students work creatively and build community. (Even if your course isn't focused on the content or format of zines!) There are also many tutorials for folding paper to help understand the structure and history of printed books and pamphlets without special materials and tools. 

Reading by Candlelight

For this assignment you will need a completely darkened room (e.g. a closet or bathroom), a candle, and a hard-copy book. Think carefully about your reading selection. A novel, a newspaper, or religious text might best help you think about what historical readers consumed.

Prompts for reflection using your 5 senses:

  • What do you see? What do you not see? What is difficult to see, or different from what you are accustomed to?
  • What do you hear? How do the noises influence your reading?
  • What smells do you notice?
  • How do these elements make you feel?
  • What text are you reading—does reading by candlelight change the feelings evoked by your text’s contents? What specifically? How? What actions or thoughts do these feelings encourage/prompt you to take?

Assignment created by and shared with permission of Dr. Megan Peiser, Department of English, Oakland University.

Read Aloud With a Group

For this assignment you will need a group of 3 or more, and only one book. You are encouraged to choose a piece of literature written before 1900, as those are often written with the assumption that group reading would be a part of many individuals’ reading experience. Take turns.

Questions for reflection:

  • What is it like to be the reader? The listener?
  • How far apart could you sit and still listen?
  • Put your devices away—what if all you had for entertainment were the sounds of others reading?
  • How does the material book itself prepare to be read this way? How does it not?

After you read, check out this article from the Washington Post about group reading: When Reading Was a Group Activity. How did your experience compare to their article?

Assignment created by and shared with permission of Dr. Megan Peiser, Department of English, Oakland University.

Create Your Own Cabinet of Curiosities

For centuries, Cabinets of Curiosities, or Wunderkammer, have offered glimpses of collected items from the natural world. Animals, plants, and minerals were displayed along with other objects reflecting a history that included colonization and misappropriation. Printed books from the seventeenth century to the present include vivid illustrations of such displays. This assignment invites you to begin your own Wunderkammer. 


  • Find an item from nature inside or outside your dwelling or classroom.
  • Describe the object using your senses. (how does it look, what sound does is make, how does it feel to the touch, any smell?)
  • What title, date, or format might you give to it?
  • How would you classify the item? With what other objects might this object be classed or associated? Create your own classification system to use. How are objects generally classed within your system?
  • Share something about this item that is not readily known from the description you’ve provided – such as how it makes you feel, a memory associated with the item, or where it came from. What hidden powers or powers not readily observable may the object have?
  • What questions remain about the item?