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!

Friendly Reminders

The Night School, 1660-1665, Gerrit Dou

Only three more days until the BSS 2016 applications are due on
Monday, February 15 at 5 p.m.!

Here’s a quick list of reminders for our applicants as you put the final polish on your materials:

  • Include all portions of your application, which are listed here, and follow the word limit for each essay.
  • Be as specific as possible about what repositories, manuscript collections, and/or print publications your team plans to consult.
  • Double-check all collection and publication citations in the relevant library catalogs to ensure the committee members can clearly identify the materials in your list.
  • We recommend that at least two members of your team proofread the final application to minimize or eliminate errors.
  • Ensure all contact information is up-to-date.
  • Submit all application materials as a single PDF document using the following naming convention: BSS16_[YourLastName-FirstName]_[InstitutionName].pdf.
Good luck to everyone – we look forward to reading about your research projects!
~ The BSS Team

boston. june. research. Preparing for the Seminar.

At the Shoreline

“At the Shoreline,” Elizabeth Trembley, 2015.

We’re pleased to have Dr. Kabria Baumgartner as our guest blogger this week.  She is an Assistant Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the College of Wooster and a 2015 alumna of the Boston Summer Seminar.  She is currently writing a book on African American women’s education in early America.

boston. june. research. That was my initial introduction to the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar in September 2014.

I was intrigued—first, because the seminar involved faculty-student research collaboration. I had participated in a similar seminar program a few years earlier, and it had been a rewarding experience for me. Second, because I had already planned to visit the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) to conduct archival research for my book project on African-American women’s education in early-nineteenth-century America.

So, boston. june. research. Yes, absolutely!

I decided to apply after consulting the seminar director, Natalie Dykstra. I carefully reviewed the guidelines.

How did I pick my theme?

I was already familiar with the holdings of the MHS, but I still did some ABIGAIL keyword searches on education, race, and gender. I also searched the holdings at the Schlesinger Library. I brainstormed about the broader theme that would combine my research with student interests. I remembered the work of three students in particular who had explored the subject of American higher education in my survey course and in my history of American education course. I settled on the theme, “Women and Higher Education in Nineteenth Century America.”

How did I pick my student team?

I recruited the same three students who had taken my courses and who had expressed interest in the study of American higher education. These students were organized, focused, mature, and independent, which were important characteristics to consider for this kind of off-campus study program. (Please note:  The seminar now asks for two students per research team.)

How did I recruit students?

I was on research leave as I composed the application, and that was a bit of challenge, especially when it came to recruiting students. I emailed the students whom I had in class, and I explained the details of the project, including the thematic focus, the time commitment, the application requirements, and the outcomes. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Natalie was leading it and that our location was in Boston!

How did my students prepare their application?

Three of them were very interested and eager! They composed a letter of interest, a research statement, and resume. I provided copious amounts of feedback on all of these materials, thinking particularly about coherence. I had to make a compelling case for how these “strands of research interests” fit together under the broad theme, “Women and Higher Education in Nineteenth Century America.” (Midway through the application process, one of my students dropped out. Be prepared for things like this!)

What about funding?

Thankfully the GLCA has secured funding for faculty-student research teams. I also checked with my college about providing some funds, which they did. That was a huge help for my students, who were worried that work obligations in the summer might stop them from participating in this project.

What were some of the outcomes?

I tried to be clear with students about my expectations, particularly regarding workload. At the College of Wooster, where I teach, we run a very successful undergraduate mentored research program, Independent Study. I suggested to students that some aspects of their summer research might serve as a basis for part of a Junior or Senior Independent Study research project. Looking back, I wish I had been clearer about this, actually.  One of my students is writing a thesis on the topic pursued through the Boston Summer Seminar program, while the other student is not. In the grand scheme of things, it is not a big deal, as I think both students gained so much in the process, but (maybe selfishly) I wanted both of my students to take the archival research they did and use it for their Junior or Senior Independent Study research projects. So, to my faculty colleagues, as you identify your expectations and outcomes, make sure you tie your students to the project somehow. It could be requiring an on-campus presentation or writing a seminar paper the following semester. Whatever it is, clear educational outcomes are desirable.

So, boston. june. research. Application sent.

Tips for faculty preparing their application

  • do keyword searches for appropriate material at Boston-area archives, including archives that may not be part of the Boston Summer Seminar
  • recruit eager, interested, and mature students
  • provide feedback on student’s application materials before final submission
  • clarify expectations and outcomes

Tips for students preparing their application

  • visit with your college archivist to get a sense of what an archive is and what archivists do
  • do keyword searches for appropriate material at Boston-area archives
  • take time to prepare a strong application
  • seek feedback from your professor and perhaps visit your college’s Writing Center (the skills you learn as you prepare your application for this are transferrable)
  • revise your application materials at least twice

Research Strategies, Pt. 2: What to Expect at the Archive


Drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937), published in The Zebra and the Wishing Fairy.

This post is a continuation of Research Strategies, Pt. 1: Archive Scanning.

For some of you, the Boston Summer Seminar will be your first experience conducting in-depth research at an archive or special collections library. Due to the unique nature of manuscript and rare print, photograph, and artifact collections, the experience of conducting research in an archive can be frustrating and intimidating to the novice. Below are some tips to help you get acclimated to the special collections environment.

Plan Ahead

Unlike a circulating public or college library, it is difficult (though not impossible!) to walk in off the street and have a successful research experience. Advance reconnaissance, sometimes including a telephone or email conversation with a staff member, before you set foot in the library can greatly enhance your visit. While not all of the BSS partners require a research appointment, it is best to connect with an on-site librarian or archivist ahead of time to make sure the materials you wish to consult are open for research and physically on-site. You can find more information about each partner, and tips for planning ahead, in our first research strategies post.

What to Bring

Because the security of our collections is important, archives and special collections libraries have strict policies about what personal belongings can and cannot be brought into the research area. Like when visiting a museum, bags and coats must be left outside, no food and drink may be consumed in the research area, and there are restrictions on how items, such as phones, laptops, and cameras, may be transported and used. Each BSS partner will have slightly different policies, but as a rule it is best to plan on only having access to your laptop or tablet for note-taking and camera or cell phone for non-flash research photography. All other personal items will need to be stored in a locker or other secure area while you are working with the collections. Your contact at the specific site will be able to provide more details.

Slow Research

When you step into the archives, consider downshifting to “slow research” gear. Arriving at an archive for the first time, you typically need to go through a registration and orientation process before you begin working with the collections. Staff want to ensure you know how to request collections properly and handle materials safely. Because most collections must be requested, rather than being available in the open stacks, there can be a delay between when you request materials and when they arrive at your table. Planning ahead can minimize delays but will not eliminate them. Once you have a box of papers or a rare print volume at your desk, working with fragile items and handwritten documents is much slower than flipping to the index of a printed work to find relevant content. You will need to move items slowly and handle them deliberately to ensure their survival for future generations of researchers. The library staff will guide you and correct hasty or rough handling that is risky for the items.

Adapt Your Study Habits

Reading rooms are quiet spaces, and if you are a social researcher who works best in conversation with others, you will need to adapt to this new environment. Consider bringing headphones, so you can stream podcasts or music through your laptop without disturbing other researchers. Communicate with your research partners via email or social media throughout the day to share exciting discoveries and keep yourself energized. If your research partners are at the same site, coordinate study breaks (see below). Switch between formats (print, manuscript, microfilm, visual materials) if you find your attention wandering or exhaustion setting in.

If you are someone who finds it difficult to focus in unfamiliar spaces, think about how you can place yourself in the room or what you might stream on your headphones to help yourself tune out the unfamiliar and tune in to your sources. And finally, if you are a scholar who thirsts for uninterrupted periods of solitary reading and thinking in the company of other quiet people, settle in and enjoy the luxury of time and space to do just that during your stay in Boston.

Eat, Drink, Move!

Finally, it’s important to practice self-care in order to be at your best through long days in the archive. Because you can’t have food and drink in the library, plan to take breaks throughout your research day. Whether you pack a lunch and a thermos of coffee or tea or ask the archive’s staff for tips on the best local cafes, consider a mid-morning break, a lunch break, and a walk mid-afternoon. Or get up once an hour to stretch your legs and walk around the block, visit the exhibition area, or browse the reference collection – something to get your body moving and let your mind digest what you are finding. Movement is also a great way to warm up, if you are someone apt to get chilled sitting in the air conditioned reading room. (We librarians universally recommend dressing in layers!)

Ultimately, each researcher who spends extensive time working with archival or special collections resources will find their own tricks of the trade. I hope these suggestions will get you thinking about where to find yours!

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

American Antebellum Cookbooks: A Student’s Discovery in the Archives

We’re excited to have a guest post from Claire Berman, a BSS 2015 alum and history major at Kenyon College (’16).


American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, 1796

It’s the end of an unusually chilly June day when I find the gem I’ve been looking for: the recipe for Federal Pan Cake. This pancake, made of rye flour, “Indian meal”—i.e. corn meal—salt and milk, and fried in lard, was a recipe that first appeared in the second edition of Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, the first American cookbook, published in 1796. I happened to find the Federal Pan Cake in New American Cookery, or Female Companion, a word-for-word reproduction of Simmons’ work written by “An American Lady.” Simmons’ pervasive recipes for the Federal Pan Cake, as well as her Election Cake and Independence Cake reappeared in many cookbooks of the antebellum period, sometimes word-for-word, other times as variations. While at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I aimed to dig through antebellum cookbooks and discover what they had to say about American culture, and more specifically, about the relationship the audience of these cookbooks had to native North American ingredients.

I had no idea that I would find a gem like the recipe for the Federal Pan Cake when I walked into the Massachusetts Historical Society. When I first walked into the marble lobby of the MHS at the start of the Boston Summer Seminar 2015, I felt a little intimidated, a little lost, but also incredibly excited. With guidance from Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, as well as Professor Dykstra—a seasoned MHS veteran—I was able to learn how to use the MHS effectively, spending the majority of my time looking at cookbooks, but also perusing some diaries and log books. While I walked into the MHS’s lobby with trepidation, I walked out with the beginnings of what would become my senior thesis: The Cook Exercises a Greater Power: The Economy and Autonomy in American Antebellum Cookbooks.

However, the program extended beyond the academic, at least for me. As someone who has eyed library science since childhood, having the opportunity to tour the inner-workings of some of the country’s most remarkable archives was an amazing experience. We saw the medical tools that infected President Garfield’s wounds and ultimately killed him at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine and Emily Dickinson’s writing desk at the Houghton Library, both libraries affiliated with Harvard University. My favorite behind-the-scenes moment was seeing paintings by American greats like John Singer Sargent in tall storage racks at the MHS! I adore working at my school’s archives and special collections, but walking through racks of boxes of the actual letters written by the founding fathers seemed almost surreal and was such an incredible moment for me.

Meanwhile, I had the opportunity to live in the heart of Boston. First of all: takeout galore; it was an extreme culinary opportunity for a foodie who has been living in rural Ohio for the past four years. But even better than the food was the history embedded in every path of that town. Literally, they have the Freedom Trail. But some of the best moments of my trip came from places I just stumbled on. I spent one evening at the Coolidge Corner Theater, an art deco feature of Brookline where I watched a double feature of Far From the Madding Crowd and Ex Machina in cozy nooks that have entertained Bostonians since the 1930s. While grabbing supper in the North End, I came across the building where Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense planned for their trial. Every walk across town brought into view something new.

I would have never experienced any of this were it not for the GLCA. A Midwesterner at heart, I rarely venture out to the East Coast, let alone have the opportunity to spend three weeks working in and exploring Boston. My only wish is that I could do it all again!

Catch Me If You Can


Caspar David Friedrich, The Woman with the Candlestick, 1825.

Virginia Woolf’s 1924 essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” later published as “Character in Fiction,” begins this way:

It seems to me possible, perhaps desirable, that I may be the only person in this room who has committed the folly of writing, trying to write, or failing to write, a novel. And when I asked myself … what demon whispered in my ear and urged me to my doom, a little figure rose before me—the figure of a man, or of a woman, who said, “My name is Brown. Catch me if you can.” Most novelists have the same experience. Some Brown, Smith, or Jones comes before them and says in the most seductive and charming way in the world, “Come and catch me if you can.” And so, led on by this will-o’-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.

There’s so much I like about this passage:  Woolf’s playful personification of imagination with the “little figure” rising up before her and speaking; her use of “demon” and “doom” to describe her vocation; the rhythm of her always masterful sentences.  She sounds so confident writing about the follies of writing.  But it’s particularly the last sentence here that resonates with me:  “Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.”  While deep into my research for my biography of Clover Adams (gifted photographer and wife of Henry Adams), spending every day at the Massachusetts Historical Society to transcribe her letters, I would emerge bleary-eyed in the early evening to Boston’s crowded streets.  And sometimes, I’d think for a moment that I’d glimpsed a swish of Clover’s dress ahead of me but turning a corner out of my sight.  It was uncanny.  She was vividly present, yet elusive, not quite graspable.  How often I wished she could have just turned around, so to speak, to point me in the right direction, correct my errors, and whisper to me the secrets she took to her grave.  Instead, it was as Woolf describes:  “Come and catch me if you can.”

Richard Holmes, the great biographer of the Romantic poets Shelley and Coleridge, once wrote that biography was a “pursuit, a following of footsteps.  You can never catch them; no, you can never quite catch them. But maybe, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present.”  And so the pursuit continues, despite the elusiveness of the prey.

~ Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director