Here’s The Thing

Emily Brontë, Oil on Canvas, Patrick Branwell Brontë, circa 1833

Deborah Lutz’s new book The Brontë Sisters: Three Lives in Nine Objects unveils the domestic and inner lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by taking up in detail nine objects in their household, including tiny handmade books, needlework items, and a bracelet of entwined hair. It’s a brilliant interpretative strategy. The writing of writers occupies—almost by default—the front stage of their biographies. Loquacious words trump mute things. But Lutz’s creative plunge into the “private lives of objects,” her tantalizing title for the preface, brings the writing sisters incredibly close, not through their words as much as through the things they touched and used in their daily lives. As Lutz observes, “even ordinary objects can carry us to other times and places.” So we get to see Charlotte reciting poetry (Thomas Moore was a favorite) while her fingers are busy with a patchwork quilt or a sampler with verses from Proverbs; Emily, whom Charlotte described as “a solitude-loving raven,” out walking on her beloved Yorkshire moors; Anne writing poetry on her desk box, a portable desk—all the sisters had one—that carried papers, letters, seals, ink, and metal nibs for writing pens.

Theories about tangible things of the past, as Lutz points out, have roots in “ancient faiths.” She elaborates: “The body parts of saints, their clothing, and the objects they had touched exuded oils, perfumes, miracles and healing.” She traces how the Brontë objects moved from ordinary use to become, after fame and death, relics that brought inspiration and money. In a 1904 article about a visit to the Brontë Museum, Virginia Woolf muses that a small oak stool still “gives a thrill” because she knows Emily would have carried it with her “on her solitary moorland tramps.”

Historians and biographers rely on the written record to open doors to the past. A reckoning with objects of the past, as Lutz’s book so vividly reminds us, also resurrects the “daily living and breathing” of our subjects.

For more about Deborah Lutz’ work, please see her website here.

~ Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director

Research Strategies, Pt. 1: Archive Scanning

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Bookshelves, 1725

As November approaches, we hope many of you are beginning to think about pulling together a proposal for Boston Summer Seminar 2016!  In this first of an ongoing series on research strategies, I want to share some tips for conducting your initial environmental scan of our partner institutions’ collections. Effective long-distance reconnaissance of our holdings will be vital in developing a preliminary research plan.

Get to Know Our Partner Institutions

Start by scanning our introductions to each partner institution, which provide links to catalogs and collection guides as well as a summary of collection strengths. Even if you believe you know what a specific library or archive is known for, you may be surprised by one of their areas of focus or a recent acquisition highlighted on their website. Online exhibitions and institutional blogs often showcase oddball items and quirky collections — and may suggest a new body of source material for your project.

Be Patient, Be Flexible, Be Stubborn

Archival materials, particularly unpublished manuscripts, can present a challenge to the researcher looking for materials on a certain theme. Personal correspondence, diaries, household or business accounts, organizational records, photograph albums — each document may contain information on such diverse topics as the weather, food purchases, local or national politics, family gossip, travel plans, social networks, spiritual anxieties, and personal health. These are rich sources for research, but are rarely transcribed or indexed comprehensively to allow for easy access. Instead, researchers must rely on a general scope note (a paragraph or two in the catalog record summarizing the contents of a collection) or, ideally, more detailed finding aids or collection guides, prepared by archives staff.

I encourage researchers to be patient, flexible, and stubborn when searching online catalogs and collection guides. Begin with a broad range of search terms, including personal and organizational names as well as topics. It is never too early to begin building a web of interpersonal connections for your topic — who was socializing with whom and where were they gathering?  When working with personal papers, these informal networks are often vital to finding relevant materials.  If your first few searches return few results, try again with slightly different language. If you find a promising collection, take note of the subject headings used to describe that collection, and try searching those terms as well. Try broader or narrower language if your initial words and phrases fail to return results.

Consider Diverse Genres

Researchers are often eager to read personal papers since correspondence and diaries promise intimate access to individual lives. However, depending on your topic, those personal voices may be hard to find, or those personal voices may need to be supplemented with other types of sources. As you are preparing your proposed list of materials to consult, ask yourself what you might learn from newspapers, broadsides, theater programs, illustrated magazines, sermon notes, ledger-books, meeting minutes, artifacts, photographs, political posters, textiles, coins and paper currency, or maps and atlases. I have worked with researchers, for example, who found evidence of cultural attitudes toward indigenous peoples in illustrations on eighteenth-century atlases, looked to execution day sermons for evidence of Early Republican sexual practices, and scoured church records as a way to map inter-racial relations in nineteenth-century Boston. Historical research is, more often than not, a creative process of gleaning what we can from an incomplete record of the past.

Find Your Focus

Without exception, our 2015 research teams were overly ambitious in the amount of archival material they planned to review while in Boston. Three weeks will fly by. Remember that working with archival collections often requires slowing down to decipher handwriting or antiquated abbreviations. While you won’t be penalized for listing collections in your proposal you never get to during your residency, it is also perfectly reasonable to build a research plan around an in-depth examination of a specific collection of personal papers, or a topical survey of a certain genre of material — advertising cards, for example, or menus.

Ask an Archivist!

Each of our partner institutions has a staff of trained professionals whose job it is to assist you in navigating their holdings. We work frequently with researchers who contact us long-distance seeking further information on many topics, including how to conduct effective searches in our catalog, obtain reproductions of a specific document, and better understand the scale of a vast manuscript collection. We want our materials to be used, and we’re here to help.

So reach out if you have questions, and we will do our best to support you in strengthening your proposal.

~ Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, MHS Liaison Librarian for the Boston Summer Seminar

Finding Your Path in the Archives: One Student’s Perspective

Julia Randel and Hannah Jacobsma at the Summer Research Celebration, Hope College, September 2015.  Photograph by Natalie Dykstra.

Julia Randel and Hannah Jacobsma at the Summer Research Celebration, Hope College, September 2015. Photograph by Natalie Dykstra.

Last June, as a student participant of the 2015 Boston Summer Seminar, I was introduced into the Houghton Library Reading Room on Harvard’s campus for the first time.  By my side were my professor, Julia Randel, and one of Houghton’s archivists, the wonderful Irina Klyagin. They eased me into working in the archives, showing me how the database worked and helping me learn how to call things up from the stacks so that treasures would appear in front of my eyes without my knowing exactly where they came from. To be honest, it seemed to me like a bit of magic.

I began my research with a broad topic:  “The relationship between athleticism and artistry in 19th-century ballet.”  But I didn’t know where to go from there. I tried to make it sound like I had an idea of where I wanted to go; I mean, I was at Harvard for heaven’s sake! Soon enough, I found direction through the letters of Marie Taglioni (a prominent 19th-century ballerina), 19th-century performance almanacs, and books on the evolution of ballet technique.  I began to draw connections between 19th-century ballet and other art forms of the same period. I saw the importance of painting and poetry in the movement of Romantic ballet, and I realized that the plotlines of these Romantic ballets stemmed from previous works of 18th and 19th-century literature.

The Houghton Library Reading Room began to feel like home. The security guards knew me by name, and I would stop to shoot the breeze before passing through those doors. The routine wasn’t as agonizing or tedious as I had prepared myself for. Rather, the days slipped by quickly, beginning in the midst of new treasures and ending much too soon.

Over my three weeks in Boston, the city itself began to feel like home, too. Although those eight-hour days left my eyes blurred by looking at calligraphy and lithographs, I reminded myself that although this experience was predominately about the research aspect, when you find yourself in a new place, you must explore. And so I stretched my legs on the Freedom Trail. I rose at 7 a.m. on a Saturday to Uber my way to Walden Pond and spent the day away from the city. One Friday night, I found myself where any self-respecting Bostonian might: Fenway Park. I ate cracker jacks, bought a baseball cap, and participated in the seventh-inning stretch. I am a firm believer that wherever you find yourself for whatever reason, you should seek out those gems that make a place what it is.

If there is any piece of advice I would give to those students searching for a research focus, it would be this:  look for what excites and entrances you, something that makes walking into those archives everyday like a new quest. As I learned from the guest speakers we had, when you’re passionate about your subject, things have a way of coming together.

~ Hannah Jacobsma, English and French double major, Hope College ‘16

What Our 2015 Alumni Say About the Boston Summer Seminar

Boston Summer Seminar 2015 Alumni

“Having the support of the program and an archivist to help my students really allowed me to make the most of the time for my own work.”

“I really enjoyed meeting the other groups and having constant support. It was very professionally done, and I really enjoyed being treated like a real researcher, rather than a college student dipping her toes into archival work for the first time in her life.”

“There are very few opportunities as an undergraduate to sit down to do research, without the stress and hassle of pending deadlines and other classes.”

“I enjoyed the camaraderie of working with students and faculty at other institutions and also collaborating with archivists and librarians.”

“There are many parts of this seminar/program that give you a bird’s-eye view of archival institutions; you won’t get that as … a researcher just walking through the door!”

For more information about opportunities for faculty/student research in Boston in June 2016, please see our call for proposals or email Seminar Director Natalie Dykstra at

Call for Proposals 2016

1850s Boston Common. Artist Unknown. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The GLCA Boston Summer Seminar invites proposals from faculty-student research teams from the thirteen GLCA-affiliated colleges to participate in a three-week seminar in June 2016 conducting primary source research in some of America’s premier special collections repositories. The program, sponsored by the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) and hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), will bring together three to four faculty members from GLCA colleges, each with a team of two undergraduate students, for three weeks of intensive primary source research in Boston archives. The 2016 partner institutions include: the MHS; the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (Harvard University); the Houghton Library at Harvard University; the Center for History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (Harvard University); and Northeastern University’s Archives & Special Collections.

Research teams (one faculty and two students) will submit research proposals on a broad theme, such as “Gender and the Civil War,” “Nineteenth-century Food Culture,” or “Personal Narratives of WWI.” (Click tab “2015” on our website to read about the team projects from our 2015 alums.) Teams from a wide range of humanities disciplines are encouraged to apply; all projects centered on primary source research will be considered.  The program provides an opportunity for team-based faculty-student research in humanities disciplines, in which student partners work with their faculty mentor on stands of inquiry united by a common theme.  The Seminar allows students to benefit from daily interaction with their faculty mentor and with one another.  Faculty team leaders benefit from engaging with students in the research process, while also delving deeply into their own archival research. While we expect the students not to serve simply as transcribers or research assistants for the faculty member, the group dynamic and end work product of each research team will be up to the faculty mentor to design.  Each seminar team will be paired with a librarian or archivist from one of the partner institutions in Boston, who will provide on-site support and expertise prior to, during, and after the residency period.  Funding is available for both faculty and students.

The seminar, to be held June 6 – 23, 2016, will center on primary source research, requiring participants to spend thirteen days in the archive. In addition, the seminar will include group activities periodically during the course of each week, such as guest lectures, group meals, and historical tours, as well as a day-one orientation and a closing celebration. To apply, please visit the To Apply page, where there are more specific directions for your application and more details about the seminar.  If you have questions, please contact Natalie Dykstra, the Seminar Director, at


String Lake, Grand Teton National Forest, June 2015. Photograph by Natalie Dykstra.

String Lake, Grand Teton National Forest, June 2015. Photograph by Natalie Dykstra.

The Boston Summer Seminar team will be taking a hiatus from our regular blog posting schedule for much of the summer. You’ll be seeing new and updated content again beginning in late August. In the meantime, we invite you to explore the photos and tidbits from our first three week residency!

Stay tuned — and in the meantime we wish you a nourishing, productive midsummer.

The First Year – GLCA Boston Summer Seminar, June 2015

Many thanks to all our researchers, archivists, and speakers for a memorable three weeks! ~The BSS Team

Many thanks to all our researchers, archivists, and speakers for a memorable three weeks!
~The BSS Team

A week has gone by since our celebration evening at the conclusion of the first GLCA Boston Summer Seminar.  Our research teams from Hope College, College of Wooster, and Kenyon College are now our first group of alumni, class of 2015.  Starting later in July, we’ll be posting guest blogs from our alumni about their discoveries in the archives and their experiences in Boston.  Stay tuned!

Our teams arrived in cold and rainy weather, but got right to work, and the skies soon cleared.  The Hope team conducted research on 19th and 20th century ballet history in the Theater Collection at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, while the Kenyon and Wooster teams investigated antebellum food history and race and gender in the history of education at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), our host for the seminar.  We gathered every Tuesday and Thursday evening around a large table at the MHS for a light supper and to hear a wide range of speakers:  biographers, historians, a social media expert, and the director of economic policy in the Boston Mayor’s office.  We talked to each other about what had been found in the archives, and with each successive day and conversation, the research projects got more complex, nuanced, surprising.  I have a favorite line, written by Arlette Farge in her Allure of the Archives, about what can be found in the archives and how those documents can make the past seem close:  “The archival document is a tear in the fabric of time, an unplanned glimpse offered into an unexpected event.”  During our evening conversations, we heard about some of those unplanned glimpses.

The happy faces in the photograph above give a sense of the feeling in the group – glad to have a chance to do this sort of work and glad to be doing this sort of work together in Boston.

Putting together a seminar like this requires the enthusiasm and diligence of many people.  Thank you to our host, the MHS, and to our seminar archivist, Anna Clutterbuck-Cook.   Thank you to our partnering archivists and institutions:  Giordana Mecagni at Northeastern University Archives; Irina Klyagin at the Houghton Library; Sarah Hutcheon at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard University; and Kathryn Hammond Baker at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Harvard Medical School.  I want to extend a special thanks to my planning team – Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook, our webmaster.  I first had the idea of opening a door for Midwestern researchers to explore archives in Boston in the fall of 2013, and Greg Wegner at the GLCA, our generous sponsor, was supportive from the start, as were my colleagues at Hope College.  Thanks most of all to our fabulous, hard-working, fun-loving research teams:  Julia Randel, Hannah Jacobsma, Genevieve Janvrin from Hope College; Kabria Baumgartner, Jared Berg, Katie Walker from the College of Wooster; and Patrick Bottiger, Sam Gillespie, and Claire Berman from Kenyon College.

Oh, and June 2016 will be here before we know it.

~Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director  

Final Celebration 6/18/15

Believe it or not, the Boston Summer Seminar has reached the end of our inaugural 2015 residency. Last night, participants and guests gathered at the Massachusetts Historical Society for final presentations. Our program is below and you can check out our live Twitter feed from the evening. More to come next week!

Massachusetts Historical Society. Photograph by Laura Wulf. Courtesy of the MHS.

Massachusetts Historical Society. Photograph by Laura Wulf. Courtesy of the MHS.

Meal catered by Clover Food Lab and Sarah’s Bakery.

Congratulations…Now What?
Anna Clutterbuck-Cook

Natalie Dykstra

Hope College Team
Julia Randel, Hannah Jacobsma, Genevieve Janvrin

Kenyon College Team
Patrick Bottiger, Claire Berman, Sam Gillespie


College of Wooster Team
Kabria Baumgartner, Jared Berg, Katie Walker


A special thanks to…

Our 2015 Host

Massachusetts Historical Society

2015 Partner Institutions

Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library
Houghton Library
Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections
The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America


Great Lakes Colleges Association
Mellon Foundation

Daily Picks: Week Three

June 14, 2016

Today, BSS participants enjoyed the hospitality of Seminar Director Natalie Dykstra and her husband at their home.

BSS students and faculty chatting during their party on Sunday. The pup, Stout by name, took a very intelligent interest in proceedings.

BSS students and faculty chatting during their party. 14 June 2015.

June 16, 2015

Tonight was our last speaker for 2015, and we had a wonderful two hours with Karilyn Crockett. Crockett received her PhD from the American Studies Program at Yale in 2013 and now holds a position with the Boston Mayor’s Office. Her research investigates large-scale land use changes in the U.S. and how these changes propel new kinds of twentieth century social movements and political organizations among grassroots actors.

Her presentation was on anti-highway protests in Boston and ranged much further to discuss filling gaps in the archival record, non-traditional history research, and community involvement.

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Daily Picks: Week Two

Welcome to week two of our 2015 Seminar! Hopefully you all had a restorative weekend and are ready to dive back into the archive.

June 8, 2015

Our research teams from Kenyon College and the College of Wooster have been hard at work in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s reading room.

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Patrick shared the following from an 1822 address by Nicholas Biddle:

Who is there even on this side of the Atlantic, who does not read with more pleasure the accounts of the agricultural meetings at Holkham, than of coronation at Westminster, or the assemblage of sovereigns at Troppau? Who did not feel more satisfaction at the exhibitions of Massachusetts or Maryland, than in the gaudiest displays of military power?

“May we all be as excited for agriculture as Nicholas Biddle was in 1822,” observes Patrick in his email.

Sam was hard at work Monday, watched from the corner by the portrait of Charles Sumner by Darius Cobb, 1877.

Katie has been working with a lot of personal diaries during her residency at both the MHS and the Schlesinger Library.

June 9, 2015

Can you believe we’re halfway through the three-week Seminar residency? Time flies when you’re lost in the archive!

McKim Building, Boston Public Library, 9 June 2015. Photograph by Genevieve Janvrin.

McKim Building, Boston Public Library, 9 June 2015. Photograph by Genevieve Janvrin.

While the BSS has five official partner institutions — the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Center for the History of Medicine (Countway Library), Houghton Library, Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, and the Schlesinger Library — participants are welcome to branch out to other locations in the Boston area as their research demands. Julia Randel and Genevieve Janvrin (Hope College) spent some time at the Boston Public Library.

In the evening, we hosted the energetic writer John Stauffer (Harvard University) who spoke at length about the craft of historical storytelling.

Coming up, we still have Megan Marshall, Karilyn Crockett, and our final celebration showcasing the fine work being done by our 2015 teams. Stay tuned!

June 10, 2015

Our participants are hard at work in the archives, where Katie Walker has discovered the secret identity of the historian:

June 11, 2015

Today was a big day for BSS, as we had the Massachusetts Historical Society’s annual Strawberry Festival, a visit from the GLCA Director of Program Development, Greg Wegner, and an evening presentation by Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters (2005) and Margaret Fuller (2013).

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After Marshall’s talk, we gathered around some primary source materials that she used in piecing together the lives of the Peabody sisters.

June 12, 2015

Today, BSS students got a tour of the Houghton Library from Administrative Officer Dennis Marnon.

We were introduced to the history of Houghton Library, shown the Samuel Johnson collection, Emily Dickinson collection, and John Keats collection.  We also got a chance to look at their current exhibit on Alice in Wonderland before the formal tour began.

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