Researching History

“A Historian Walks into an Archive . . .”: Humor and Historical Research

By Jennifer Vannette

Historical research can be quite funny even when investigating a serious topic—there is humor to be found in documents, in people, and in the process. I study the intersection of religion and politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with a particular emphasis on nongovernmental organizations’ attempts to advance human and civil rights in the United States and at the newly formed United Nations. It is fascinating, to be sure, but often disheartening to examine prejudice—the early Cold War, with its racially tinged communist witch hunts, roiled with emotions including fear, frustration, and even desperation.

“You Will Never Get Anything Useful or of Value Out of This”: How a Difficult Diary Became My Dissertation

By Michelle M. Martin

In a neat, ornate hand Katie Edwards wrote in her diary on April 4, 1870, about the new chapter in her life that awaited her in the Indian Territory. “After a good night rest in a clean bed I rose this morning much refreshed . . . started for the Mission . . . will start with 80 pupils,” she remarked. With this simple declaration Edwards left behind the security and comfort of Ohio and entered the intricate world of the Mvskoke and Seminole peoples in the Indian Territory.

Time to Right the Record: American Conservatism in the Archives

By Michelle Nickerson

“We don’t have anything on conservative women, however . . .”

This is what archivists would tell me during the earliest days of my dissertation research. It was the turn of the 21st century, and I was enthusiastically joining a wave of new scholars taking up what Alan Brinkley had called, in his path-breaking 1994 American Historical Review essay, “The Problem of American Conservatism.”

Trans-ing History on the Web: The Digital Transgender Archive

When College of the Holy Cross professor K.J. Rawson first imagined what would become the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA), he had in mind something fairly simple: a collection of finding aids that would solve a problem he’d faced himself as a researcher—the difficulty of figuring out “where transgender-related materials are held.” The collection Rawson envisioned would guide researchers through the contents of scattered transgender history archives. What emerged instead is a multi-institution collaboration; a centralized digital repository of unprecedented scale that has made accessible digitized materials related to transgender history gathered from collections across the world.

Hero, Villain, or Anti-Hero? Archival Records and Dealing with the Contradictions of the Past

I was wrapping up the second to last chapter of my MA thesis when I received a call from a local historian from Holly Springs, Mississippi. During our conversation, my colleague read out an excerpt from a short biographical sketch about Dr. William M. Compton that she’d found in a local history book published in the 1930s. What struck me about the sketch was that it named Compton as the founder and “Grand Cyclops” of Marshall County’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Historical Hat-Trick: Using Documents, Architecture, and Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

This is the final post in a series by Erin Holmes, one of this year’s AHA Today blog contest winners. Her posts “read” buildings and plantation landscapes across Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados as historical documents. Previous Posts include: Visiting the Past and the Places in Between: Buildings and Landscapes as Historical DocumentsChange over Time Written in the Historic Architecture of Barbadosand The Other Drayton Hall: South Carolina Plantation Architecture in the Documentary Record.

The Other Drayton Hall: South Carolina Plantation Architecture in the Documentary Record

In 1861, former South Carolina governor William Bull burned down his house because he was worried that the Yankees might get it. In studying Barbados, the American South, and the Greater Caribbean, I’ve become familiar with the ways the environment slowly chips away at the things that humans construct. Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, termites, encroaching vines, and the simple decay of organic matter often make investigating the material past difficult. In their own way, however, human beings are more destructive—the house that Bull burned down had stood in that spot for more than 130 years.

Adapt and Overcome: What to Do When Your Archival Research Hits a Dead End

At the close of the Civil War in 1865, Dr. Robert Kells—then the superintendent of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum—warned state officials that widespread loss of property (including enslaved people), wounded pride, and the vices “contracted by so many of our best men . . . in the army” would unleash a wave of insanity in the state. I read Kells’s predictions during my first trip to the state archives as a new graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi.