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.

History from the Dark Room

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by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation

Powers Hall: Then and Now 2

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By Chiara Ziletti

Did you know that Powers Hall is the fourth oldest building existing on campus and it is connected to some important events of US history? Last semester I took Dr. Fremion’s HST 681 Historical Preservation class, and the final project consisted in writing a mock nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, which lists the historic and archaeological places worth preserving and protecting in the US. After some thinking, I decided to write my mock nomination on Powers Hall. I knew a little bit about its history, also thanks to Jennifer Vannette’s post on this blog, but I wanted to do more research and see if I could find additional information about the building on campus in which I spend most of my time. I can say that my research paid well: I was able to prove that despite few changes, the exterior of Powers Hall retains its overall integrity; it was curious to see how much the interior changed since it was first built; and I found connections between Powers Hall and the broader events of US history, which will be the focus of this post.

The first connection is the one between Powers Hall and the New Deal. The works to build Powers Hall – originally Keeler Union – started back in 1938 thanks to a grant from the Public Works Administration. The Public Works Administration was a New Deal government agency active from 1933 to 1939. In those years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic policies to address the continuing disastrous economic and social effects of the Great Depression, which had started in 1929. Among these policies, the Public Works Administration provided funds for the construction of public works. In this way, it provided means of employment and helped to revitalize American’s economy, society, and industry. Therefore, Powers Hall provides a great local example of the far-reaching and significant effects of President Roosevelt’s domestic policy.

The years between 1942 and 1944, in which Powers Hall housed Navy V-12 cadets, provides another connection between the building and events of national and international significance. During World War II the United States needed more commissioned officers; therefore, the government created the Navy V-12 program to provide candidates with the education they needed. Central Michigan University, which at that time was known as Central Michigan College of Education, was among the universities that participated to the program. This connects Powers Hall not only with another governmental program but also with World War II and the US participation to it.

The ballroom in Powers Hall is still used to host several events and speakers every year; it would not be surprising if you attended one or two as well. Did you know that James (Jesse) Cleveland Owens (1913-1980) was invited to speak there? Jesse Owens was a famous African-American track and field athlete. He is mostly known for winning four Olympic medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He was invited to speak for the 3rd Annual All-Sports Banquet, which took place on May 4, 1955, in the Keeler Union Ballroom. When he attended the Banquet, he also brought with him a 16mm black and white film of the Olympic Games in Berlin to show to the audience. Because of his extraordinary athletic performances, Owens is very well known, and his participation to the Banquet was a great event that linked Powers Hall to the broader national and international sports history.

In addition to all these important connections, it is important to remember that Powers Hall is the fourth oldest building still existing on campus. It is in the same block as Grawn Hall, which was opened in 1915; Warriner Hall, which was opened in 1928; and Smith Hall, which was opened in 1934. Since Grawn Hall has gone through significant different expansions and renovations, its architectural integrity is heavily compromised. However, Warriner Hall and Smith Hall retain most of their integrity. Therefore, alongside these two buildings, Powers Hall documents the history of Central Michigan University – our history! – by providing one of the best examples of the first buildings constructed on campus. This year marked the 125th anniversary since the foundation of CMU. If you are curious about the history of the buildings on campus and would like to know more, I recommend browsing the Clarke Historical Library’s website; it has plenty of information on each building. I would also encourage everyone to take a trip to the Clarke. It is always worth seeing in first person all the primary sources they have documenting CMU’s history!

The Michigan Historical Review

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By Susan Paton, Assistant Editor, the Michigan Historical Review

For those of you who have not yet heard of us, the Michigan Historical Review is the state’s only scholarly journal covering Michigan history, and we are published twice a year out of our office in the Clarke Historical Library. It has its roots in an earlier journal, The Great Lakes Review, which began publication in 1984 out of CMU’s English Department (they took it over from Northeastern Illinois University who had been publishing it since 1974). It was then ‘repurposed’ into an academic history journal and came under the jurisdiction of the Clarke and CMU’s History Department. Under a unique partnership, the University provided the salary for an assistant editor, the Clarke supplied the office space, the History Department provided a course release and stipend for an editor (and for many years the book review editor as well), and the Historical Society of Michigan guaranteed a large number of printed copies by including it as part of one of their membership packages.

Thus, in 1986, the Michigan Historical Review was born, and we have been publishing twice a year ever since. What that means to Michigan and Midwestern history is the addition of over 200 articles (double-blind, peer-reviewed) and 1100 book reviews into the field. Most of our subscribers are university libraries, though we also have individual subscribers, and we can currently be found in either paper or electronic form in over twenty nations and thirty US states. Our participation in JSTOR, a national database of humanities-related journals, means an even wider distribution, averaging over 25,000 article requests and 12,000 article downloads per year.

I have worked as the MHR’s Assistant Editor during two separate periods: first for a couple of years in the late 1990s, while working on my PhD, and then again beginning in 2012. (In the interim period I owned and managed a restaurant and a wine & cheese market—but that is another story.) In my capacity here at the MHR, I edit article manuscripts and book reviews as well as oversee the daily operations of our small office. My duties are, thus, extremely varied, perhaps the primary reason I enjoy this job so much. On any given day I get to read (oh, and correct) a range of history articles, contact publishers about new books on Midwestern history, keep tabs on our many subscribers, answer our correspondence, and remind tardy book reviewers that we are hoping to hear from them soon—and a host of other little details.

I have learned so much about Michigan’s remarkable history over these past few years, and I have really enjoyed getting to know and work with so many fascinating and curious people. And the pleasure of getting to work at a job with so many appealing facets is matched by what is perhaps an even greater perk of my job—I get to work in the Clarke Library. For a nerd like myself (and I am probably safe in assuming like many of you), being around such a wealth of fusty volumes and beguiling artifacts is a dream come true. But the best part of working at the Clarke is its people, truly the kindest staff on CMU’S campus. And if this sounds a bit like a swan song, I guess it is. It is with very mixed emotions that I leave this job at the end of next month. I am moving to sunny California so I can be a bigger part of my grandson’s life. If CMU had a crown, the MHR and the Clarke would be its brightest gems. And I am so honored and gratified to have been able to call this little corner of campus home for these past six years. If you haven’t read one of our issues yet, I hope you will stop on by sometime soon. 


Susan Paton, has been the Assistant Editor of the Michigan Historical Review for a couple of years in the late 1990s, and then again since 2012. She will retire at the end of next month.