Making mathematics real: A student’s encounter with historical texts

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Alexandria Yeager in Trafalgar Square

When Alexandria (Ali) Yeager ’15 took a work study job in Lehigh’s Special Collections, she hoped that it would provide a break from her intense program of studies, mathematics and economics. She did not realize it at the time, but the experience would expand her understanding of mathematics history and help her advance professionally.

Ali started working in Special Collections as a freshman—and she loved it right away. "I grew up surrounded by books. In college, being a math major you don't really get to have that experience doing research in a library," Ali said. "Being in Special Collections has brought back that experience of being surrounded by so much history and literature."

Ilhan Citak, Archives and Special Collections Librarian, and Lois Black, Curator of Special Collections, oriented Ali to her work and assigned her first project. "We try to give students projects that relate to their area of study when possible," says Lois. Ali’s first project was to inventory master’s theses in the mathematics department. She demonstrated a strong work ethic and maturity. "Ali is a very smart young lady, observes Ilhan. "She picks up on things quickly, works independently, and makes good decisions."

Lois and Ilhan thought of Ali right away for a new project to digitize selected items from Lehigh’s highly prestigious and rare historical mathematics collection. Lehigh’s mathematics history collection features significant mathematicians’ works published between the 15th to the 20th centuries—Euclid, Isaac Newton, Copernicus, Leonard Euler, Arthur Cayley, Christiaan Huygens and others. Dr. Frank J. Swetz of Penn State University requested images from this collection for a digitization initiative of the Mathematical Association of America, Mathematical Treasures.

Ali was entrusted with handling the rare, fragile materials and digitizing them. Working with a partner, she used a sophisticated overhead camera to photograph selected works from the collection. Roughly 130 images were captured from 20-30 books, and these are now available on the Mathematical Treasures web site. Those images are now part of a popular collection that is freely available and widely used in K-12 and college education.

Ali would often ask for the chance to peruse the works after she digitized them, and Lois and Ilhan showed her how to safely handle the materials. "Having been able to handle these texts that were the foundations of what I am currently studying was so incredible, " says Ali. "I was able to see books that were the first to be published with results that I use every day in my classes."

At Lehigh, undergraduates have the opportunity to interact with Special Collections materials, and several faculty integrate visits to Special Collections into their courses. "Lehigh is one of few institutions that encourage undergraduates to use rare books," Lois says. "Many institutions restrict access to graduate students and faculty." When students like Ali interact with materials, the effect is undeniable. "It’s something we hear over and over—that students wish they had discovered Special Collections earlier in their time at Lehigh. Something about holding the artifact makes the subject become real."

Ali’s Special Collections experience also reaped benefits as she interviewed for internships in the summer of 2014. "Every interview I had, the first question was always about the part of my resume describing my Special Collections experience," she notes. "Everyone wanted to know about the Mathematics history project. They wanted to know ‘how did you get that job?’" Ilhan is not surprised. "Being entrusted to work with these materials says something about the kind of employee you are," he says.

Ali is now in her second semester of a study abroad experience at the London School of Economics. "I’m taking a class now in London about the history of mathematics where we discuss these famous mathematicians. I was able to see and touch many of their works in Lehigh’s Special Collections."

Ilhan and his family were travelling in the UK recently, and they met Ali for a cup of coffee in Central London. "It’s nice to have a close working relationship with your boss, as opposed to an isolated desk job," Ali reflects. "I am able to have meaningful conversations with Lois and Ilhan. They are very interested in my experiences at Lehigh, and they have been very helpful in writing any recommendations. Even though I was not able to work In Special Collections this year, I am very excited to return in the fall."