The Boston Summer Seminar, sponsored by the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) and hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), will bring together three faculty members from GLCA colleges, each with a team of two undergraduate students, for three weeks of intensive primary source research in Boston-area archives.  For more information about our Boston location, our partner libraries/archives, research outcomes, and our seminar staff, please keep reading.  Or you can contact Natalie Dykstra, Seminar Director, at ndykstra@hope.edu.


Boston, Massachusetts is a city of archives, offering researchers a unique opportunity to immerse themselves on location in research institutions that house unique primary source materials, only a fraction of which have been made widely available in documentary editions, microfilm and microfiche, or digitized formats. Scholars working on a wide range of topics—from medieval medicine to twenty-first-century urban planning, from Native American religious experience to the women’s liberation movement, from the Atlantic rum trade to the twentieth-century immigration policy—will find rich collections which they can explore and digest.

The institutions offering access to these collections are located in a city with an extensive and accessible public transit system, a walkable and vibrant urban core, and a dizzying array of cultural institutions and organizations. The few square miles of the Shawmut peninsula (not to mention the neighboring People’s Republic of Cambridge or the wider metropolitan region!) offer museum exhibitions, theater, concerts, festivals, public lectures, book talks, historic sites, parks in which to retreat with a book, and a variety of eateries for food, caffeine, and conversation.

The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), located in Boston’s central Back Bay neighborhood, serves as the host institution for the Boston Summer Seminar. Founded in 1791, the MHS is an independent research library with extensive print and manuscript holdings, as well as art and artifact collections, which tell the story of America’s history, life, and culture. The MHS holds personal and family papers—diaries, letters, and other personal records—and the records of institutions and organizations such as churches and clubs that document the history of Massachusetts and the nation. Print materials, including broadsides, newspapers, serials, rare books, and maps, provide insight into the early print culture of the United States.

In addition to the MHS, the Boston Summer Seminar has partnered with four other institutions within easy reach of the MHS by foot and public transit. Founded in 1943 as the Women’s Rights Collection, the Schlesinger Library is an unparalleled research facility and part of the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Housing the largest collection of papers relating to American women’s history in the world, the library’s collections are particularly strong in women’s rights and feminism, health and sexuality, work and family life, education and the professions, and culinary and etiquette history.  The collection includes personal papers, organizational records, and print materials. Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections specializes in collecting materials related to underrepresented communities in Boston, including the sexual minority, African-American, Chinese, and Latina/o communities. The Archives is particularly strong in the history of community organizing and activism, as well as in the history and development of its own parent institution, Northeastern University – founded in 1898 as an Evening Institute of the Boston Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The Center for History of Medicine (CHoM) at the Francis A. Countway Library (Harvard University) is a premiere research institution in the history of medicine from the 1500s to the present day. The Center includes an extensive rare book collection and manuscript and archival collections as well as the Warren Anatomical Museum, which holds a wide variety of medical instruments and teaching specimens.  Finally, the Houghton Library is the primary repository for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard University and is comprised of five major curatorial departments:  Early books and manuscripts; Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts; Early Modern books and manuscripts; Modern books and manuscripts; Printing & Graphic Arts; and the Harvard Theater Collection.

Research and Learning Outcomes

This seminar provides an opportunity to do substantial primary source research, even if you’ve never worked with students in the archives at your home institution.  We encourage you to develop a topic that is focused enough to yield interesting research questions, but not so narrow that it excludes a range of research interests within your team.  The seminar is designed to provide you, the faculty team leader, with the rare opportunity to devote thirteen days of dedicated research time to lay the groundwork for your next project and/or publication. Meanwhile, students will be exposed to a graduate-level opportunity to propose, prepare for, and follow through on a substantial research project that will be part of the student’s scholarly work over a period of time — perhaps multiple semesters or even their graduate studies or professional work.

In addition to the knowledge gained in their particular topic, researchers will learn skills of navigating through massive amounts of information and knowing how to identify and develop a through line, whether that is a sustained argument or a historical or literary narrative. Effective work in the archives demands developing a sensitive eye for detail, creatively following lines of inquiry, learning to see the big picture, staying organized, and learning to trust one’s instincts – all useful skills for both students and faculty members.  We hope that being part of a team and a larger community of scholars doing similar work during a seminar will provide students and faculty members a rare chance to collaborate closely and forge relationships that will extend past the timeline of the seminar itself.

Seminar Director

Natalie Dykstra is Professor of English at Hope College, where she has taught for the last sixteen years.  She is also a biographer.  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, her biography of the photographer and wife of the historian Henry Adams, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.  The idea for the seminar came about through her research in Boston archives, principally at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), where the Adams family papers are located. Working with unpublished primary sources, which had not been the main focus of her doctoral work in American Studies, changed the course of her writing and teaching career.  Seeing first-hand the letters exchanged, photographs taken, albums of ephemera, account books, and scraps of papers long kept in desk drawers made the past vastly more present.  She has incorporated the use of primary sources in most of her courses at Hope College; she also teaches a class on the archives for MFA students at Emerson College, filling in for Megan Marshall who developed the course, aptly titled “Sources of Inspiration.”  That’s what she most wants for the students and faculty members who attend the Boston Summer Seminar – to be inspired by primary sources in their work.  You may contact Natalie at ndykstra@hope.edu and see more about her writing and teaching at nataliedykstra.com.

MHS Liaison Librarian

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook serves as reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where she has worked since 2007. A historian as well as a librarian, Anna completed her Master’s degrees in library science and history at Simmons College (2011) with a thesis on the founding of the Oregon Extension off-campus study program. She has since pursued research on the subject of the history of sexuality and gender, with particular interest in Christian attitudes toward sexual diversity. An alumna of Hope College (2005), where she earned her B.A. in Women’s Studies and History, the Boston Summer Seminar provides Anna with a unique opportunity to give back to the liberal arts community that nourished her early scholarly endeavors. You may contact her at acook@masshist.org.

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