Curating as Artistic Act: Selecting Items for Speculative Annotation

The following is a guest post by the 2021 Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan, a research-based artist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. With a subject focus on speech and civic engagement, McClellan works in a range of media including sculpture, performance, photography, and writing. Courtney’s Residency initiative “Speculative Annotation” will be an experimental browser-based application that encourages students and teachers to have conversations with historic Library of Congress items through annotation and mark-making. The application will be released this summer on labs.loc.gov.

So you’re an Innovator in Residence at the largest library in the world and you’re curating a selection of historic items for students and educators to annotate. What is an annotation and why do you want students to annotate primary sources?

Annotations are notes of explanation or comment added to a text or diagram. Examples of annotation include margin notes, highlighting, and thought bubbles. I want students to annotate primary sources in order to give them an opportunity to speak back to history. I see annotation as an artistic as well as an educational gesture.

Can you talk to us about what that process has been like to select items from the Library’s collection?

Sure, it’s been thrilling and challenging at the same time! I feel privileged to have the opportunity to look through collections of items. It’s been one of my favorite parts of being the Innovator in Residence. I love being able to talk to Library curators and having the freedom to look at a variety of items. It’s also a big challenge, because of course I want to share many, many more items than we’re actually going to be able to share. I’ve been trying to use some guiding principles to make interesting and useful selections.

Some of the selections are driven by needs of the students and teachers using the tool and then also some consideration of my own interests. For example, I’ve been fascinated by the story of the Lost Colony since I was in elementary school. The mystery surrounding the fate of the colonists always intrigued me. Growing up in North Carolina, I was always wondered about the failed colony that was started right down the road.

Can you say more about how you’re considering which historic items to include in Speculative Annotation?

One of the main things I’m looking for when selecting items whether they spark imagination and storytelling. Is there something curious for students to learn, discover and explore both through their own imaginations, but also through the context and history of the items? I believe storytelling is a skill that helps young people to understand the past but also allows them to imagine the future. For me, imagination holds creative but also civic possibility.

It’s also important to me that I touch on a range of types of historic items and a range of American experiences with the items I select. So for instance, is there a good mix of photographs, maps, manuscript material, screen prints, etc.? Does the selection share the experiences of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds? I want the collection to speak to a variety of topics and time periods. I am designing this for educators and students, so I also want to make sure there is something applicable to their studies. I want Speculative Annotation to be helpful for an elementary school teacher covering social studies, as well as a high school art teacher discussing the history of the photograph.

Why limit what’s in the tool at all? Can you include everything available on the Library’s website at loc.gov?

The curation of this collection feels like a creative act.  Artmaking is often about selection, collecting and making connections between seemingly disparate things. Through looking at so many items and attempting to select a few, I begin to make guidelines for what I want this collection to say. As with any artistic process, there are also technical constraints. In this case, issues such as copyright, legibility, and resolution of the scans are important concerns. The tool allows for deep engagement with a limited number of items, so it cannot support all items in the Library’s collection. Because there are so many items available on loc.gov, I’m trying to consider materials that might be useful and relevant to students and educators in the K-12 age range. The primary source sets the Library’s Professional Learning & Outreach team has made available has been a fantastic resource, as well as the Flickr albums!

What are some of your favorite items that you think we might see in the tool when it comes out this summer?

I’ve found many gems already. The staff in the Rare Book Division shared several exceptional examples of medieval manuscript annotations. Annotation was a common practice in that time. Additionally, I loved getting to see the Works Progress Administration national parks posters in the Prints and Photographs Division. I’ve also seen some amazing political campaign posters like a poster for Shirley Chisolm’s bid for president.

"Unbought and Unbossed" poster from Shirley Chisholm's 1972 Presidential Campaign

Bring U.S. together. Vote Chisholm 1972, unbought and unbossed. Poster by N.G. Slater Corporation, 1972. //www.loc.gov/item/2014646807/

If there are free to use items from the Library’s collection that you think would make great candidates for annotation in the K-12 classroom, please share them below in the comments and tell us why! For further information about Speculative Annotation, see the experiment page.

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