Boston Happenings in June 2016

Boston Public Library, June 2015, photo by Anna Cluttebuck-Cook

Boston Public Library, June 2015, photo by Anna Cluttebuck-Cook

As you prepare for your three-week residency in Boston, chances are you’re excited not only about your research but also about exploring the city! Compared with the sprawling cities of the Midwest, you will likely find Boston a compact and eminently walkable city with excellent public transit both within the city (MBTA buses and subway — “the T”) and across the region (Amtrak, commuter rail, and buses). Below is a sampling of some of the events on offer during your stay here in “the Hub.”

Week One

If you arrive in Boston the weekend before orientation (June 4-5), check out the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival (Coolidge Corner stop on the Green Line “C” branch) and/or the Cambridge River Arts Festival (a short walk from Kendall Square). On Sunday, the free Beacon Hill Art Walk will give you a chance to explore the heart of the original Boston peninsula.

June is Pride month, and the week of June 5-11 culminates in the Boston Pride Festival and Parade on Saturday, June 11. The parade route passes through the heart of central Boston from Copley Square to the Boston Common to the Government Center plaza, where many festival events are held. Check out the official calendar for a full list of LGBTQ-themed events throughout your time in Boston.

Week Two

On Sunday, June 12 you can catch the Boston Dragon Boat Festival on the banks of the Charles River.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is offering one of their world-famous Boston Pops concerts on June 14-15.  If you enjoy live theatre, the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge is performing Twelfth Night June 9 through the end of the month.  On Saturday, June 18 you can attend the 9th Annual Fete de la Musique/Make Music Harvard Square event (check out last year’s lineup here).

Week Three

Sunday, June 19 will be the final day of GuitarFest XI at New England Conservatory, which runs June 15-19. Special exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston include Megacities Asia, #TechStyle, and Pairing Picasso, all which will be on display throughout June. Wednesday nights the MFA is open until 10pm and admission after 4pm is by “voluntary contribution” (student tickets are typically $23).

And finally, if you’re staying a day or two after the BSS16 program ends, the Roxbury International Film Festival (June 22-July 1) will be taking place at the Museum of Fine Arts, showcasing work by and about people of color from around the world.

Useful Boston Websites

Related Posts From 2015

~ Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, MHS Liaison Librarian

Where Does Inspiration Come From?


Marblehead, Maurice Prendergast, 1914-1915

Sebastian Smee, the witty, erudite, and Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for the Boston Globe, reminded readers in this morning’s paper to “go outside” and look.  Look.  That’s been hard to do this past week because of the almost constant rain.  But he’s right.  What he calls the “shrieking green” of spring has arrived.  He goes on to say that “to contemplate the sheer surface area of green matter that appears out of nowhere in this compressed time is to get a jolt of what the old Romantics called ‘the sublime.’”*

At this time of year, when colleges are finishing up their semesters, I often think of a scene from a book I published in 2012.  In the 1870s, Henry Adams, historian and grandson of presidents, would escape to Boston’s North Shore at the beginning of every summer after his year teaching history to some 200 students at Harvard.  Grading all those final exams made his eyes and hands and back ache.  He and his wife, Clover, would leave their townhouse on Marlborough St. for their summer home in Beverly Farms, with its covered porches and sprawling garden.  Once, in early June, he confessed to a friend:  “I could write a sonnet on the pleasures of picking up stones out of one’s lawn.” In the afternoons, he liked to go tramping through the forests and rocky hills near the shore, with its sweet breezes.  He’d find a sheltered spot, under a canopy of newly green trees to, as he said, “lay down on my back till dinner time,” thinking of nothing at all.  For anyone who’s survived a long teaching year in a cloudy part of the country – well, this scene captures the longing of early spring pretty well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration – where it comes from, why it’s sometimes abundant, at other times in short supply, and where I’ve found it lately.  The early purple and yellow flowers peeking up in my garden are helping.  Here’s a shortlist of what else has been helping.

Three Favorite Research Resources:

  • If you’re about to launch into your summer research projects, check out ArchiveGrid, a go-to database that allows you to limit your search of archives to those in your city or region.
  • Historical newspapers: My current project requires I scour through historical newspapers, so I was particularly glad when this resource recently became available from the Library of Congress.
  • There was a lot of press when the New York Public Library announced earlier this year that they’d digitized many thousands of items in their special collections and made these available in a beautifully designed and easy-to-use site. As of today, it’s up to 678,988 items!  Best of all, over 180,000 are in the public domain.

Two Favorite Books:

  • The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal.
    I can’t stop thinking about this remarkable book, which I just finished.  It’s a book that gets into your dreams.  The story follows a collection of 264 netsuke, small Japanese carvings made from ivory or chestnut wood, first collected by de Waal’s Jewish banking ancestor in 1870s Paris, then sent to Vienna at the turn-of-century through WWI and Germany’s takeover of Austria at the beginning of WWII, then to postwar Tokyo and finally present-day London, where de Waal is a renowned porcelain ceramicist. Somehow this sweeping story that moves across decades and continents is exquisitely intimate.  The reader is brought very close-up to specific moments, a character’s gesture, a clearing of the throat, not unlike tumbling the tiny netsuke in your hand.
  • A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, by Rachel Cohen. Sometimes, when I’m particularly stuck in my own writing, I dip into Cohen’s book for a chapter or two to get nourished both by the stories she tells of friendship between artists and writers and the way she tells the stories – her cool-eyed compassion, her supple style, how she pays attention to the smallest detail of her subjects’ lives. The chapter on Mark Twain’s friendship with General Grant and the final scene of one writer mourning the death of another – Twain favorably compared Grant’s memoirs to Caesar’s Commentaries – are unforgettable.   I have a few books I always keep on a shelf near my desk; this is one of them.

Spring at last is here, go outside, LOOK, and then enjoy what inspires you – summer is near!

*Sebastian Smee, 5/6/2016,  The Boston Globe.

~Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director

Memories of Boston and the Ballet Russe

Genevieve Janvrin, Hannah Jacobsma, and Julia Randel (Hope College), along with their Houghton Library liaison Irina Kylagin, on the #2 bus, 2 June 2015. Photograph from Genevieve Janvrin.

Genevieve Janvrin (guest author of blog post), Hannah Jacobsma, and Julia Randel (Hope College), along with their Houghton Library liaison Irina Kylagin, on the #2 bus, 2 June 2015. Photograph from Genevieve Janvrin.

I was drawn to the Boston Summer Seminar (BSS) because of my “extreme enthusiasm” for the writing and researching process in my music senior seminar with Dr. Julia Randel at Hope College.  One day, as she was helping me figure out how to fit my undying love of opera into my final research paper, she asked me to be part of her research team in Boston for the 2015 inaugural summer. I quickly cleared my schedule.

Before I knew it, I was writing the proposal, booking the ticket, and boarding the plane for Boston.

What words can I use to begin? There are too many words. I could talk about my day on arrival, the extraordinary staff and teachers who worked with us, my Boston life, shops I went to and food I ate, the numerous museums we visited, navigating the subways, the BSS guest speakers, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, and much more.  But before I get carried away, let me introduce myself and my research.

My name is Genevieve Janvrin; I am a recent graduate (December 2015) with a degree in Instrumental Music Education. I attended BSS 2015 on Hope College’s research team with two fabulous people: Dr. Julia Randel, chair of the music department at Hope, professor extraordinaire, and lead researcher; and Hannah Jacobsma, dancer, English major, fellow researcher, and friend.  Our team worked closely with Irina Klyagin, the BSS archivist liaison at the Houghton Library. A manuscript cataloger, Irina is an expert on Russian literature, the history of dance, and Russian and European theatre.  She gave us an exclusive tour of the vaults below the library as well as helped us navigate the Harvard research database. Irina and I chatted often about how my research was going and which collections were worth looking at and/or beneficial to my research. Overall, she has a lifetime of knowledge on our research topics.

The Original Research Plan

I planned to assist Dr. Julia Randel with her project, “Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Balanchine & Ballet Russe Tour.” She had shared a 1916 newspaper article from The Grand Rapids Press in a music history course I had taken the previous year. The article focused on the Ballet Russe, a Russian troupe of dancers that were touring in the United States in 1916-1917. The article highlighted the Ballet Russe’s performance of Schéhérazade, a sensual contemporary ballet with music by the famous Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov. I was enthralled, and slightly baffled, with the image of 1916 Grand Rapids audiences rushing to the theatre to see this risqué, exotic, and lavish performance! When I found out that Grand Rapids (and other U.S. cities like Boston) audiences fell in love with the performance, I was hooked on the Ballet Russe’s fascinating and slightly strange stateside narrative. I wanted to find evidence of the reception of the Ballet Russe Tour in Boston and Grand Rapids and the influence that the company had with the American public.

The New Research Plan

Well, my plan changed in the second week of research.

I mean I shifted my focus. I became completely fascinated with the people I was learning about and the stories I read in the archival files. For instance, I was learning about Diaghilev (the owner of the company) and the letters he exchanged with other people along the way: Nijinsky, a famous dancer linked to the Ballet Russe; Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers with an unusual memoir from the U.S. Tour; the interesting travel stories from other dancers; the reception of Schéhérazade; the fan mail and love letters from audience members across the nation; the ads about the group coming to various U.S. cities; and the original Bakst paintings and drawings (an artist that followed the group and traced their performances).

In the quiet, small, securely locked research room at Houghton, I reveled in chasing the history of the whole undertaking of the 1916-1917 Ballet Russe American Tour. Through autobiographies, ads and articles in newspapers, photograph collections, books, paintings, drawings, stock “glamour” photos of the lead dancers, and a viewing of a few films, I began slowly piecing together the parts from the Tour. In the second week, I discovered something that I thought should have been included in this vast collection.

No one had put together a calendar of the Ballet Russe Tour, which might document exactly where the group went and when.  Dr. Randel caught on to my enthusiasm and passion for the subject and encouraged me to keep going. I wanted to find out everything I could: first-hand accounts of the show; what shifted in American culture after the Russian Ballet visited; why performances changed from night to night; where they went when not performing; why they picked the dances they did, and the life of a dancer on the Tour. I made the most of my time and got down as much as I could. On the Thursday evening at the close of the seminar, I gave a funny speech, presented the calendar, ate some fantastic food, and said my goodbyes. I boarded a plane the next day back to Chicago and left my research behind.

An Impactful Experience

Yet my research still lives within me. I still question why American audiences fell in love with the Ballet Russe Tour. I also wonder if I could trace the 1920s American fashion blitz to the costumes worn by the Ballet Russe while they were on tour. Additionally, I would love to study Nijinsky’s dancing career and his chaotic life during the troupe’s second tour.

Here is my point: I got carried away with the stories and the questions. I got carried away with the quiet Houghton atmosphere and the kind souls, both living and dead, who guided me. I got carried away with Boston. My time at MHS, Houghton, and Harvard helped formulate a desire for the future:  I want to be a researcher.

And despite the stones I left unturned, I definitely found a few great jewels.

Jewel 1:  Boston is really beautiful.
The Charles River cools off the city on hot days, when the sun beams down and the summer preppy clothes come out. Even in the early rainy days when I was there, the cobblestone pavement at Harvard shines, and the campus buzzes with international and domestic students all wanting to get a glimpse of life as a Harvard student. The subway made getting around easy and affordable.  I enjoyed finding little places to grab lunch or dinner with other research teams, and booking weekend activities (the Boston Aquarium and the Freedom Trail are quite fun) around the city that let me be a tourist, instead of a student. It was hard leaving such a historically significant city.

For my living situation, my father had a work colleague that I was fortunate to stay with for the duration of the program in Boston’s hilltop district, Beacon Hill. What a cool adventure. While I was living on “the Hill” for three weeks, I got to eat a few fancy meals, enjoy a walking tour of Boston and Concord from a true Bostonian, brush past a senator’s home, go sailing on the Boston River, and more; it was an experience I will not forget.

Jewel 2: Hannah, Julia, and Irina.
Julia kept encouraging both Hannah and I in our long research days, and Irina gave us a unique look at Houghton’s collections as well as wise advice. Hannah was a great research friend, lunch buddy, and listener. It was so wonderful to have these three people at my side during those hard research days when focusing on transcribing a handwritten letter seemed impossible.

Jewel 3: Natalie Dykstra, Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
What a great team. Natalie, Anna, and the MHS put together dinners (and went to extreme lengths to ensure gluten-free meals for me). They brought in powerhouse guest speakers who helped me learn how to be a better researcher and led discussions that ensured we all shared in each other’s research journey.

Jewel 4: I want to be a researcher now.
I loved the work I did and how it opened up my mind to the possibilities of future research. I haven’t quite found my start since graduation and gaining my teaching certificate, but I am eager to jump into research in the near future.

To the 2016 Boston Summer Seminar Attendees:  The BSS is a fantastic find – congratulations!  I hope in all of your wandering of the city, in all of your research, in all of your tweeting #BSS16life, you get a little carried away, just as I did. J

Best of luck,

~ Genevieve Janvrin, BSS Alum 2015, Hope College graduate 2015

Research Strategies, Pt. 3: Research Roadblocks

This post is a continuation of Research Strategies, Pt. 2: What to Expect at the Archive.

Although there is snow on the ground in Boston this week (!), in two short months we at the MHS and partner institutions will be welcoming our BSS16 researchers to Boston! As our seminar participants are preparing to spend time with manuscript, print, and artifact materials in our reading rooms, I wanted to offer a few tips and tricks for overcoming roadblocks to research thrown up by difficult or opaque sources.

Gnarly Handwriting


Henry Adams to Annie Fell, 5 December 1886, page 1. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Commentators regularly opine the decline of handwritten documents and the teaching of handwriting in schools, yet I always suspect that these grumps have rarely tried to decipher eighteenth-century script! Seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century writers had penmanship as various as we do today. Henry Adams (left) wrote in a tidy, looping hand — but not everyone was so legible. Luckily, there are resources available to assist you in deciphering difficult handwriting.

Don’t panic!


My first piece of advice is to practice patience with handwritten manuscripts. Documents that first appear illegible may become easier to read as you grow used to the author’s hand. Take a first pass at the document, transcribing all of the words and partial words that you can make out. “Illegible” words may become clear through context. Also, compare confusing letter combinations to other portions of the manuscript, since individuals tend to combine “Th” or “ing” in similar ways over time. The first page of a manuscript may be agony to transcribe, but the second and third page will likely be easier and faster.

A research partner or library staff member may also bring fresh eyes to the document; I have also had good luck crowdsourcing a confounding word or phrase by photographing the section and sharing it on social media with a request for assistance.

If you have a particularly knotty (yet key) handwritten source, the reference book Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry may be useful. It is available in the MHS reference collection and any member of the library staff will be happy to assist you in locating it.

Persons of Mystery

Particularly when working with personal papers, accounts can be rich with a cast of characters whose biographical details are assumed or obscured: “Dinner with Mrs. R.” or “Aunt Susan feeling poorly.” While it may not be key to your argument to uncover the full identity of every person mentioned, at times those connections can prove vital to uncovering further evidence or crafting your narrative. In those cases, what do you do?

Evidence internal to the collection may help you in assembling a relationship network: Does correspondence include envelopes or address information? If these are family papers, are there any documents such as school, legal, or business records that may contain more formal biographical information? If the individuals mentioned in passing share membership in a church or social club with the author of the document, this may provide clues leading you to the mystery person’s identity.

Print collections at the archive where you are working may also prove useful, as many archives collected printed biographies and family histories related to their manuscript collections as well as business directories, city directories, telephone books, cemetery guides, town histories (often including biographical sketches of prominent residents), and government records including property records, birth, death, and marriage records.

Finally, the tools of a genealogist may be useful even though it is most likely not your own family you are researching. The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has online databases, some freely available to the public, that might assist you in determining an individual’s biographical details. The Massachusetts State Archives has a searchable index to vital records (birth, death, and marriage records) for the state from between 1841-1910 available on their website. The Boston Public Library (BPL) also has many databases available to users on-site.

Both NEHGS and the BPL are less than a mile’s walk from the MHS.

Slang, Shorthand, and Other Word Mysteries

Every era has its slang, every profession or occupation its specialized jargon. Whether you are working in a subject area familiar to you or approaching a new topic, you will likely encounter abbreviations, notations, and slang that baffle you.

While “Google it” is not always the solution, in many cases putting an unfamiliar term or abbreviation into the Google search box along with a key word or two can turn up results!  Remember, though, that sometimes terms can shift meaning over time—“gay” in the 18th century did not carry the connotations it does today, to give one well-known example. Be sure to do your best to verify your definition using period sources.

This is where slang dictionaries can help! The MHS reference collection includes slang dictionaries; other research libraries will include dictionaries for specialized fields (such as medical or legal dictionaries) that may be useful in clarifying terms. Our researchers have also found period dictionaries useful — and many of these are available full text online! For example, a search for “slang dictionary” in the Internet Archive returns 75 such works on colloquial, slang, jargon, cant, argot, and “passing” English terminology.

The Internet Archive, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and HathiTrust are all places to search for full-text editions of public domain texts and may help you clear up language questions from your laptop while you are working in the reading room.

Pay Attention to Archival Absences

You arrive at the archive and request a collection that you have anticipated being rich with information relevant to the question you are asking … only to find that what looked like a promising collection contains no relevant details whatsoever.

This time, panic!

…Nope, still don’t panic.

Sometimes—in historical analysis as in visual art—composition has as much to do with negative space as it does with the individuals and objects in the frame. It may be that the source you have in front of you genuinely has nothing of value to your research. Or it could be that the source is an opportunity to reconsider how you are asking your research question. If a source you anticipated would be full of information about your topic is, in fact, silent, that tells you something.

If, for example, you are studying male students’ opinions about coeducation during the early twentieth century, and the student newspaper is silent on the subject, this could mean a number of different things. It could mean that the male students were so comfortable with coeducation they had no need to discuss it. It could mean that being educated alongside women was so far outside of their expectations that it was not a subject of debate. It could mean that the student newspaper was the kind of publication in which views on such a controversial subject were avoided. It could mean that no students outside of the journalism department were interested in the student paper and instead debated important campus issues elsewhere.

All of these possibilities suggest avenues for further inquiry, and whichever is corroborated by additional sources will help you shape your historical narrative.

Don’t Neglect the Reference Desk!

In each of my research strategies posts, I have taken a moment to remind seminar participants that the reference staff at our participating institutions are here to help you! Reference staff is trained to assist researchers when they get stuck or start to feel hopeless about their searches or sources. Stop by the reference desk or ask for a research appointment, and one of us will be available to help you map out a new route or shift gears to get over the speedbump. It is part of what keeps each day at the library fresh and exciting!

~ Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, MHS Liaison Librarian

Getting Lost

Getting Lost.Beth Trembley

“Getting Lost,” Elizabeth Trembley, 2015

A go-to guide for creative writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, first published in 1995.  Lamott gives incisive and often humorous advice about a range of writing topics, including strategies for getting started, the power of short assignments (bird by bird), and the deleterious effects of perfectionism, which, truth be told, is the reason for the delay of this week’s blog post.  My favorite of her chapters is entitled, much to the relief of her many readers, “Shitty First Drafts.”  Her main point, deftly made, is that a first draft, by nature of what it is – first – will be bad.  Sometimes, stupendously bad.  Its terribleness, she reassures her readers, is o.k.  A writer’s job is to make the draft less bad, and then, maybe, if one is having a productive day, a draft that lists away from bad towards better, even pretty good.

But what’s the archival analog for terrible first drafts?  I’ve often thought there needs to be an equivalent guide for those working in the archives, one filled with as much truth-telling and encouragement as Lamott’s guide for writers.  I’m in need of one now because I’ve begun a new project, a biography of a woman who lived a long life spanning much of the 19th century into the 20th century, corresponded with an enormous number of people, and collected a lot of fine art.  She has an enormous and complex archive.  At the moment, I feel buried up to my neck, when the masses of information seem impossible to master and when the prospect of doing so can seem like a semi-hopeless task.  So what’s the analog for archival work?  I’d say “getting lost.”  Feeling lost, sometimes hopelessly lost. Remembering what Lamott says about first drafts reminds me that feeling lost is a normal part of archival research.  And I remember, too, that the best thing to do when feeling lost is to slow down, pay close attention to the details, take seriously what catches one’s eye, and take careful notes.  By doing so, day by day, the hope is that I’ll start to find my way to the story that most needs telling.

We have three terrific teams coming to this year’s Boston Summer Seminar – visit our announcement here.  In two weeks, our library liaison, Anna Clutterbuck-Cook will provide very helpful tips for how to prepare for a research trip, so stay tuned!

Addendum:  An indispensable tool for archival research is ArchiveGrid, which gathers WorldCat entries from archives around the world into single searchable site.  What’s particularly helpful is that you can limit your search according to the location of a particular city or area of the country.  It’s my go-to tool when I’m first starting out and mapping what resources might be available for a particular project.  I hope you enjoy getting lost and finding your way!

~Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director


We Have Our 2016 Teams!

Fern Specimens, circa 1861-1897, L. Prang & Co.

We are delighted to announce our faculty/student teams for the 2016 GLCA Boston Summer Seminar.

Albion College

“Northern Black Lives Matter: The Experience of Black Northerners in the Era of Southern Emancipation”

Marcy Sacks, Chair & John S. Ludington, Endowed Professor of History
with students Corey Wheeler and Elijah Bean

Denison University

“Boston and New England in Atlantic Contexts”

Frank “Trey” Proctor III, Chair & Associate Professor of History
with students Rachael Barrett and Margaret “Maggie” Gorski

Oberlin College

“Haunted Subjects: Occult Practices and New Literary Traditions in Nineteenth-Century America”

Danielle Skeehan, Assistant Professor of English
with students Amreen Ahmed and Sabina Sullivan

Many thanks to all our applicants!  We look forward to many fascinating conversations when we gather in Boston in June!