The Evolution Debates: Online Exhibit Assignment on a Book

As a class, we’re producing an online museum on books in the evolution debates. Your assignment as an individual is to select one such book and produce a small exhibit on it. (You can see similar exhibits that my students produced last semester.)

You should begin by registering for an account with the USC Libraries’s Special Collections so you can request books there.

The next step is to pick a specific book from the USC Libraries’ Special Collections and spend some time looking at it. This can be a book that we saw on a class visit to Special Collections, or another book relevant to the course that you choose yourself. (Please check with me before selecting a book published in the 20th century, as some will be more appropriate for this assignment than others, but any 18th or 19th century book related to evolution or natural history should be good.) You can find books by browsing the Charles Darwin Collection of “books by and about Darwin, his grandfather Erasmus, his son Francis, and the theory of evolution,” or by searching HOMER, the USC Libraries’ online catalog, and specifically selecting “Special Collections” under the “Library” drop down menu.

Either way, once you find a book you’re interested in (or find again one you already saw in class), you can request it. First, click on the book’s title in the list to go to its specific record. Then, click on the link “[request this item]” next to the book’s call number. (If the book was published in multiple volumes, each call number will end with “v.” and a volume number; you should request each of the volumes separately so that you can see the entire set.) This will take you to a form for requesting the book. It will be filled out automatically; all you have to do is click the last box on the form (right above the submit button), and click on the date you’d like to visit Special Collections to see the book. You can then click “Submit Request.” After you do, email Michaela Ullmann ( or Melinda Hayes ( and tell them what book you requested and when you plan to come in. They will make sure everything goes smoothly.

When your book is ready, you’ll receive an email telling you it is “on hold.” Go to Doheny Memorial Library room 209—down the hall from room 206, where we met as a class—on the date you planned. You’ll have to put anything you’re carrying in a locker except your pencil, paper, computer, and camera or phone. Tell the librarian what you are there for. They will bring you the book and show you where to sit. After placing the book in its protective cradle, take some time to look at it, read a chapter or two that seem most interesting to you, think about answers to the questions in the “Approaching the Book as an Artifact” activity that we did in class, take some notes on the book, and take at least four photographs of the book: one of it closed and showing the spine and cover, one open that includes the whole book, and two of particular pages that you find interesting or illustrative of your understanding of the book. (You may take more photographs, but please take at least these four. If you don’t have a phone with a camera, you may borrow a camera from Leavey Library.) When you leave, please ask the librarian to place the book on hold until March 3.

Based on this experience, you will present on the book for a few minutes in class on Friday, March 3. You may use projected slides if you like, and (since you placed it on hold) you will also have access to the book itself so you can show it to us. This will give us all an opportunity to learn from each other’s research.

The final product of this assignment, again, will be an online exhibit, due on Friday, April 7. We’ll spend some time in class with some software for web exhibits called Omeka, which I’ll teach you how to use. In Omeka, you’ll create an entry for your book, and then create an exhibit, incorporating your photographs of the book itself, text that you write contextualizing and explaining it, and perhaps quotations from the book as well. I expect you to write about 1000 words about the book, contextualizing it and explaining to your audience what we can learn from it about the evolution debates. I expect your exhibit to have an argument in the sense that it should present a particular interpretation of its subject, not merely provide the audience with facts. You can login to Omeka at

As in the first assignment, one thing you should do in this text is contextualize the book in the life of its author, with attention to their other scientific, religious, political, and philosophical interests and commitments. In addition, though, you should explain what you can learn from the book as a material object about its intended audience and actual owner. I expect you to describe (and possibly quote from) the book enough so that I can follow your argument if I haven’t read it, but not so much that summary crowds out your analysis.

Finally, I expect you to cite your sources for the text of your exhibit, whether books we've already read for class or additional sources you found while working on the assignment. Mechanically, the most straightforward way to do this will be to use short parenthetical citations rather than footnotes (which are always tricky on the web), and then to conclude your exhibit with a works cited section. You’re welcome to use Wikipedia and other casual online sources as starting places to find more formal sources (journal articles, books, museum and academic websites, etc.), but please do not treat Wikipedia itself as an authority. You may however, use scholarly encyclopedias like the Dictionary of Scientific Biography as authorities, and may find them extremely useful for this assignment.