Friday, April 24, 2009

You're the Historian: The Joy of Primary Sources

Their are lots of days when I forget why I wanted to be a historian in the first place. It's not that I forget why I'm interested in academia, or in environmental history, or in exploring the role of scientific expertise in our culture. I just forget why history, in particular, is the way I chose to go.

One of the things that makes me remember, in the most powerful of ways, is the awesome wealth of primary sources out there, and all the digital ones, especially! There is just something that feels enormous about being about to go through all these preserved relics of another time and place, these words and thoughts and arguments that come to us from the past. Being able to rifle through someone's personal letters in an old and dusty archive someone makes me feel like that person has become so important, in this retrospective way. And that all my thoughts and words and reflections are so important, too, in that they might one day help some historian unearth what life was like in the beginning of the 21st century for a white, middle-class, Jewish, liberal academic woman in Wisconsin. Our records have enormous power.

One of my good friends just shared with me that all the records of the American Museum of Natural History are online, starting in the 19th century. And you can learn from these, for example, that over 30,000 people attended a lecture of a famed Arctic explorer in the late 1800s. 30,000 people! At a time when people didn't have cars, the roads were mired in horse manure, and transportation in general was difficult. That's the sort of interest there was in exploration in that era. Just from a little fact like that, we can learn so much.

Some of my go-to digital archives for when I need a reminder of how exciting all this is are Cornell's Home Economics Archive (HEARTH) and their Core Historical Literature of Agriculture (CHLA) archive, as well as the North American Women's Letters and Diaries (NAWLD) collection.

Wanna know what rural black women in the 1870s wrote about in their diaries? Go to NAWLD, set your parameters, and you can find out. Wanna know what women wrote about, say, "bananas" between 1870, when the fruit was entirely unknown in the US, and 1925, when one could be found in almost every worker’s dinner pail? Click away! How about finding out what mothering manuals said about treating the common cold before germ theory became popular in America? Go to HEARTH's "Hygiene" section and browse around. Entirely different worlds are opened with the touch of a button.

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