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

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