Daily Picks: Week One

As our first Seminar residency gets underway here in Boston, welcome to the “daily picks” series! Each week, between June 3-19, we will be sharing a few daily snapshots of what our program participants are doing and finding here in the archives.

You can also follow along in real time at the #bss15 hashtag on Twitter.

June 3, 2015

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Following orientation on Monday, our teams got directly to work. Jared Berg (Wooster College) found a pamphlet arguing that “a man who likes to teach women is in real danger of infatuation.”

On Tuesday, across the river in Cambridge, the research team from Hope College got started at Houghton Library.  Later that evening, we hosted our first speaker, Laura Prieto (History, Simmons College), who shared her experiences working with visual sources in historical context.

June 4, 2015

It’s fun to see our program participants getting around Boston on public transit – they’ll be locals in no time!

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June 5, 2015

Only four days into the seminar, our participants have already reviewed an impressive range of archival material! At our Thursday evening gathering we got to hear from each of the researchers about what they have been working with and some of their preliminary observations.

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Katie Walker (College of Wooster) shared her experience working with the diaries of schoolteacher Elizabeth Dorr at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Others spoke about deciphering 18th-century account books, making sense of undated photographs, pouring over 19th-century lithographic advertisements, considering the connections between utopianism and abolitionism, and documenting the relationship between national identity and food production.

The guest at our second evening seminar was history communicator Liz Covart, who shared her experience becoming a history pirate (seeking the treasure of historical stories) and the importance of communicating your discoveries with the wider world.

June 6, 2015

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On Friday morning, the group gathered at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, for a tour of the Center for the History of Medicine with Jack Eckert (Public Services Librarian) and Dominic Hall (Curator, Warren Anatomical Museum). The Center is one of our five 2015 partner institutions, and we were excited to introduce the participants to their rich medical history collections.

Eckert introduced us to the research collections at the Center related to the assassination of President Garfield and the subsequent trial of Charles Guiteau. Hall took us up to the exhibition area for a small fraction of the Warren Anatomical Museum’s collection where we discussed using museum collections for historical research.

You can explore material from the Center online at OnView. The history of science and medicine is a growing field, and we look forward to continuing to partner with the Center for the History of Medicine on future Seminars.


To our GLCA BSS2015 researchers – WELCOME to Boston!


“The Brook at Medfield,” Dennis Miller Bunker (1889).

We are excited to welcome our research teams to the inaugural Boston Summer Seminar.  We’ll be gathering for orientation at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Monday, June 1.  Food and coffee will be available at 9am.  We have three research teams coming from three GLCA colleges:  Hope, Kenyon, and Wooster.  We also welcome our archivists from five participating institutions, who will join us for conversation at our twice-weekly seminar evenings.  Our line-up of seminar speakers is truly inspiring – we’ll be recording their talks and posting them on our website.  We also plan to live tweet from our evening events.  So stayed tuned!

A few thoughts before our work commences.  We recently retweeted this quote by the historian Shelby Foote: “When you’re working very hard you’re not lonely; you are the whole damn world.”  So true.  One of the delights of research and writing is a feeling of entering another world.  Your imagination brims with characters, overhead conversations, incidents, places, and colorful details.  Time at your desk seems to fly by.

And yet it’s also true that much of our work is solitary.  Doing primary source research takes patience and time – a lot of time.  And the payoffs are often delayed until later.  Sometimes a sense of connection to others can seem remote.  I remember my first summer doing research at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  I’d received a summer fellowship to examine the 1880s photographs of Clover Adams, who became the subject of my first book.  I remember not knowing what to wear each morning.  I knew what to wear to class and to teach, but what to wear to the archive?  (As it turns out, archives are fairly casual.  We do encourage wearing layers for cool reading rooms, however.  (And Anna Clutterbuck-Cook requests that no one dry socks on top of the microfilm machine, as one patron did after a rainy morning.)  I also remember the deep pleasure of doing my solitary work side-by-side with others doing their work, then meeting up for lunch or coffee to talk about what we’d discovered.  I wasn’t alone in what I was doing.  Come to think of it, I suppose the vivid feeling of relief in not being alone in my work is part of what inspired the seminar.

And so, at the Boston Summer Seminar we’ll be doing our work together.  I know I speak for my planning team when I say:  we can’t wait to get started!

~Natalie Dykstra

Boston Tips: Weekends In and Around Boston

Boats and islands in the Boston Harbor (2007).

Boats and islands in the Boston Harbor (2007).

We know you all have ambitious research goals for your three weeks in Boston, but it’s important to remember that regular breaks from your work will make you a better researcher! That’s part of the reason the BSS team haven’t scheduled any seminar activities for the weekends you’ll be here in the city. Below are a few suggestions for places and events in Boston and beyond that offer a change of pace from the archives. Continue reading

The Archive Alive Through Podcasts

We are pleased to feature a guest post by Madalyn Muncy, a marketing communications specialist at FordDirect, an automotive digital marketing agency. She graduated from Hope College with a degree in English literature in 2013, where she was a Mellon Scholar. You can see more of her work and contact her here.

In the widely popular podcast, “Serial,” a spinoff of the public radio show “This American Life” (both of which I highly recommend), Sarah Koenig follows a murder case across a series of episodes, weaving hours of interviews and research into a compelling narrative that reaches beyond the lines of journalism and into the very thing that connects us as human beings: storytelling.

It’s easy to assume that as a culture we’re obsessed with the visual. Attention spans are short. People don’t read. But there’s something about the human voice that is entrancing, raw and compelling. The forum of podcasts engage the part of the imagination that is shut off during video watching, the part that you turn on when you’re reading a good book, the words coming alive in your mind.

In a culture that often moves at the speed of our smartphones, the archive may seem like a forgotten place. However, for me, finding a story in the archive, a story that needs to be told, like Sarah Koenig’s in “Serial,” satisfied my inquisitive journalistic nature in a way that other kinds of research could not.

As an undergraduate at Hope College, I first found the story of a woman who spent her life recording and guarding the collective memory of her town at the local archives in Holland, Michigan. The historical essays she wrote and her personal documents inspired me to tell the story of Holland through the lens of her personal archive, making her story, and that of her beloved hometown, come alive.

Continuing to search for material that I thought deserved to be brought into the open, I discovered stories that spoke to me of escape—by immigrants, runaway slaves, and a man who committed suicide.  So I wove together these disparate stories with elements of different mediums—letters, memory books, photographs, oral history interviews and diaries—into one cohesive narrative. The narrative contained all of the elements of fiction:  plot, dynamic characters, dialogue. The end result was similar to “Serial”:  history told through the lens of journalism with aspects of a literary narrative.

Instead of making abstract arguments about the past, I wanted to fuse the old with the new into something more accessible and more focused on storytelling, and I decided the best way to do that would be to create a podcast based on the materials I had found. By pairing archival materials with a narrative voice, the past became vivid in a way I never would have anticipated.

You can listen to the podcast I produced for my senior thesis here.  I broke the stories down into acts (like a play), but wove each to the other by a similar theme:  escape.   I used oral history transcripts, oral history recordings, newspapers, photographs and more to create a script, also inserting some of my own commentary to shape the story.

During my time in the archive, I learned that it’s sometimes best to let the stories tell themselves. Let the archive inform your journey. It takes time and a lot of patience, but if you continue seeking out the story, you’ll find the links you need to create a compelling narrative from information you never thought would be connected or historically significant.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

John Singer Sargent, Chiron and Achilles, 1922-1925, MFA Boston

For a city of 645,000 residents, Boston has a remarkably rich collection of cultural institutions, many of which you’ll want to visit.  I remember when I first started coming to Boston to do research, I’d go to one or two museums during my summer, but I’d go several times to get a strong feeling for the place. But that’s me – I like to sink into places.  To give some highlights, I’ve gathered a short list in no particular order.  Of course, it’s incomplete – there’s so much to see and do here, but here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), located on the Fenway, is not to be missed. Right now there’s a wonderful show open through August about the great Japanese master, Hokusai.  The MFA has the largest collection of Japanese art anywhere outside of Japan, collected by a small group of enterprising Bostonians besotted with that country’s art and culture just as it was opening to the West.  Check out the MFA also for its collection of ancient art (I love the room on Homeric art) and its dazzling collection of American art.
  2. Next door to the MFA is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an Italian palazzo first opened in 1903 by its eponymous founder.  All the art you see was collected by Mrs. Gardner on her many travels around the world.  She also stipulated in her will that no part of the collection could be moved, so visitors now see the art in the arrangements she intended.  Spending time in the inner courtyard, lush and cool in the summers, is worth the price of admission, and the restaurant lunches at Café G are very tasty.
  3. The three main museums at Harvard University (the Sackler, Fogg, and Busch-Reisinger) are now called the Harvard Art Museums, newly reopened after a six-year redesign by the brilliant Italian architect, Renzo Piano.  The museums are right near Harvard Square and the Harvard T stop, in case you want a bit of museum-going to go with your lunch and shopping.
  4. The Boston Athenaeum, which is located at the top of the Common near the State House, is not so much a museum as a library with a fascinating history.  Opened in 1807, it is one of the oldest extant membership libraries in the country, but its first floor and galleries are open to the public.
  5. Right next door to the Athenaeum is the Boston-campus of the Museum of African American History, which provides a free walking tour of a large collection of historic sites relating to African American life in the city prior Emancipation.  Not to be missed.
  6. There’s more remarkable art to see in the Boston Public Library (open to all visitors), especially John Singer Sargent’s sumptuous murals on the third floor.
  7. On Copley Square facing the BPL is the masterwork of American architect, H.H. Richardson:  Trinity Church.  It was recently voted one of the top ten most important buildings in America.  Enough said.
  8. Finally, Boston has a rich political history, going back to the Revolution and through the Civil War.  In the 20th century, the Kennedy name was dominant, and there are now two fascinating Kennedy museums to explore:  the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum and the newly opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute next door on Columbia Point, near to the UMASS Boston campus.  You can’t go wrong going to both on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a wind off the bay.  They also host fascinating speakers/special events, so check out their calendars for June.

Other places/things to do:  stroll through the Boston Public Garden and Boston Common, where Emerson and Thoreau could be seen walking; take a swim in Walden Pond near Concord, a short train trip away; go see the Boston Red Sox play in Fenway Park; and, of course, there’s much, much more.

~Natalie Dykstra

Boston Tips: Lunch Spots

One of the delights of Boston is that no matter where you are in the city, a wide range of restaurant options abound! Here are a few places for lunch in the $10-$15 range within close proximity to our 2015 partner institutions. This is just the tip of the iceberg — if you find new favorites while you’re here, we’d love to have you share those with us for inclusion in future guides.

Countway Library / Center for the History of Medicine (Longwood Medical Area)

Harvard Medical School stands at the heart of Longwood Medical Area (LMA), a bustling neighborhood full of teaching hospitals. Across the quad along Longwood Ave. you’ll find Boloco for smoothies and “globally inspired burritos” (there are locations near MHS and in Harvard Square as well), next door to the ubiquitous Starbucks. If you head down Shattuck St. and take a right on Binney St. you’ll find the Longwood Galleria with a range of food court options, some of them more local than others. Continue reading

Late Breaking! 2015 Partner Institutions: Houghton Library

Houghton Library

Houghton Library

Houghton Library is the primary repository for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard  Houghton Library.University.

The Library holds collections of papers of Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his family, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott, along with the papers of other notable transcendentalists, Henry James, William James, Theodore Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings,  James Joyce, Gore Vidal, John Updike and many others.

It is comprised of five major curatorial departments: Early Books and Manuscripts, which includes a large collection of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and over 2,500 incunabula; Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, featuring the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson; Modern Books and Manuscripts; Printing & Graphic Arts which documents the history and art of book production; and The Harvard Theatre Collection covering the history of the performing arts.

~Irina Klyagin is a processing archivist at the Harvard Theatre Collection at the Houghton Library and scholar of Russian theatre and dance.

To Make the Story Fragile

Woodcut illustration of Cleopatra and Mark Antony - Penn Provenance Project" by kladcat - Woodcut illustration of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Woodcut illustration of Cleopatra and Mark Antony – Penn Provenance Project” by kladcat – Woodcut illustration of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been thinking a lot about story-telling lately – how to do it, what makes a narrative compelling, what pitfalls to avoid. And I keep coming back to an evocative phrase used by Stacy Schiff in her keynote lecture at last year’s Biographers International Organization Conference that’s still rattling around in my brain.  She said the challenges of writing her 2010 Cleopatra, which won the PEN Award for Biography, were enormous.  She had “head-on collisions with unknowns” and had to sift through mountains of material from the many histories of the great pharaoh and her rule over Egypt.

Cleopatra’s love affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony have inspired some of the world’s masterpieces in art and literature.  What can a 21st century biographer, no matter how brilliant (Schiff has won a Pulitzer for Biography and has been nominated for another), bring to a story as well-trod as that?  Plenty, as it turns out.  Hers is a gripping, page-turning narrative.  The reader knows how it all ends, and yet … the path there is startling, bone-shaking, and far from obvious.  I think the secret to Schiff’s success has to do with the phrase I keep thinking about.  She said at one point she knew the only way to write her book would be “to make the story fragile and non-linear again.”  Fragile and non-linear again – it’s the “again” that’s so evocative, because no one, of course, knew how Cleopatra’s story would end when it was being lived.  When it was being lived it was fragile and chaotic and unexpected.  That’s the challenge and thrill of writing history and biography – to capture on the page the sense of not-knowing, the element of surprise, the unexpected turn that so marks how we live our own lives.

– Natalie Dykstra

Boston Tips: Coffee

Now that we have all our teams in place, we felt it was important to start sharing some tips and tricks about Boston. One of the first — as far as I’m concerned anyway! — is where to get good coffee.

If you haven’t been to Boston before and you’re a coffee fan, then welcome home: this town is obsessed with the perfect bean. A lot of the shops on this map double as small cafes so you can get a quick breakfast, lunch, or late afternoon snack while you’re at it. Most Boston coffee shops feature free wi-fi — it’s always worth checking the shop’s website to make sure — and I haven’t found one yet that doesn’t make some sort of provision for seating. Given that June is generally pretty nice weather around here, you can almost always count on some sort of outside seating, too.

~Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook

“Pregnancy and Personhood”: A Talk by Rebecca Kluchin at Countway Library

Plate from Ashton's Essentials of Obstetrics (1896): https://archive.org/details/b20387908

Plate from Ashton’s Essentials of Obstetrics (1896). via the Medical Heritage Library.

One of the greatest pleasures of working in the library and archives world is the opportunity to engage every day with the researchers who come through the doors of our institutions. From a wide range of backgrounds, each researcher challenges we library staff to think in new ways about our collections and the scholarship those materials inform.

I had the opportunity last Thursday, one of the first warm days Boston has seen this spring, to cross the Fens and pay a visit to one of the BSS partner institutions, Countway Library, where their 2014-2015 Archives for Women in Medicine fellow Rebecca Kluchin was giving a talk on her work at Countway’s Center for the History of Medicine. Kluchin’s presentation, “Pregnancy and Personhood: The Maternal-Fetal Relationship in America, 1850-Present,” provided an overview of her research and gives us insight into the questions that lead historians into the archive in search of evidence to document change over time.

In May, our seminar participants will be preparing for their three weeks in Boston by reading, among other things, a selection from historian-activist Alice Dreger’s latest book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (Penguin, 2015) that challenges us to think about the importance of evidence-based activism — and the role historians can play in marshaling evidence in support of social change. Rebecca Kluchin’s work is one such example of the way in which historical research can provide clarifying context for present-day moral challenges.

Kluchin introduced her work with the story of Angela Carter, a pregnant woman diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1987. Continue reading