This is the fourth year of the university implementing a common reader for the incoming freshman class. This year, freshmen were assigned to read “Under a White Sky” by Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert is an American journalist whose book discusses the human impact on the environment. In the book, she interviews various scientists and environmentalists to discuss ways to combat climate change.
Not only did freshmen have to read this book — they also had to participate in an interactive experience either virtually or at Mechanical Hall that emphasized major themes from the book and showcased various library resources.
“It starts out looking at artwork either at Mechanical Hall Gallery in person or online in a short video if you’re doing the virtual tour,” Lauren Wallis, First Year Experience and Student Success librarian, said. “There’s artwork in the Mechanical Hall, and then in the library they look at exhibits of film and video material and the Special Collections historical materials. So for each of those three, they listen to a podcast of the curator or the librarian just contextualizing the material … like a guided audio. Those tend to pose big reflective questions”
Pauline A. Young Residents in special collections Shelby Daniels-Young and Yuqiao Cao collaborated with Wallis and Ashley Rye-Kopec, curator of education and outreach in museums, to select items that best fit with the common reader.
“We all read the book, and we have a little book talk about it, and we see what issues arise for us and what we think would be important to focus on — if we can make some connections between the different materials that the students look at,” Wallis said.
Each piece contained in the tour has strong ties to the human effect on the environment, especially those that come from the Special Collections.
“This year I focused on looking through collections that had strong ties to the overall topic of environmental policy and activism and then searched for items within those collections that connected to more specific themes, like tension between industrial development and environmental preservation, or innovators trying to get their ideas for fixing environmental problems to take off with the public,” Daniels-Young said.
The Special Collections pieces came from the Karl Wolfgang Böer papers and the Gwynne P. Smith papers, two archival collections in the university’s holdings. Böer was a solar energy pioneer and a professor at university, and Smith was an environmental activist who also served for a time as a representative in the Delaware General Assembly. This year each piece is related to Delaware, and one piece in particular especially stands out.
“I think all of the items connect to the book in different ways, but the brochures about UD’s Solar One House — which opened in the early 1970s as an experimental building meant to demonstrate how a residential home could be powered by solar energy — are particularly interesting,” Daniels-Young said. “The point of the brochures was to convince the public of the viability and necessity of solar energy over fossil fuels at a time when your average American wouldn’t have known much about solar energy.”
In “Under a White Sky,” the potential solutions to the environmental crisis discussed requires the public to become better educated and make major changes in their lifestyle and ways of thinking. The aforementioned brochures also helped to educate and urge people to consider alternative energy that wasn’t just coal, oil and natural gas.
“I worried that [the book] would be a little disheartening because it doesn’t come to a conclusion that necessarily everything is going to be OK,” Wallis said. “It comes to the conclusion that we are going to be living in a different natural environment, and we have to find ways to make that livable and not as bad essentially. I think it’s very relevant because I know students of typical college ages tend to be into climate change because there’s so much going on in terms of media and activism, so I think having some tangible, very specific approaches in the book make it accessible to a layperson audience.”
This year’s common reader has taken a complex topic and broken it down into digestible pieces. The interactive workings of the First Year Experience simultaneously help to provide visual and audio representations that make the content even more comprehensible.
“I would hope that this would encourage students to seek out other books or documentaries or ways to learn about climate change issues just to kind of build a foundation of knowledge and then maybe take some action,” Wallis said.
The virtual version of the program will be available to view until the summer of 2022. Anyone interested can find the link to the program on the university’s Library, Museums and Press website titled “Exploring Environments: A Self-Guided Library and Museums Experience.”