Centering History

This summer I’m teaching our department’s capstone course, a seminar in research and writing for which students write long papers on topics of their choosing, sourced by primary materials and grounded in the secondary literature. I do exclude some topics—World War II battles, the assassination of JFK, the Salem Witch Trials, anything too narrative, too big, or that has been done to death, but beyond those considerations, they pretty much have free rein. One of the first times I taught this seminar, more than a decade ago, I had to be much more restrictive, due to the circumstances we all found ourselves in: almost as soon as the semester began our university library was condemned and closed! Teaching a research seminar without a library demanded resourcefulness on my part, and my students: especially in this relatively “dark” time with few databases at our disposal (we obtained a lot more because of the library’s closure, but sadly Salem State cannot afford any of the Adam Matthew databases to which the Peabody Essex Museum has consigned Salem sources from the Phillips Library). I decided that they all had to do local history, and dig into the archives of their hometowns: they were at first resistant, but eventually they did dig in and the end result was a bunch of amazing papers—on trolleys, societies, movements, schools and hospitals, the local experience of the Civil War and World War I, and early efforts to draw tourists to enclaves all around Essex County.  I think my students got a lot out of that seminar, but it also taught me a lot: not being an American historian I wasn’t really aware as to what local historical sources were available and of what stories could be told and what stories could not or were not. Since that time, Salem State has opened a new library, the city of Salem has lost its major historical archive, the Phillips Library, first by severe restriction of access, then by closure and removal to temporary and then permanent locations well out of town, and I began writing this blog.

Local History

Local History MAssHenry Wilder, Map of the County of Essex, Massachusetts. Compiled from the Surveys made by order of the Legislature in 1831-1832, Boston Rare Maps; Ticknor map of Massachusetts, 1835, Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

I no longer insist that my seminar students engage in local historical research—they have many more resources available to them now–but I encourage it, and many of them choose to do so. As a consequence of their choices, and my own indulgence in this blog, I have become much more aware of the availability of local historical resources, both in Essex County and beyond. Years ago, even before the Phillips Library was removed from Salem, access was so restricted that those students interested in researching Salem’s history were disadvantaged comparatively to those focused on other locales; of course now this disadvantage is even more apparent. Students (and everyone) interested in researching Salem’s history can consult the sources (primarily secondary and genealogical but also historic newspapers) in the Salem Room of the Salem Public Library and there are more archival materials at Salem State’s Archives and Special Collections repository in the Berry Library at Salem State. But surrounding our storied (but relatively sourceless!) city are active historical museums, societies, and archives, including the the Marblehead Museum, the Local History Research Center at the Peabody Institute in Peabody, the Danvers Archival Center at the Peabody Institute in Danvers, and the Beverly Historical Society’s Research Library and Archives. A bit farther afield and all around, there are local history centers popping up, many revived and reconstituted historical societies: just this month the Andover Historical Society has become the Andover Center for History & Culture, the Framingham History Center continues to expand its mission and initiatives, the Sudbury Historical Society is creating a new Sudbury History Center & Museum in the town center, and the Lexington Historical Society is building a new Archives Center adjacent to its Munroe Tavern this very summer.

Local History Andover Market

WWI-image-with-exhibit-dateAn Andover Market from the archives of the Andover Center for History & Culture; the Framingham History Center’s current exhibition.

The grandfather of Massachusetts history centers must be the Lawrence History Center, the mission of which is to collect, preserve, share, and animate the history and heritage of Lawrence and its people. That is one great mission statement, and this very active organization clearly strives to fulfill it, offering a stream of symposia, educational programs, presentations, physical and digital exhibits and research services to provide access to and engagement with its archives. Their use of the word “animate” clearly does not refer to a diorama, wax figure, or haunted house!

Local History LawrenceLawrence textile industry strikers in 1912, Lawrence History Center Photographic Collection @Digital Commonwealth.

Appendix:  Three upcoming events for local historians—the first in Salem!

Finding & Sharing Local History workshopMay 31.

The Massachusetts History Conference:  June 4.

Cambridge Open Archives 2018: June 11-15 & June 18-21.


4 responses to “Centering History

  • Jeffrey D

    I wanted to add that Historic Beverly, located right across the bridge has an AMAZING archive of more than 1 million documents dating from the period when Beverly was part of Salem through to the present day. Not to mention related collections items. And since so many families were active in both Salem and Beverly you can sometimes find lateral material for Salem specific research. Check out the website or go visit in person.

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  • Anne Sterling

    I would love to learn how many Massachusetts cities and towns have an historical museum that the public can pay admission to when they visit the city. I am thinking of Concord, New Bedford, Nantucket, even my little hometown in New Hampshire has one. Why oh why then does a city that draws in millions of tourist dollars AND rates history as one of its main attractions…not have a history museum?? And now will certainly never have one, unless you just want to see a storehouse of empty shelves.

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  • artandarchitecturemainly

    You are doing a great service to history-writing when you ask your students to go back to primary sources. It is rare that people who have access to a smart phone will bother to search through contemporary government legislation, newspaper reports, court documents, architects plans and royal commissions etc. In particular, your original photos are a fantastic source of contemporary information.

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