Discovering Love in a Smallpox Hospital

By Dr. Andrew Wehrman

When I was working on my dissertation, I remember talking to my advisor T.H. Breen about digital cameras in archives and online databases changing the way people research and write about history. Breen quipped, “With all that technology, you should be able to research and write your dissertation in six months, right?” He liked to go to archives with a stack of index cards and write individual quotations and references on each one. The research trips ended with hundreds of cards and he would lay them out as he began writing, which has led to a profoundly productive career. My methods have changed rapidly with technology, and while my research has not churned out faster, it has made my work richer (richer in detail, not money, folks). I will give you an example of how archival photography, online databases, and savvy keyword searching breathed new life into documents that an index card system would likely never have caught.

On one of my first archival research trips in graduate school, I visited the Phillips Library, in Salem, Massachusetts, which has since moved Rowley, Massachusetts. I took photos of the collection labeled “Salem Hospital Records, 1777.” These were detailed medical records of patients in Salem’s smallpox inoculation hospital. While doing my research, I focused on earlier years not expecting these records to become part of my dissertation but photographed them anyway thinking they might prove useful later. I have since found that records like these are exceedingly rare. Most hospital records, especially from smallpox hospitals, did not survive. These were particularly detailed, consisting of 577 patient records spread across two dozen little notebooks and remarkably difficult to read. If you think your doctor’s handwriting is bad, try one from the eighteenth century. The doctor, Edward Augustus Holyoke, listed each patient, their age, and a record of symptoms and treatments given. To make sense of his notes, I created an Excel spreadsheet, to keep track of and draw conclusions about his group of patients.

Among the most interesting details, Holyoke almost always included the number of pocks that appeared on each patient’s body after inoculation. Inoculation—the purposeful insertion of smallpox matter via an incision usually on a patient’s arm—most often resulted in a mild case of smallpox and grant lifelong immunity. This was before the discovery of vaccination, which uses cowpox matter and would confer immunity without the infection (humans cannot spread cowpox). Anecdotally, I knew some patients would get a few pocks, usually on their faces and hands, and in rare cases patients would get hundreds all over their bodies. Under ideal conditions fewer than one percent died from the procedure. Using my spreadsheet, I tracked the number of pocks to look for any obvious patterns. Out of 577 patients, about half received fifty or fewer. Thirty lucky patients received zero, one, or two. However, there were also thirty patients with over a thousand. Only one patient, a baby girl just a few months old, died from the procedure, but other babies went through it fine. There did not seem to be any real pattern for who fared better or worse based on age, sex, race, or family.  

As I was finishing my book manuscript, I came back to these photos and my spreadsheet and began to wonder about those patients with thousands of pocks. Surviving but scarred, did they live long after their inoculations? Were they able to get married or have children? Questions I could not easily answer when I started the project. After an afternoon of internet searching, I uncovered what I think is a love story. I focused my attention on one name in the records: Judith Herbert. Judith was 21 years old when she entered Salem Hospital in spring of 1777 to be inoculated. Hers was a tough case. Although she survived, she broke out with “4 or 5 thousand pustules.” To find out more, I googled “Judith Herbert” in Salem, MA, and found her in several genealogical records available through Google Books and Internet Archive. I even found in Dr. Holyoke’s diary that he attended the wedding of Judith Herbert of Wenham, Massachusetts and Dr. Edward Barnard in 1781. Judith’s marriage was significant since young women and their parents worried that smallpox scars would prevent them finding a husband.  

After finding the marriage record, I found out more about Dr. Edward Barnard. It turns out that he was a Harvard graduate. I knew to search Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, which contains biographical sketches of every student who attended Harvard College from its first class in 1642 through 1774. Fortunately, I did not even have to leave my desk. Volume 18 of Sibley’s is available online via HathiTrust Digital Library. Where I learned that Barnard graduated from Harvard in spring of 1774, helped organize his hometown of Haverhill’s militia company in September, and in October 1775 began studying medicine with Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke in Salem. Barnard was Holyoke’s assistant when his future wife broke out with 5000 pocks in Salem Hospital.

Now, I cannot say for sure that this is when they first met or where they fell in love. But it makes sense that Barnard attended Herbert closely as she battled one of the most severe cases of inoculated smallpox. In my historical imagination, five thousand little cartoon hearts swirled around them—one for each bloody pustule, of course. The scars did not affect a long marriage or a long life but may have affected her fertility. Judith and Edward had just one child together, a son also named Edward. They were married for forty years until Dr. Edward Barnard died in 1822. Remarkably, Judith Herbert Barnard died in 1845 at age 90.

Even though Breen was right that taking digital photos in the archive and searching them against digitized materials online has not made research and writing any faster, I do think it has made it better.


Dr. Andrew Wehrman is a historian of early American history and the history of American medicine at Central Michigan University. His current book project The Contagion of Liberty argues that popular demand for public inoculations during smallpox epidemics in the 1760s and 1770s infected Revolutionary politics and changed the way Americans understood their health and government’s responsibility to protect it.

Twitter: @ProfWehrman

Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

M-20 is a not a particularly unique highway. It’s just one of many that crisscross the Michigan landscape. Yet the highway does carry some special significance to me. I drove it often when commuting between my family’s small cabin near Remus (pictured above) and Mt. Pleasant while studying at Central Michigan University. I can still visualize many of the sites along the route. Whether it was the humble façade of the Remus Tavern or the grandiose “Welcome to Mt. Pleasant” painted across the Ann Arbor Railroad Bridge on western edge of town, the familiar landmarks connected me to specific place, time, and experience.

We all have these places: a childhood home, a familiar walk, an iconic tree—even a favorite coffee shop can stir feelings of familiarity, and comfort. Most significantly, though, they create meaning. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, scholar of landscape studies, describes this type of attachment as a “sense of place.” People often transform mundane locations, nameless vistas, and sprawling landscapes into places because of “a lively awareness of the familiar environment, a ritual repetition, [and] a sense of fellowship based on shared experience.” Understanding the significance of a place tells us about the values of people who find meaning in the landscapes, monuments, and activities associated with those particular places.  

Historicizing a “sense place” has been the constant thread of my academic work since I began my MA in History at Central Michigan University in 2012. I first became interested with the study of place when I examined the historical roots of Michigan’s tourism industry in Northern Michigan. I was enamored with the perennial tradition of tourists and cottage-goers that traveled “Up North” for recreation and respite. With guidance from Jay Martin and Brittany Bayless Fremion, I dedicated my MA thesis to the cultural and environmental roots of the still-modern tradition. The core material of that research would later become the basis for my first peer-reviewed article, “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Michigan Historical Review. Since then I have written on various topics related to “sense of place.” Whether it was an essay describing how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha served as a shared language for progressive-era conservationists to find new meaning in the cutover districts of the Upper Midwest or another article that illustrates how diminished economic activity on the Erie Canal motivated state and national politicians to create a new heritage-tourism industry along the artificial river. I have always started my research with a particular place and study the people who found meaning in it. Like a mirror, the study of the sense of place can reveal cultural assumptions, environmental values, and community values. 

Of course, a place’s meaning can change over time. Economic forces often disrupt livelihoods and community networks. New technologies shift the nature of work and how individuals interact with each other as well as local geography. Environmental changes can also shift the meaning of a place. Forests fall, rivers become dammed, and the behemoth influence of industrialization commodifies, extracts, and alters landscapes beyond recognition. Therefore, a sense of place can be a valuable lens to study past cultures. How historic groups value, interpret, and use landscape offers historians a unique lens to track environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts over time. After all, these are the places where people make a home, find work, form identity, and create meaning.

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Jared Famer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Camden Burd received his PhD in History from the University of Rochester in 2019. Before his time in Western New York, he spent two years completing his MA in History from Central Michigan University. During the 2019-2020 academic year Camden will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden.

www.camdenburd.com

Is Anyone Really Writing? Everyone is Writing, and No one is Writing.

By Dave Papendorf

There is a strange phenomenon that exists in academia and within the Humanities in particular.  Apparently, every PhD student is writing their dissertation. How industrious of them! They retreat to an airy salon and knock away at their typewriters while feeling the thrill of progress. These students are consistently fueled by the swelling approval of their ever-vigilant supervisors and the pleasant typewriter ding of every line completed on their ground-breaking project.

However, upon closer examination, this proves to be false. In fact, as it turns out, no one is writing their dissertation. Instead they write emails, book reviews, journal submissions, funding proposals, fellowship applications, course syllabi, comment on students’ work, teaching philosophies, job applications, letters of recommendation, conference papers, bibliographies, and exam prompts. After all of this, they are left dejected, despaired, and despondent. To get a job, PhD students need to be doing all of these things. “A dissertation is not enough” the market tells us. Good thing too, after keeping so many plates spinning, who has time for a dissertation anyways!

Perhaps this is too melancholiac of an assessment. After all, people are constantly finishing and defending their dissertations. But surely the sentiments shared above resonate with my colleagues. At least I hope they do, because in my experience pressures mount not only to finish the dissertation but also develop professionally with some ontological crises along the way. In the remainder of this post, I will share a little of my experience as a dissertation-writing, plate-spinning, job-hunting ABD student. Hopefully, we can commiserate together, and my honest reflections can help spur on my current and future colleagues to keep writing. Friends, please receive my unsolicited advice kindly. Most importantly, I hope this post gives non-students a view into the psyche of a late-stage PhD student.

Some of you might recognize me as a previous editor when I had just started “writing” my dissertation. While I have made progress since editing the blog, it has not been as swift as I hoped. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, I have noticed three things about myself as a “writer” that are worth sharing.

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

1. I am what you might call a “long runway” type of writer. In other words, it takes me a long time to get “off the ground” writing productively (please indulge my aerial metaphor). I need a plan, an outline, a developed structure, and goals to check off and mark my daily progress. This helps me feel as if I am doing something and forces me to come to grips with the reality of my current situation to complete my dissertation tasks (see checklist below). If you cannot simply sit down and write, this might help you. However, it is not a failsafe for all students. I find that when I do get to writing, I write in chunks. Recently, I wrote 13,000 words in nine days, but keep in mind this took two weeks of “runway” time. Alternatives would be short bursts of writing (write all you can over a weekend) or slow-and-steady (write for 50 minutes a day, regardless of quality).

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2. I am always more successful when I measure my progress in terms of word count rather than number of pages. I write using Scrivener software which measures word count and not page numbers and stores footnotes outside of the text. I find these elements helpful because I think less about overall length and more about paragraphs. Doing so helps me focus on the cohesiveness and effectiveness of my writing rather than numerical values. Overall, this benefits my argumentation and writing quality. On a more metaphysical level, focusing on word count helps me think less about “space” on a page and more about argument.

3. I have developed a schedule-oriented plan to finish my dissertation all the way to my dissertation defense date. I have two plans: one labeled “ambitious” and the other labeled “realistic.” This two-pronged schedule gives me the impetus to be ambitious while not condemning me for being realistic. Ideally, I would finish somewhere between the two. I find that having a large-scale idea of where I am headed in advance to be consoling. Such a plan also helps give me the right “push” when I need it and comforts me when I feel like I should be doing more. Finally, sharing this with my supervisor has been helpful so that we are on the same page and the ever-frightening gap between actual progress and supervisor-expected progress is mitigated.

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I titled this post sardonically. However, cynicism is often revealing even if just revealing to its source. I suspect that many feel the same way as I do. The industry seems to be heaping more pressures on students so that our focus is diverted from dissertation writing even while, at the same time, doing more tasks overall. So, to restate the titular question, who is writing after all? Answer: everyone is writing, and no one is writing. PhD students, soldier on. Non-PhD students give a dissertation writer a hug. All of us need one.


Dave Papendorf is a late-stage History PhD Student at Central Michigan University and a Special Instructor of Historical Theology at Moody Bible Institute. His research examines the early Reformation in France (1520s-1540s) and the connections between the French and German Reformations during this period.

For more information or to contact him visit his graduate profile.

Celebrating the Summer of ’69 at the CMU Museum

By Caity Burnell

Besides the drilling and hammering sounds from the multiple construction projects, most of campus is quiet in the summer. One exception is CMU’s Museum of Cultural and Natural History in Rowe Hall. School field trips finished up for the year in mid-June, and while museum staff miss seeing school groups, the summer months are filled with various exciting activities. Many visitors come to enjoy the new “Kozmic Clash: Peace, Love, and Outer Space” exhibit, which opened in April 2019. As a collaboration between Museum Studies faculty and staff and Museum Studies/Cultural Resource Management/Public History students, the exhibit celebrates the groundbreaking innovation and creativity of 1969, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock festival. An accompanying hands-on gallery “Feel the Music” is a great space to experiment with music in a fun environment. Visitors can express their creativity by drawing with chalk on “Honey Bear” the VW minibus that is in the museum lobby. This is an exhibit for people of all ages because for some, it is a brand-new topic, and for others it sparks nostalgia and memories from their personal history, such as the record album artwork displayed in the hallway. The research and a personal object from one of the History Department’s faculty members are even on display in the exhibit. Come visit the museum and see if you can spot the object!

Since the museum is a laboratory for students to gain hands-on experience, this was a great learning opportunity for many who work and volunteer at the museum. One, Brad Davis, created an interactive exhibit on the Main Gallery ceiling about the moon landing for the fulfilment of his CRM creative endeavor. He designed a comic book about the Apollo 11 astronauts’ journey with missing pieces of information that visitors fill in by shining a backlight flashlight up to the ceiling to expose the missing words. While this was experimental in nature—to see if an interactive ceiling exhibit worked—Brad found that it is a success after surveying school groups and the public.

PictureD: Brad Davis demonstrating the Interactive Ceiling

PictureD: Brad Davis demonstrating the Interactive Ceiling

This summer the museum is hosting its annual Tour Tuesday series, offering free public programs on Tuesdays in July. The first was on July 9 at the Bohannon Schoolhouse and the beautiful weather allowed visitors to not only spend time inside experiencing a typical 1901-era school day but also go outside and play vintage games. The next three programs are at the museum, held in the galleries and lobby on July 16 (Moon Landing), July 23 (Feelin’ the Music), and July 30 (Habitats and Homes). More information is available on the museum’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CMUMuseum/.

Also happening in July is Curious Curators. One of the museum staff’s favorite programs, this special one-day program lets six students entering either fourth or fifth grade experience a day as a museum professional. Their day starts with a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, they then each work closely with a staff member to create a new exhibit. This year’s participants will each be researching and writing a label about a museum object related to the events and culture of 1969. Other activities include visiting the Bohannon Schoolhouse, touring parts of campus, and then showing their families around the museum at the end of the day.

In between these various programs, staff are busy solving collections conundrums, developing new educational programs, brainstorming future exhibits, and more. Local summer camp groups are visiting the museum including the City of Mount Pleasant Parks and Recreation’s PEAK program and Renaissance Public Academy, whose students are creating their own mini museums using school resource kits borrowed from the CMU Museum. The groups visited the museum and enjoyed discussing how changes in technology have affected peoples’ lives throughout history and looked at old cameras and phones as examples.

While any day of the year is a great time to visit the CMU Museum, summertime is especially wonderful as there are fewer groups and it offers a nice break from the outside heat. The museum is free and open to the public weekdays 8-5 and Saturdays 1-5. CMU requires weekday guests to have a parking pass, which are available at the museum’s main office in Rowe 103 or online at https://apps.cmich.edu/vehicleregistration/guest/default.aspx. To reserve a program for a group, call 989-774-3829 or visit www.museum.cmich.edu.


Caity Burnell is the Museum Educator and Research Collections Coordinator at the CMU Museum of Cultural and Natural History and a CMU Museum Studies Alum. Caity teaches in the Museum Studies program at CMU, including the classes MST 325: Public Programming in Museums and MST 310: Introduction to Museums. For more information on the museum visit the staff page on the CMU website and follow them on twitter or instagram!

  1. Twitter handle: @CMU_Museum

  2. Instagram: @cmumuseum

From Scotland to New Haven: An Opera Singer's Journey

Pictures: laurenmcquistin.com

By Lauren McQuistin

Prior to my graduation from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I asked my head of year what my next step should be. He suggested London, or Wales, but if I really wanted to challenge myself, the United States. Never shy from a challenge, I saw no other option but to buy a ticket. In recent years I told my Professor Robertson, how much his advice meant to me. He told me that while he gives most people the same advice few follow through. Having graduated at the other end of my graduate school experience, I am so grateful for the way higher education in America has enriched my life and would encourage anyone considering it enthusiastically. I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship and stipend to study music at Yale University. Due to the fully funded nature of the programme, it attracted the most extraordinary musicians across the world, regardless of their socio-economic background. The program sought out musicians that were willing to carve their way forward based on skill and determination alone. Additionally, I gained valuable teaching skills—an experience unique to the American graduate school—though I am first and foremost a performer, I have extensive training in how to teach voice. Throughout my Masters degree I had a private studio of sixteen students, which varied from young undergraduates in the Glee Club, with over a decade of choral training – to graduate school instrumentalists who had never sung a note.  

Being situated on the east coast, the Music School placed me in a centre point for a culmination of cultures to explore. Coming from a small country of about five million, to sixty-five times that was overwhelming but eventually one of my greatest opportunities to network, grow as a musician, and expand my horizons. A singer’s and, indeed a graduate student in most disciplines, journey does not solely exist in the realm of music or subject, there is often a huge component that is based in language and the learning of language. While a history student must be of reading comprehension—especially for research purposes—an opera singer must be skilled in speaking and lyric diction. With the resident linguistic experts, I obtained a degree of fluency in German and Italian, proficiency in French, and started my journey with Russian. Aside from the practical applications, I have lyric diction in Czech and Swedish.  

Working as a teacher for the Yale School of Music allowed me to zone in on my own technique, and really develop my personal pedagogy. A feat that graduate students around the country must face in their respective careers. Having students at the absolute infancy of their musical journey allowed me to install an appreciation and a holistic approach to the voice – one that comes from a desire to create and share an art form that resonates on a profound level. Seeing young students be brave, and risk vulnerability, by exploring the world of singing and performance enhanced my own appreciation for the art from. In my final semester I had a pleasure of watching two of my students perform principal roles in Yale Baroque Ensemble’s production of L’orfeo, which reiterated that my teaching had created a legacy of performers and has already enhanced my studio and garnered public interest in my skills.  

Equally important was spreading my Scottish identity. Being part of the Yale School of Music and all the prestige that is attached to that, was my platform to promote Scottish musicians and artists as viable and vital to the artistic world. The connections and, most importantly, the discipline that I gained has afforded me the standing to make my way in the professional world. During my first audition season I was able to work at one of the top Young Artist’s Programmes in the world, Central City Opera, giving a taste of the young artist lifestyle I hope to inhabit very soon. Another asset to the School of Music is the contacts they have with agents and managers, which meant that in my final semester I had the pleasure of singing for Columbia Records, Barret Artists, and most importantly, the Metropolitan Opera.  

The sheer diversity of cultures that exist in America alone, and the diversity of cultures that America attracts, is a brilliant opportunity to expand one’s world view, and really asses how one moves through the world as a global citizen. The entire world is aware of the issues and advances that are occurring in America, they inhabit the world stage. Being close to them, and gaining my education during them, informed me on how I can be an active member of society, working towards justice and dismantling the systems of oppression that are failing humanity. In my experience I saw a student body who fixated upon this and used the power of their intelligence to mobilise and make small but significant changes that will eventually impact our future. This allowed me to consider how to make my music useful, and meaningful in a broader way, such as performing in benefits for Asylum and Immigration. I would not have had such a tangible contact with this world, and this way to use my skills and talents, if I had not taken the leap to study in America.


Lauren McQuistin is a soprano opera singer originally from Stranraer in Scotland. Including having a very impressive resume and website, Lauren enjoys the simple things in life such as eating out for breakfast, visiting cute coffee shops, and whale watching (although I’m not sure that’s quite as simple!). Studying abroad, teaching, and learning languages have been a vital part in Lauren’s journey to where she is today.

If you wish to contact her or find out more, visit her web page www.laurenmcquistin.com

New Season, New Editor

Author Visiting the Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Author Visiting the Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Just as the seasons change, so must the tenure of editors of the blog. We bid farewell to one editor-in-chief and welcome another. As summer gets under way in 2019 (last of the teens…) I hope that everyone is enjoying some well-earned time off and the glorious weather. While you are taking it easy and hopefully writing, I will be meticulously looking after [Re]collection until the New Year. As such, I am excited to bring you some new content, organize, assemble, and most importantly, showcase these wonderful posts for the remainder of the year.

I would like to thank my most recent predecessor Marcel Haas for his help and navigational guidance. Moreover, I would like to thank his predecessors for maintaining such excellent work, their work ethic and contributions make this a hard standard to live up to, but I shall endeavour to maintain the excellence you are used to.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Gillian Macdonald and coming in the Fall I will be a fourth year PhD candidate in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program at CMU. Since it is my fourth year, I am hoping to complete a good chunk—if not all—of my research and writing in the coming year. Before coming to CMU, I was a student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow that is one of the history department’s partner institutions. I completed both my Bachelors Honors Degree and my Master in Research at Strathclyde there. During my MRes year I was approached about attending CMU through the partnership exchange and four years later here I am completing my PhD.

After a year of completing requirements, my historical interests primarily lie in Early Modern Europe, the Medieval World, and the History of the United States with a sprinkling of inter-war Europe. Having read at least a few books in each field I can honestly say I am fascinated. However, my primary area of research lies in seventeenth-century Great Britain. The seventeenth-century is when all the fun stuff happens, there’s two revolutions, they lob off some king’s heads, start an empire, go to war with the Netherlands, France, and countless other places, the fallout from the Reformation takes hold, you name it and it’s happening. My personal interests and research lie in the tail end of the century during the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-90—very contested name in the historiography—particularly in Scotland. This includes spies, refugees, pirates, and parliamentary legislation dealing with it all.

Over the course of the next few months I am looking forward to sharing experiences and updates as I travel to my archives and burrow into my sources. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my exciting finds and struggles along the way as I travel around the little British island that I call home and maybe to some more exotic places. As well as reviewing, sharing, and publishing any and all relevant contributions by our readers! I welcome and encourage all submissions please do not hesitate to drop an email at cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com.

Happy Holidays!

Home Sweet Home

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by Marcel Haas

All good things must eventually come to an end. As academics, perhaps more than anyone else, we live in a world of short terms. We leave home after High School, start undergrad educations that lead us across country and back, only to take up further education, different courses, shorter stays. We travel abroad, circle back, leave again, always searching for the next degree, the next completion of projects. Each of those projects seem to be the ultimate undertaking, until they’re over and done with, every time. After graduate courses loom PhDs and post-docs. They are followed by yet more short-term employments. Great projects, new funding, renewed fascination? Maybe along the way we lost hope, faith in ourselves, a belief that there will be an end to uncertain project jumping. Maybe we regained those hopes, faiths, beliefs somewhere as well. In any case, the wheel moves on, and we with it.

What I wanted to say was that there is no end, although we promise our families every time we come home for the holidays that exactly this end is so very near. The next degree, that next project, those last publications… Of course, in all this uncertainty and enforced flexibility, we can strive. We don’t have to fail the tests that are thrown in our paths periodically. And so we march on, homeward bound.

With this post, time has come for me to acknowledge the end of my tenure as editor of this blog. It also is time, however, to say goodbye to nearly six years of CMU, of living in Mount Pleasant, flying in to MBS Airport, and taking the Indian Trails bus South. It is goodbye to taking and teaching classes, grading and being graded, learning, studying, and editing side by side with fellow undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students, as well as professors. We had a good run, didn’t we?

The end is no such thing. For a couple of days I have sat around my temporary house back in Germany, thinking of how to say goodbye to America, six months after actually leaving the country. In truth, I had said goodbye then and there, subconsciously dragging it out until today. Of course, I haven’t yet finished my dissertation, not defended, not published my book. Therefore, we could argue that nothing really has come to an end. I just live somewhere else now. Like everyone else I have met along the way, I have also now moved on, back across the Atlantic, back home.

I’m not completely sure what the future will hold for me. I know that I will move to a different city in Germany, get married, find a new job… at the same time as still thinking about my Indigenous travellers, who, a little like me, went on journeys across the ocean to find out what was beyond. Like me, they also came back. To say it in the words of the immortal Mötley Crüe, “I’m on my way, Home Sweet Home.”

……….

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I want to end at least this post on saying thank you. Thank you to all those professors, assistants, custodians, and guardian angels of Central Michigan University who have made my last five years worth living in Mount Pleasant. Thank you to my friends and fellow travellers. You know who you are. Thank you to my students who listened patiently while my English became gradually better and worse again. Thank you for late emails, early reminders, the occasional criticism, advice, and praise. It was all appreciated and I will miss it and all of you dearly. I’ll see you when I see you.

Between Oil and Vietnam: Activists and their Opposition to Angola

by Julianne Haefner

About one year ago I shared my on-going dissertation project “U.S. Foreign Policy towards Angola during the Ford Administration, 1974 to 1977.” In the meantime, I have passed my comprehensive exams and have returned to working on my dissertation. Initially this was quite the struggle. On one hand, I was relieved to have passed my exams and finally be able to work on my dissertation again. On the other hand, I was a bit overwhelmed: I hadn’t touched my research in about six months and had to familiarize myself with my topic again. However, in January, I had a lucky break.  

As I have written previously for this blog, I researched quite a bit of President Ford’s foreign policy documents in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library last summer. Throughout this research, I had an inclination that activists in the United States would have been active in opposing the intervention. But I didn’t have specific evidence for that. Until one day this past January when I stumbled over the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University. Their online holdings transpired to be a gold mine. I found countless images, newsletter, and pamphlets discussing the dangers of U.S. involvement in Angola and drawing attention to rallies and protests. In this post I want to share two of them: one of them an image from a demonstration in Washington D.C, the other a leaflet promoting a protest march in Philadelphia.

Credit: Southern Africa Committee photo archive (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

Credit: Southern Africa Committee photo archive (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

The first image was taken at a demonstration in front of the White House on December 13, 1975. One of the protestors had a sign that read: “If you liked Vietnam you’ll love Angola.” Many activists drew connections between the situation in Indochina and Southern Africa: In both regions the U.S. was interfering in the self determination of countries that had long been under foreign, colonial, rule. U.S. involvement in Vietnam had escalated over the years. This was a fear that many activists had regarding Angola as well. Although there were numerous reports about U.S. mercenaries fighting in Angola, at the time of many of the demonstrations the U.S. had not yet deployed troops to Angola, But activists argued that even though troops had not been deployed, similar to Vietnam this was just a matter of time in the stages of escalation.

The second document is a leaflet advertising two events in early February 1976 connected to intervention in Angola. One of those events was a protest march to Gulf Oil in Philadelphia. Several other oil companies had already secured drilling rights, but Gulf Oil was in 1975 the only company that had already been drilling in Angola. Oil was a particularly contested issue because of the first oil crisis that had taken place in 1973. Activists on the other hand argued for the divestment of oil companies from Angola. Criticism towards Gulf Oil appears in dozens of documents that activists had created. Reading about the criticism towards Gulf Oil reminded me of the divestment movement. As international criticism ramped up against apartheid in South Africa, activists called for the divestment of companies and universities from South Africa. The calls for the divestment of Gulf Oil were definitely not as wide-scaled as the divestment movement, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the similarities.

Credit: Vincent Klingler papers (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

Credit: Vincent Klingler papers (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

As I continue to read through the African Activist Archive documents I am sure I will come across more interesting documents. This is then the bottom line for other students working on research projects, no matter if they’re pursuing a PhD, master’s degree, or writing a capstone paper: Sometimes it pays off to aimlessly click around the internet.

A Year in the Life: Requirements, Sanity, and Being ABD

by Gillian Macdonald

While knowing what I was signing up for when I applied for the PhD program at CMU back in 2015, the scary parts (by scary parts I mean comprehensive exams mostly) seemed far off in the distance to be tackled by a more mature version of myself when the time came. After spending a glorious summer in Mount Pleasant in 2018, the third year was suddenly upon me. Just like that two years of preparation had vanished. As many of you know, the third year is usually about the time when grad students start to freak out because of comprehensive exams, prospectus writing, AND completing all of our language requirements to continue in the program. On top of that there is the graduate assistantship for the year. Sounds daunting, right?

I had heard enough stories from former grad students and those who were ABD already about exams to not only give you nightmares but also to know that there were mixed reviews.

*Piece of advice: don’t ask too much about it beforehand, it’s never going to be as bad as you make it out to be in your head.*

What studying didn’t prepare me for was the ever-looming dread that starts to hit you as the date approaches. However, your advisors will not let you sit the exams unless they think you are ready for it. Chiara Ziletti’s earlier blog post about exams (Spooked By Comps?) covers this better than I ever could.

Something I learned from this year, it’s okay to ask for help and TAKE A BREAK once in a while. Comprehensive Exams are one thing but your sanity is another, and arguably more important. I certainly spent a lot of my summer studying, and it paid off, but I am not sure I could have endured the tour de force that is third year without a few trips across Michigan or to the local watering hole to let off some steam. Thankfully, I have a wonderful cohort of friends—more like a graduate student family—that tell you when it’s time to step away from the notes and take a breather. More often than not they’re invariably right and sometimes you need some outside perspective. Or just a walk outside of the office that you will habitually be cooped up in furiously studying notes and mind maps to boot.

Looking back, I think the most stressful part of my third year was in the Spring semester. In hindsight I probably should have started writing my prospectus earlier (but that’s why hindsight is 20/20). However, having said that I might not have had my lightbulb moment about what I wanted my dissertation project to be. While this year was challenging—exams, deciding on a concrete dissertation project, passing two language requirements—it was also very rewarding. Not entirely academically so but being published for the first time is a nice bonus (even if it is a little book review).

Now onto the hard part, actually writing the dissertation. And so, I am off on my archival travels across the great Atlantic Ocean to a little bit bleary and rainy United Kingdom to scour the documents for my project. In parting, your grad school comrades are there to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and lean on them when you get tired. If your friends are anything like mine, they won’t let you fall.

Lynn Hunt on Why History Matters Now More Than Ever: An Enthusiastically Biased Report

by Dr. Gregory Smith

When I volunteered to write a brief report on Lynn Hunt’s keynote address for the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, I knew enough to expect a tour de force. (Anyone who has encountered Professor Hunt’s work has learned to expect tours de force.) But it was only in the days leading up to the conference, when I finally got a chance to finish her excellent book History: Why It Matters (Polity Press, 2018), that I started to suspect her talk might upend my other expectations.

41OBxKH1K7L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Frankly, I was expecting a jeremiad. When I see a title like “Why History Matters” I expect to hear something like the voice of one crying in the wilderness, telling us to take courage in the face of (1) a gathering storm where our words will likely be ignored, effaced, or taken out of context; and/or (2) a world of declining history enrollments, where people equate a liberal arts degree with un(der)employment or “useless” skills, no matter how often and loudly we cite decisive evidence to the contrary.

Fortunately for those of us present and for readers of this post, Professor Hunt’s address was emphatically not a jeremiad. Instead she argued persuasively that historians make a demonstrable difference, that the world (our world) is in no more danger of ending than it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago, and that we should not give up on interpretation or epistemological self-scrutiny in the face of “alternative facts.” “Why History Matters Now More Than Ever” also featured a brilliant thumbnail sketch of postmodern theory – the kind of perfectly distilled summary that makes graduate students wonder why their teachers didn’t just say so in the first place —- and closed with an exemplary Q and A. Current and future professionals take note: this is how to do it.

On the major point, Professor Hunt reminded us that history matters because ordinary people listen and respond to how historians interpret the past. No, seriously, they really do! The last few decades have witnessed wide-ranging and non-trivial changes to the way Civil War history is taught in American schools, for example, even in those states where “revisionist” history textbooks were most resisted in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] There are many reasons not to be satisfied with the status quo, but in the midst of culture wars and literal wars it is easy to forget that professional historians have made a lasting difference. Crucial claims that used to be “controversial,” such as the role of slavery as primary cause of the Civil War, have become commonplace. Inclined to focus on how long it took, historians often underplay the more important fact that it happened in the first place.

In the aftermath (or in the midst) of “post-truth,” historians might also be tempted to give up on the critical self-evaluation that has always been a feature of the best sort of history. After all, isn’t postmodernism at least partially to blame for the rise of alternative facts, echo chambers, and the legitimizing of conspiracy theory?[2] Some might go farther still and eschew interpretation (at least temporarily) in favor of establishing “what actually happened”: historians as fact-checkers awarding Pinocchios. To all this Professor Hunt says “no.” It is the wrong response, and a self-defeating one. Facts are important, and historians know what to do to establish and debate the basic evidence. But interpretation remains central to the enterprise. Particular interpretations can be more or less persuasive than others, and we can still have meaningful debates that are not reducible to power-plays, aesthetic taste, or individual whim.

Another cause for cheer, and re-evaluation: Professor Hunt observed that public interest in history is as high as it has ever been. History museums, sites, parks, television – all are being consumed in numbers that present a bracing contrast to recent declines in history majors. Among other lessons is the fact that people who want history will get it from somewhere: professional historians ought to be playing an instrumental role in answering the demand.

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

I, for one, was convinced on almost every point. (I am not sure I quite share Professor Hunt’s long and broadly optimistic view on social media. She thinks it need not be any more negatively disruptive than other revolutions in the history of human communication, whereas I suspect that the invention of writing and printing are as different as they are similar to the sudden concentration of knowledge, power, wealth, and proprietary algorithms in the hands of an extraordinarily small set of people in California and Washington.)

But the best final summary and recommendation I can make, for those who were present and those who couldn’t make the talk, is to read History: Why It Matters. To list all the things I love about this book would be to write another blog post (or ten), but I cannot endorse heartily enough its observations about the universality of history-writing (pp. 48–52), its warning that “one day our histories will look just as incomplete” as the older work whose limitations we so often (and rightly) challenge (p. 55), its warnings against “presentism” (p. 111), and a set of almost-final words that reflect my own understanding and experience of history as well as anything I have ever read: “What do we learn from the past? For me, it is above all else respect for those who came before us” (p. 112).

  1. Jacey Fortin, “Texas Students Will Now Learn That Slavery Was ‘Central’ to the Civil War,” New York Times, November 21, 2018.

  2. Among many possibilities, see Matt McManus, “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” Quillette, May 17, 2018; Carole Cadwalladr, “Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’,” The Guardian, February 12, 2017; and a rejoinder by Aaron Hanlon, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.” Washington Post, August 31, 2018.

A Question of Narration

London Bridge from the Southwark side, c 1751  (source: telegraph.co.uk)

London Bridge from the Southwark side, c 1751 (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Imagine the scene.

A handsome man dressed in a finely worked frock and greatcoat leaves a stately home in London’s aristocratic quarters. Assisted by a servant in an immaculate uniform he climbs into his carriage – a gift from his wife’s father. He doesn’t have to tell the driver of the carriage where to go, the servant knows well. After all, he had driven his master to the palace every morning of this past week. The servant is proud of his duties. Since the news of his employer’s promotion had arrived last week, the man had been able to brag to the other customers of the Kings Arms Inn that he would surely receive a pay raise now. So far, the man in the back of the carriage had made no inclination of actually paying him more, but the day would come, the driver was convinced. His employer was a good man, better than most lords and politicians in the city. Inside the carriage, the handsome man smiles to himself, while the scenery of London rushes past. His promotion had been no surprise. For two years, he and his wife had worked to gain the ear of the Queen, and had used their influence to make their way into her inner circle. Private talks in the royal chambers had followed. Now, he was Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, and able to direct the daily business of the Queen herself. On top of that, she had given him a place in the cabinet, unheard of for a man of his position. The Whigs had cried foul, of course. They were terrified of his influence. Godolphin himself had told the Queen that with him being Lord Chamberlain – a Tory! – Parliament would be soon dissolved and general elections a given. The man in the carriage grows excited while he thinks of the prospect. How hard had his friends in the Tory party worked to regain power from the bloody Whigs! For ten years, Great Britain had fought the French in the War of the Spanish Succession, with no end in sight. With Tories back in control of Parliament, they would bring an end to further escalation. Public opinion was on their side, the man in the carriage muses, when the driver brings the horses to a sudden stop. They had arrived at their destination, St. James’s Palace. The handsome man – whose face barely shows the marks of the fifty years he had lived – steps out of the carriage and heads towards the gates. Still smiling, he – Charles Talbot, the Duke of Shrewsbury, and newly appointed Lord Chamberlain of Queen Anne’s Household – makes his way into the audience chambers on the 19th of April, 1710, to announce the arrival of four savage visitors from the Queen’s American Colonies.

Talbot was deeply embroiled in political manoeuvrings, questions of status, and his personal relationship with the Queen. He did not think much of the four Indians he had to announce as part of a small distraction in today’s business.

Portland Place in around 1796  (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Portland Place in around 1796 (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Looking back three hundred years, I am inclined to disagree with Talbot. In fact, while history has largely forgotten the charming Duke who wormed his way into the Queen’s graces in the summer of 1710, it has not forgotten the four Indians who had “undertaken a long and tedious voyage” to see their “great Queen.” In the meeting of kings and queens, the English aristocrat became a bystander. He surely would not have been happy about that.

.              .              .

The narrative in the beginning of this post was cobbled together from my current research. While looking at the journeys of indigenous people of Africa and America to Europe, I have stumbled upon a number of stories seemingly no one has told before. The bystanders of great events – with all their ambitions, dreams, fears, and politicking – have always fascinated me. In fact, the reason for choosing Indigenous travellers as the focus of my research came from their poor treatment in older historical narratives. Too often they had been passive observers. Nevertheless, in recent decades, historians have worked hard to focus their analyses and narratives on those so harshly overlooked.

The stories I wanted to tell focused on Indigenous historical protagonists who came to European courts and played the colonial empires for fools. In my mind, the colonial officials suddenly became bystanders, marginalized people themselves. Which brings me to the little exercise at the beginning of this post. I had already shifted attention away from the Europeans before, now I wanted to see how the day of the Indigenous visit would have played out for one of those passive bystanders. This time, the person without agency would be Charles Talbot, the Duke of Shrewsbury. What he thought and did on the 19th of April, 1710, tells us little about the Indigenous travellers. Indeed, he didn’t have much (if anything) to say about them, he was not aware of their status and historical significance, and, after the audience, his mind was taken up with very different issues – those of personal advancement in her Majesty’s service.

The purpose of the little exercise was thus to shift focus freely, dealing with historical figures as individuals before their titles and status muddles our modern perception of their actions. Talbot was as much actor in the earlier narrative as was his driver, both initially nameless, reduced to their personal ambitions. We could write the same scene about everyone in attendance during the audience, freely shifting focus and attention from person to person. The question that emerges is one of narration, however. How far can we go to narrate history? I consciously chose to open the narrative as I would a theatre script, because narrative often plays out as a scene would. We need to be careful, indeed, not to confuse narrative and historical events. Both have separate purpose and cannot be conflated. Writing historical narrative helps visualize history, but must not replace the analysis of an event. Vice versa, only analysing what people sometimes mistakenly assume to be dry historical facts can often be unrewarding. In short, narration helps us understand an event, while at the same time confronting us with the perspective of a previously chosen cast of characters. Playing out a scene – be it while writing or reading it – can make previously hidden motivations visible.

.              .              .

If you agree of disagree with my take on historical narrative, I would be happy to see comments either here or on our social media platforms.

An Amazing Adventure in the Archives in Arkansas

by Samuel Malby

This year I was lucky enough to get a research grant from the graduate school, as well as funding from the department to go on a research trip to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first step of the process was of course planning ahead of time. I was looking for documents related to immigration policy over the course of the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), but also looking more specifically at primary sources that dealt with immigration detention.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

First, I used the online Finding Aids to look up what useful documents were available, and what boxes I wanted to look at while I was there. Second, and perhaps the most important step was to contact the archivists and inform them of my plans to visit the archives. They emailed me back with a ton of information, supplementary sources they recommended I look at, and informed me that they had digitized a few of the sources I had mentioned and that those were available online. Therefore, before arriving at the archives I had a list of everything I wanted to look at, and this made the entire process so much easier once I got there.

I flew into Little Rock on a Sunday and had four days in the archives (Monday to Thursday) before flying home on the Friday.

On the first day, I arrived at the archives as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I only had a few days and thousands of documents to get through, so I did not want to waste any time. I informed the security guards at the entrance that I was here for research and they let the archivists know that I was there. Then the archivists came to find me and took me through a long corridor and up some stairs into the archives themselves. There, as it was my first time, they explained the process, the rules, and the regulations. I received a visitor’s badge, a locker key, and a research card. Next, they took me into the research room and gave me my first cart with ten boxes (ten is the maximum they can give you at any time). On my list I had 34 boxes to get through in four days, but I had no idea how long it would take me. I therefore started off with the most important ones. It is important to prioritize especially if your time is limited. On the first morning, I only got through one box. I needed to speed things up. As I had so much to get through I was not really reading documents, I was mostly just taking photographs of all the useful documents I had before me. For the first few boxes that were related specifically to immigration detention, that meant taking pictures of everything. Some of the first ten boxes were filled exclusively with email exchanges between administration officials. While I am sure some of these contained interesting information, I decided it would be more beneficial to look through other material first and come back to these if I had time (Spoiler Alert: I did not).

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Between 12 and 1 the archives closed for lunch, so I went to find food. I had lunch at the 42, the restaurant situated in the Clinton museum, on one of the lower floors. As a true Englishman, I had fish’n’chips with a dark chocolate cheesecake with fresh fruits and a strawberry coulis for dessert. The dessert was hands down one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, it was fabulous!

After lunch I headed back up to the archives. I got through box two, and over the course of the day took 1521 pictures. By the end of the day I had a record of all the documents related to immigration detention in those two boxes.

On the second day, I went straight into the research room this time. I started to look at the email boxes, but there were just too many, and the process was too long. I skipped ahead to the final boxes on my first cart of ten boxes. They were mostly about former IRA members who were going to be deported. This was both remarkably interesting and quite unexpected. Who knows, maybe I will be able to find out what happened to them and write something about that one day! Once I got through those, I was done with cart one. The next cart started off with one of the boxes I was most interested in. From what I could see online, it looked like it would be particularly useful for my research and contain lots of critical information. In the end, however, it was very disappointing. It of course contained some relevant stuff but mostly documents that I knew were available elsewhere. However, one of the other boxes I was not expecting to find much in turned out to be a gold mine! Jam-packed full of interesting documents, juicy sources, and controversial material, this was the kind of stuff I was hoping to find.

Back in the 42, I had lunch with one of the other researchers. He was a retired professor of History from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, looking for sources related to narcotics. Over lunch he told me about his interactions in his youth with drug dealers in Colombia and had many other interesting stories to tell. At the end of the day, I took advantage of the heat and the sunny weather to go sight-seeing and took a two-hour walk along the Arkansas River trail.

On day three I went through some more boxes. I found lots of documents on Operation Gatekeeper. It was sunny and warm, so I had lunch outside on the patio at 42 again. I resisted the temptation to get dessert but decided I was going to have one tomorrow to celebrate my last day here! In the afternoon I got a new cart with 10 new boxes. Most of those contained useful and relevant sources. In the evening, after the archives had closed, I headed to a coffee shop to start drafting my article and simply enjoyed being in a city for a change.

On day four, I woke up to thunderstorm and rain. This meant that getting a cab was harder than usual as there were fewer drivers about. My driver that morning was Darill who was originally from Trinidad and Tobago. He was a big soccer fan, so we talked about our favorite soccer clubs and players (and how bad Man United are, everyone knows that!). He also talked about how he was also a musician who played steel drums.

On my final day at the archives, I continued to work through sources. By this point, thanks to my earlier prioritization I was mostly looking at documents that were less related, so I spent a little more time deciding what to skip over, and what to focus on. My aim was to get through it all before I left. I made timely progress and had almost finished cart three out of four by lunch on Thursday. At the restaurant, I ate with the researcher Eduardo again. As it turned out, he was half-Colombian and half-Argentinian. We talked about soccer (the theme of the day), and national allegiances. He was an Argentina supporter, and we talked about soccer rivalries and European football. He also talked about his experience of the military Junta in Argentina in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was a remarkably interesting guy!

After lunch I quickly moved onto cart four. There was some interesting material, but time was running out. I had to decide what to take photos of and what to not get bogged down in. I rapidly got though my final cart and finished my final box with about three minutes left on the clock!

In the evening, the weather was nice, so I went for a walk through the city and eventually stopped off in a bar that had hundreds of beers available. I sat down and drank a few of them and enjoyed my last evening in Arkansas. Life. Was. Good.

IGHS Conference Recap

by Erik Noren

As a former graduate student at Central Michigan University, and current PhD candidate at Wayne State University, I was recently invited by the leadership of the International Graduate Historical Studies Conference to come up to CMU to serve as a commentator. It was an honor to be given this responsibility, and I also learned a great deal from the panels during my stay. 

Acting as commentator on a conference panel was quite the learning experience. Just as a teacher learns their subject material far better after teaching, one also learns much more about a paper after engaging with it critically. I enjoyed hearing the presentations by Julianne and Kristian at my panel, but reading their papers beforehand had given me a better grounding in their respective subjects. Julianne’s presentation on the Ford Administration’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s was very intriguing, discussing it through the lens of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and international economics. Kristian’s work explored the history of the Equity, a farmer’s union that formed in 1902 and helped pave the way for larger organizations to follow. In both cases I couldn’t be a passive member of the audience, but instead had to constantly follow the material. Even if the criticism towards a paper is minor, writing comments can be quite challenging.

Thankfully, my visit did not stop at providing comments. Instead, I was able to attend other sessions and learn from those other panels. Following that, I was able to reconnect with several familiar faces. It had been a couple years since I had spoken at the IGHS conference and it was good to be back. My earlier time at CMU was a significant period in my development as a historian. I earned my MA in History here back in December 2014. Walking through those familiar halls brought back old memories. Some of those memories included my time as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Dr. Donohue, the informative classes I took with Dr. Euler, Dr. Harsanyi and many others, and also the great conversations I had with my fellow colleagues. Even though some of my old colleagues were not on campus that day, it was good to meet up with some of the current graduate students in the department and learn about their interests.

Another part of the conference that is definitely worth highlighting was Dr. Lynn Hunt’s keynote address. Her examination of the recent role of social media was very interesting. In many cases it resonated with her previous work Writing History in the Global Era, in which she stipulated that writing history from below requires a familiarity with how people think and act. Even though I was not able to talk to her for very long, I still enjoyed meeting such a fantastic scholar in person. In my own classes I have often used the short Bedford books as useful ways to introduce students to primary sources, and Dr. Hunt is at the top of the series’ advisory editors. To conclude, I found my short visit back to CMU for the IGHS conference to be both eventful and rewarding. I hope in the future to be able to return to the conference as a commentator or presenter. The scholarship in my panels was top-notch, and I look forward to seeing more good work in the future.

A Dispatch from Bochum

The author on the steps of the Münster.

The author on the steps of the Münster.

As the academic year in the US draws to a close, uncertainty, stress, and fatigue are each a familiar presence. However, here in Germany – where the semester has just begun, and where the workload is arguably less intense – I too am faced with certain perils. What exactly is this food that I have ordered? Why am I being reprimanded by this old woman in the street? (Apparently, it is not socially acceptable to cross the street before the light turns green – lesson learned.) How much bread is too much bread? (German bread – and German beer, for that matter – is truly marvelous. Another lesson learned.)

I am currently on exchange at the Ruhr-Universität (RUB) in Bochum. This is my second time studying abroad, and the third country that I have been fortunate enough to study in. From January until mid-March I took part in an intensive language class, wherein I developed basic language skills and worked closely with other incoming students who faced the same challenges I did. The class was often difficult though enjoyable, and friendships were forged over our mutual struggle to comprehend the mysteries of German grammar. Much of my first months here were also spent making use of my Semesterticket, a train pass that allows students to travel throughout the region for a very affordable one-off fee. My state – Nordrhein-Westfalen – is the largest in Germany, and with my Semesterticket I have been fortunate to explore the cities of Köln, Dortmund, Bonn, Düsseldorf, and more. This ticket has offered plenty of extra-curricular opportunities to develop my language skills and gain some understanding of everyday life in Germany. The benefits of this pass are many; in fact, one can probably learn as much from traveling around the state than from work in the classroom.

That being said, all of the homework in the world could not have prepared me for Karneval, a time during which the citizens of Düsseldorf, Köln, and more take to the streets and are gripped by a sort of collective insanity, souped up on copious amounts of alcohol and high-quality German sausages. I’m told that the festivities have a connection to the Catholic celebration of Lent, though it is unclear exactly where Jägermeister fits within the liturgical calendar. Garish costumes are worn as the revelers celebrate their civic pride; the cities resemble a Game of Thrones battlefield, soundtracked by Kölsch lager and pounding techno music from the 1990s. It is an incredible amount of fun. Of course, this being Germany, all festive debris is cleaned away in an orderly fashion, and everyone returns to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.

Thankfully, Karneval comes but once a year, and, after all, there is serious work to be done. My academic experiences so far have admittedly been very challenging. Class discussion is held in German, and though there is not much expected of me in terms of contribution, even trying to keep up is very difficult. Class formats are also different than in the US, and great importance is placed on your ability to independently conduct and present original research. The campus at RUB is labyrinthine, and with its brutalist architecture from the 1960s and dour winter weather, even finding your way around can initially be intimidating. However, rising to these challenges is a privilege, not to mention a great opportunity. Living and working abroad forces you out of comfort zones and demands that you adapt to new experiences; moreover, the opportunity to cultivate connections and network with like-minded academics is also a bonus. The faculty here have been welcoming and are extremely helpful in providing guidance and advice.

I have been fortunate enough to study abroad before and believe that being able to study in an atmosphere which demands hard work truly offers an opportunity to thrive. And if it all becomes too much, there is always the option to chill out and eat a pretzel. Lesson learned.

The Ethiopian Nero

Ustinov in Quo Vadis? (ustinov-stiftung.de)

Ustinov in Quo Vadis? (ustinov-stiftung.de)

In 1951, Sir Peter Ustinov played the role of Emperor Nero in the American epic Quo Vadis?, and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In 1935, his father Jona Freiherr von Ustinov, Russian noble and German citizen, began working for the MI5 and against the Nazi regime. That same year, Peter Ustinov’s great-uncle, David Hall, privy councilor to Emperor Haile Selassie, traveled to Berlin in order to get Hitler’s consent to have a large weapons cache delivered to Ethiopia, which was on the brink of an Italian invasion. The three men were part of the same family. All three lived and worked in a number of different countries, under different names, assuming a variety of ethnicities and identities. At times, Peter Ustinov’s father and great-uncle were on different sides in the European struggle. Always, however, were their stories entwined.

The history of Ustinov’s far-reaching family is one of migration, assimilation, and adaption. I stumbled across their fascinating stories when researching the Ethiopian-German relationship during the World Wars, and was quickly taken by what was a shining example of transnational history. Peter Ustinov, now the best-known member of the family and renowned for his acting career, was only the icing of the cake, however.

In 1850, the “black German” Welette Iyesus was born in Ethiopia to the German painter Eduard Zander and the Ethiopian court-lady Issete-Worq Megado. She married a German-Polish Jew from Cracow, Moritz Hall, who had emigrated to East-Africa in order to become a cannon-caster to Emperor Tewodros II. Together, they had twelve children, two of which were David Hall and Magdalena von Ustinov, née Hall. Magdalena would become Peter Ustinov’s grandmother, and through her he would be part Ethiopian. The same was true of course for David Hall, who had mostly inherited the fair complexion of his father’s side. Otherwise it would have been difficult for him to pass convincingly as the “civilized” descendant of an Ethiopian “princess” and a German “harbinger of culture,” as he portrayed himself in Berlin in 1935. Magdalena’s son, Jona von Ustinov, first worked for the German embassy in London, but was then turned by MI5 and became a British citizen. In the same year in which his nephew started working for British Intelligence, David Hall, son of a Jewish immigrant and an Ethiopian mother, travelled through Europe looking on his Emperor’s behalf for support against the Italian aggression in East-Africa. He succeeded in Berlin, where he used the full repertoire of ethnicity, colonial misconceptions, and the romantic notion of ancient royalty to gain the approval of Nazi Germany.

image: Wolbert Smidt, Aethiopien und Deutschland - 100 Jahre Diplomatische Beziehungen (Goethe Institut: Addis Abeba, 2005), 83.

image: Wolbert Smidt, Aethiopien und Deutschland - 100 Jahre Diplomatische Beziehungen (Goethe Institut: Addis Abeba, 2005), 83.

Sir Peter Ustinov died in 2004 in Switzerland, having assumed the Swiss citizenship in the 1960s in order to avoid being highly taxed in Great Britain. His life and family history are a fascinating web of migration, ethnicity, and loyalty. Above all, his family is an example of a transnational history that would be impossible if we only consider borders and national histories.

The Halls’ full story is far too complex to recount here in the limited space of a blog post. Therefore, I would refer you to my upcoming dissertation that will surely be finished at some point in the next decade. Watch this space.

You have to be There to Believe It: History Comes Alive

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

by David Banas

Spring Break. That semi-magical time full of the hope of freedom for undergraduates and the false hope of it for graduate students who will invariably be writing term papers or, perhaps even worse, grading term papers. While there is an emphasis on working over Spring Break, especially in graduate circles, there is still nonetheless time during most of our Spring breaks to do something relaxing or exhilarating. The latter came for me on a surprise, last minute trip to Connecticut and New York where I was confronted face-to-face with the idea of history coming to life. Most time when one tosses the phrase “history comes alive” around in the CMU History Department, it generally refers to the methodology of game-based learning. However, there is another, older, and perhaps more established way in which history has been made accessible to generations of the public and historians alike over the past two and a half centuries: museums.

On my trip I visited two such institutions. In addition to the rich primary sources that the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library offers, it presents something even more valuable to the public (or even the historian not studying Medieval and Early Modern history): an enormous glass display filled with examples of their rare collections, visible for every visitor. In addition to the large display of the collection, the Beinecke has several individual display cases with invaluable books scattered around the library. What struck me the most was the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five in the United States and of twenty-one remaining in existence. I was instantly drawn back to my undergraduate years when Dr. Rutherford had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Gutenberg Bible to the point of making it an ID term on his Renaissance history final exam. And here I was, face-to-face with the oldest, western, printed book in history. In that moment, I forgot all the greater surrounding details that Dr. Rutherford had sought to impress upon my memory and instead was enraptured by the beauty and majesty of this work and the book’s heavy Fraktur font. For me, history came alive as I experienced not only the object in its larger historical context but also its sheer beauty.

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

After being hauled around for nearly an hour and a half around a semi-frigid New York City by my girlfriend and her friend who were hell-bent on seeing all of New York in a day, we finally arrived at the end of Central Park with a rather large and imposing stone building in front of us: the MET. The MET—officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has several interesting exhibitions of which we visited the Byzantine and Medieval art collections (because my girlfriend said so). The collection that stood out to me was “Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance,” which, as the title suggests, focused on pieces created by such master craftsmen as Adriaen de Vries, Hans Daucher, and Albrecht Dürer. Despite all the previous sections of beautiful art, this section—Dürer’s works in particular—held my profound interest. On all of his works—just like the Renaissance textbook I had read when I was a baby-faced freshman had claimed—was Dürer’s famous signature of a large, block capital ‘A’ straddling a smaller, capital ‘D’. I was again confronted with history truly coming to life. Having a historian in a rather dry and boring textbook explain to you how Dürer signed all of his works does not compare to not only the sensation of being a mere few inches away from something so old and important but also the thrill of the opportunity of trying to find his signature on every one of his works in the Met’s exhibition. Describing an item or painting is one thing. Actually seeing and experiencing the beauty of it in person is quite another.

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

When people complain about history being boring and merely a collection of dates, I point to experiences such as the ones the Beinecke and the MET afforded me to make history truly come to life. Closer to home, the Clarke Historical Library provides students and the local Mount Pleasant community with the same kind of experience that the MET and the Beinecke gave me over Spring Break. The Clarke’s most recent Hemingway exhibition is on the same magnitude as the Met’s and Beinecke’s collections in that Ernest Hemingway as a person truly comes to life, especially while reading such works as the Gamble letter, a letter to Hemingway’s friend and commander during the First World War. One can feel the true character of the man, seeing the beauty of his handwriting, or some of his choice phrasing (the “fleshpots of Charlevoix” readily comes to mind).

In an age in which history and the humanities face budgetary cuts and restrictions, museums and historical libraries offer us a glimpse as to why we deemed history important in the first place. They can also show the public the beauty and importance of historical artifacts and give visual aids for many generations to enjoy. By writing the history of museum pieces such as Hemingway’s letters or the Gutenberg Bible we as historians can do our part to make history come to life.

The Search for the Holy Grail – or the Next Best Thing: The Right PhD Program

by Felix Zuber

Even before I came to Michigan to pursue a Joint MA at Central Michigan University, originally a one-year plan that quickly turned into a two year stay, I had eyed the possibility of continuing my modest academic career with a PhD at some point. Of course, the naïve graduate student that I was, I thought I would have all the time in the world to make up my mind and then prepare my applications stress-free.

The actual “Holy Grail” (credits: www.history.com)

The actual “Holy Grail” (credits: www.history.com)

Well, before I knew it, my second year at CMU had started, work was piling up again, and suddenly, with not a small amount of panic, I realized that the submissions deadline for PhD applications had silently crept up. So, here is my first tip to all of you out there looking at colleges: Start early! Yes, I know, it is the eternal warning, given in hindsight by those who survived. But the simple truth is, it really is important.

Start to look for potential landing spots early on, and that can mean as early as a year before the application is due. You will need the time to make a list of possible programs, have a look at the individual application requirements – because not all universities agree on that point – and prepare all the different parts of a successful application.

One of the first things to keep in mind will be the GRE: Perceived to be antiquated by some, loathed by many (me included), you nonetheless still have to provide scores from this test for the vast majority of PhD programs. International applicants, like me, also need to keep in mind that applications usually require some form of proof of English language, usually the Cambridge Certificate or the TOEFL, or a similar test. The reason not to postpone taking these exams, is to have enough time to retake them if needed, before the application is due.

While researching my potential future academic home, I focused mainly on faculty. I knew what my field of study was – Cold War history – and, of course, remembered some of the more inspiring books I had read. So, my first point of departure was to find the authors of those books. Were they still teaching, and if so where? Then I had a look at other faculty at the respective departments to determine if it would be only me and my potential adviser laboring in solitude, or if there would be other scholars with similar interests to learn from. Also interesting were additional resources, such as research centers, libraries, special collections, annual conferences, or ongoing/recurrent research projects. Furthermore, while others may well be in a different situation, for me geographical considerations did not factor in. As a graduate student familiar with the somewhat harsh conditions of the humanities job market, I was willing to relocate to Alaska, Utah, or the moon, if needed.

Once I had finished my reconnaissance of universities, I ranked them and then eliminated enough programs to come up with a feasible, and fiscally realistic, list of options. Unfortunately, application fees are nothing to be sneered at, especially since they can quickly pile up. A careful monitoring of your budget will be necessary, as I quickly, and with a sinking feeling, realized. Overall, before I started the process of compiling my list of potential programs, I had heard about two differing strategies, both of which certainly have merit. The first one was to follow the “traditional” approach of spreading out applications across the spectrum of universities, from safety schools, to the lofty heights of the Ivy League. The other idea was to only apply to the best, since it would be hard enough to find a job later on anyways, so why not shoot for the stars? I, for one, more conservatively followed the first approach and ended up with a rather balanced list.

The next step, was to email the lucky faculty members I had chosen as my potential advisers. Since they had had no idea of this privilege yet, I had to enlighten them concerning my (hopefully) impending arrival, but most of all to make sure they were in fact still at the respective universities, not on leave, and were considering taking on new graduate students in the first place.

On a side note, before beginning the actual application process, some universities invite prospective students to visit their campus and get a feeling for the place they could be living in for years to come. However, since the United States are a rather large country, and I was about to spend most of my application budget on the application fees, I opted to not visit any programs before I had been accepted.

Once that hurdle was taken, I had to compile the actual application. As I mentioned last week, there are test scores, which, for a fee of course, have to be sent to the prospective departments. I then had to write, what most universities referred to as a statement of purpose, sometimes followed by a research proposal or a personal statement as well. However, not all programs asked for all of these, and the length requirements also varied greatly, from a maximum of 1-2 pages, to no limit at all. In the latter cases I tended to err on the side of caution and limit myself to three pages at the most, remembering the oft-repeated graduate school mantra: You have to learn how to say as much as possible in the smallest possible space. Additionally, while some departments had very specific questions and aspects they were looking for in these written statements, other were vague at best. In the end, I prepared a set of paragraphs about my research interests, academic career, and personal background that I could universally put into every application. Then, depending on the specifics, I tailored the statements towards the individual department, and, most important, the potential adviser. However, I also tried to always identify one or two additional faculty members whose work (I claimed) I would be able to profit from. Generally, my statements followed these questions: What had I done so far? What did I plan to do? What could I contribute to the department? What could the department do for me? Where did I see myself five years later?

Another important aspect was the dissertation project proposal. Here, I felt it best to toe the line between the specific and the broad, emphasizing the potential of narrowing or expanding the scope of my ideas, as needed. Throwing in a few potential sources, or pointing towards research and writing I had already done on the topic, surely did not hurt (at least I hoped).

I also had to choose a writing sample to accompany my application. Again, I was faced with two choices. Either submit a paper that was related to my proposed dissertation project, or include a writing sample from an unrelated field, yet one that might be better in terms of source work, style, or writing. After speaking with faculty both in- and outside of CMU, some of whom had served on admissions commissions, I opted for the second choice. As a result, my writing sample covered the activities of German gymnasts in nineteenth-century Michigan, whereas my field of dreams/study, was the Cold War. I had, of course, also written about that subject, yet nothing I felt came close to the level of primary source work and writing of the paper I ended up submitting.

Next, I had to dust off my CV. Vaguely remembering that I had sworn to consistently update the same over the years, I cursed myself after finding out that (naturally) I had failed to do so. Faced with the task of creating an almost new one, I chose to emphasize my education, research, and teaching on the first page, followed by awards, honors, and grants I had received. Lastly, I mentioned conferences I had attended, relevant internships and work experience, before closing with language proficiencies and references. Overall, valuing brevity, my goal was to have a two-page CV, but I ended up with one closer to three pages. Since writing the perfect CV apparently is a science on par with splitting the atom, or solving the Middle East crisis, I will not go into further detail here.

Less work (for me at least) were the letters of recommendation all programs asked for. Trying to decide whom to ask, I focused on the faculty that knew me and my writing. I recommend allowing the people you ask a few weeks to write the letters. While some may be able to come up with something in a tour de force overnight, others might look less favorably at (an unnecessary) short-term notice. After all, this is something you do not want rushed.

At last, the only thing left was for me to press send - and then pay the application fee. I must admit I was less than happy to find out that, while many universities offer application fee waivers, these seem to be exclusively available to Americans. I, as an international student, always had to grab my credit card. The only exception were two departments that had sent me a waiver code beforehand, after I had entered my information into the GRE online-network while taking that test.

Lastly, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give the hopeful applicant is: talk to your current adviser and other faculty in your department. At CMU I was lucky to profit from invaluable advice and help many faculty members gave me. Without them, I can safely say, finding the right PhD program would have been much harder and quite possibly far less successful.

Confusion in (and around) the Archive

British Library

British Library

Last week, the CMU History blog went on a short hiatus. The reason was my journey to London, where research in the British Library and the National Archive in Kew waited for me. This second part of our double feature on archival research is a loose collection of experiences in and around the archive.

 

Sad Catalogues, or: A Thief in the Night?

Microfilm could be such a great resource. It can contain a rather large amount of copied source material, doesn’t take up much space, and exudes a certain flair of actual research that reading sources on a computer thousands of miles from any archive just doesn’t have. Microfilm also must be catalogued carefully, ordered, and put into neat boxes for future examination. The downside is, however, that anyone who might want to use microfilm has to look at a lot of material before that hoped-for slide might come up.

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

In my case, nothing came up. While looking for an early 18th century London newspaper, I thought I had finally found the issue in question, when it dawned on me that the actual page was missing. The curator who had created the microfilm had surely been aware of that, since he or she had left a neat space in-between the other pages. Perhaps they had hoped that the page would be found one day, and subsequently added to the film. That day seems very far away, however. Since the librarians of the British Library are helpful and very nice, we spent at least an hour going through the catalogue and two separate backup collections to find the missing page. In the end, the librarian had to politely admit that the catalogue had perhaps been a bit boastful in announcing that the British Library held the most important, complete collection of early English newspapers. On top of that, while doing some further research online, the creeping suspicion came over me that the newspaper’s originals were actually held by the Library of Congress all across the ocean where I had initially come from for the purpose of finding those very originals! Now, I don’t know why anyone would take a whole host of early 18th century newspapers and smuggle them over the ocean to the new world, but if that person could please step forward and hand over that missing page, I would be very grateful.

Of course, as we all know, if I went to Washington and found that page, all it would tell me would be things I already knew from other newspaper entries. That’s how 18th century sources always are, you just can’t trust them.

 

An Insistent Donor?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at a library or archive with an attached museum or exhibition, take the time to rest your brain (and eyes) a little and take a stroll. Often you might see or hear things that can make your day much better.

Shortly after quietly cursing the widespread crime of newspaper theft, I ventured into the heart of the British Library for a nice visit to the Magna Carta. Sadly, the museum didn’t have it on display at that time (and I must be honest in saying that I completely forgot to ask why), but there was a very chipper tour guide who gladly told the interested visitors about another, recently discovered Magna Carta. Apparently, some (very rich) guy had found a box in the attic of his newly acquired (ancient) house (well, palace). He had taken its contents, among them a massive scroll, to the local public library of the town of Sandwich, where the astonished librarians realized that the scroll was in fact a 1217 version of the Magna Carta. According to the British Library guide, the librarians told the lucky finder that he could offer the scroll to the British Library, which would give him 20 million pounds for it. He could also, however, give it to a private collector from America or China, who would surely give him over 100 million pounds! The owner of the scroll, shaking his head, declined both suggestions and simply gave the Magna Carta to the public library – for free. What a man!

The story remained in my head for a couple of days, before I decided to do some more research on it. Strangely, the only article I could find about a newly found Magna Carta in Sandwich dated from 2015 and described how a 1300 version was found in the archive… Which only goes to show that you can’t trust museum guides either.

 

123 Years of Adwa

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

While daydreaming about finding my own treasure worth 100 million pounds, I ventured out into the courtyard of the library for some air, when I was suddenly confronted with a rather large group of people dressed in white and waving Ethiopian flags. Singing and dancing, they made their way towards the library. I decided to walk with them, because I had just researched the Ethiopian-German relationship in the First World War, and out of sheer curiosity. Inside the building, the group visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition, where they gathered around the priceless Ethiopic Bible, the 17th century Octateuch of Gondar. Feeling as if I should know why they celebrated this day, I still had to ask one of the Ethiopian celebrants about the significance of their visit. Beaming, he told me that Ethiopia had never been colonized, and that it had decisively defeated the Italian invasion at Adwa, on March 1st, 1896. Of course, it wasn’t such a coincidence – after all, the day is celebrated all over the world by people of the Ethiopian Diaspora – but I felt as if my struggle in the archive for this day was somehow vindicated. 123 years of Adwa matter, as a sign for the struggle of people all across the world against colonialism, and as a symbol that this struggle hasn’t yet ended.

Reminded of the ongoing validity of historical research, the need to comb through every attic in search for new documents, and the connections between historical study and living commemoration, I went back into the bowels of the library. I still needed to find that page, after all…

Assets and Obstacles of Researching Transnationally: Using Archives in the U.S. and in Europe

by Alessandra Magrin (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)


Having been required to use a large number of archives in two different continents during my joint research assistantship for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Wyoming) and PhD research at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), I thought that talking about my experience and giving out some practical advice could be of use to some of the students in the Comparative and Transnational history program at Central Michigan (of which Strathclyde is one of the partner universities). Coming from a background in Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies, I had little previous experience with collections, foundations, or national archives (both in the U.S. and Europe) when I began this project, and—in all honesty—I would have treasured a few pragmatic tips on how to approach and what to expect from each of them. So here I am, I hope this post can help some of you avoid a total ‘research freak-out’ when you are thousands of miles away from home and from your beloved supervisors.

Let me begin by saying that participating in a big transnational research group such as the ‘Papers of W.F. Cody’–researching the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody—was no doubt a thrilling experience, but also a challenging one. And while meeting international scholars (such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Warren, Robert Rydell) was electrifying, so was getting a shock from the Microfilm machine in the National Library of Rome, alas not in the same way.

 

American Archives:

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Regardless of the picaresque journeys to get there— long transatlantic travels with plenty of missed connections and the odd interstate bus ride with Greyhound (Laredo-Denver, I’ll never forget you)—I have to admit that my experience with American archives was, luckily, always ‘easy peasy’. As some of you might already know, research collections are carefully indexed in most major American repositories, and a thorough preliminary search will make you fairly certain that your hunt will be successful. Professional archivists working in specific collections will also provide invaluable help, so make sure to reach out to them and explain precisely what you are looking for. They might be able to show you additional material on your topic which is contained in boxes that, for whatever reason (a misleading nametag or vague description), had escaped your initial search—as it happened to me in Denver Public Library. Generally, the staff working in large archives and libraries is abundant, and the distribution of the material and the opening times are user-friendly, with some repositories operating also during the weekend. This will allow you the chance to use your time at the archive to the fullest, especially if you are on a tight schedule due to long commutes. Furthermore, an increasing number of museums and archives now have digitized copies of some of their items, which, in some instances, will remove the need to actually visit the archive—at least for some time. This brings me to a tip that will save you some trips to Europe: Major American archives (Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Archives at Yale and Stanford Universities) have copies of collections and documents held in European archives. So, even if you are researching a ‘European topic’, it is worth to first take a look in US archives as they are generally rich in European collections. However, the downside is that this material has probably been studied extensively before, and, unless you approach your topic from a particularly revolutionary angle, you take the risk of not being wholly original in your study. So, if the aim of your research is to examine original or little-known documents or to uncover previously unpublished primary sources, my recommendation is to cross the pond and start rummaging in some dusty European archive!

 

European Archives:

And this is when the challenges began for me! The way archives function in Europe varies from country to country, from institution to institution, and even from whether the archive is state-funded or financed by a private foundation. The organization of British archives and libraries is the one which resembles most the American system. The British Library, the National Archives, the National Library of Scotland, and the British Film Institute archive all have professional and semi-professional staff to assist users in their search. Several holdings are available digitally to users, both on and off site (including index cards, manuscripts, and newspaper collections). Besides that, the distribution of documents is frequent, and normally very quick. On the other hand, the reproduction of material can be rather costly (printing and scanning) but taking copies with your own devices for study purposes is allowed and it is free—although check how many pages of the documents/books/stills you are allowed to copy, each archive implements different policies.

Milan State Library (Italy)

Milan State Library (Italy)

When it comes to archives in continental Europe, the rules and organization change significantly. First of all, do not expect to always find staff who understands and speaks English. Although this might be more common in archives in some central-northern European countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, parts of Germany, large French archives like the BNF in Paris), it is much more infrequent in central-southern and eastern European countries. You are researching a transnational topic, so ideally you would already have some skills in the language of the country you are visiting. If you don’t, I strongly suggest getting a research assistant/fellow PhD student/friend who is a fluent speaker (or, even better, who is based in the country) to assist you during your archival visit. The best way to achieve this is to meet international students, at university, during conferences or summer schools – so make sure you polish your networking skills!

Take into account that opening times often don’t include weekends, especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain where everything shuts down on a Sunday, and that some archives might close as early as 5pm. Also, the distribution of material is sometimes limited to specific days and even specific times of the day (just mornings or just afternoons, or, for instance, only between 9 and 11 am and between 2pm and 4 pm), and that some material needs to be booked a few days before the day of delivery because it comes from an external warehouse (as in, for example, the antique newspapers collection of the National Library of Florence). So, a preliminary thorough check of the archive website and borrowing rules are fundamental—also to make sure you don’t get there on a national holiday or when the archive is closed for restoration (which happens often in archives held in historical buildings). It is good practice, especially in smaller archives, to preemptively announce your visit via email to the curator/archivist responsible for the specific collection you need to use. The staff will normally be able to prepare the material for you and reserve a space in the consultation room. Indeed, you will find that certain archives, despite housing generous collections, have very restricted spaces for the consultation and only accept visits via booking.

Don’t expect to find ‘cutting edge technology’ in all the repositories, especially if they are state-funded archives or libraries (which in certain European countries are notoriously underfunded, and understaffed). Internet and computer access are now generally available everywhere, but probably the Microfilm machines will be from the 1980-90s (don’t be like me and make sure you always dry your hands well before you use them, otherwise get a good life insurance). After years of lagging behind, the digitization of archival material, and especially of newspapers, is now efficient in several major European archives. However, most state-funded repositories have gargantuan collections and only a fraction of their holdings is online.

The situation is usually better in the archives of private foundations, which might have smaller holdings but are equipped with professional archivists with meticulous knowledge of their collections. In my personal experience the document retrieval process was always quick and efficient, so my advice would be to privilege this type of archive and go to state-funded archives if the items you are looking for are only held there.

So, as a rule, you do have to face a number of challenges when you decide to research in European archives. Arm yourself with a lot patience, never lose confidence in your abilities and keep persevering. Having a flexible mindset will help a great deal when you are there. Sometimes you just have to accept that certain things are beyond your control and, no matter how well organized you are, the unexpected will just happen (like when I was in Rome and my archive suddenly shut down due to the first snowstorm hitting the ‘eternal city’ in 27 years). However, I am certain that the rewards, especially for transnational scholars, outnumber the obstacles. Europe is a goldmine for historical records and the chances to come across some truly original material, or at least sources that have never before been studied by English-speaking scholarship, are extremely high. This will make a whole lot of difference in the quality of your research and, eventually, in the way your work will be received by the scholarly community.