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.
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.
I admit it: I stalk dead drug traffickers in libraries, archives, newspapers, databases, films, photos, literature, and documents. One of my favorite tools, however, is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is turning 50 years old on July 4, 2016. While the FOIA is useful for historians, over the years I have found that it takes substantive prior research for a request to be successful or for it to prove an asset for a historical project.
One of the strangest and most fascinating source encounters I have experienced so far while working in the Venetian archives concerns the role of food in the records of a set of diplomatic missions to Cairo. In one case, in the early morning of December 17, 1489, at the citadel of Cairo, Pietro Diedo, the Venetian ambassador to Egypt, delivered an assortment of gifts to the Mamluk sultan Qaytbay.
By Adam Rothman
Many universities in the United States are reckoning with their own involvement in the history of American slavery. What can historians contribute? It may seem counterintuitive to ask what historians can bring to the discussion of what seems to be an essentially historical problem, but the answer is not obvious because it depends on the tricky relationship between the past and the present.
By Naomi Lieberman
How can I get information about my father’s service in World War II? Where can I find records about my grandfather’s work for the Civilian Conservation Corps? Is there a list of official postmasters for local offices somewhere? These are all examples of questions recently asked and answered on the National Archives and Records Administration’s History Hub.
By Zach Schrag
Historians have long complained about interference with their work by institutional review boards (IRBs), university-based ethics committees charged with protecting people who participate in experiments and other forms of human subjects research. Though well intentioned, IRB members and staff frequently fail to understand the differences between psychology experiments and genetic research on the one hand, and oral-history interviews and archival research on the other. For instance, they have sometimes insisted that oral historians disguise the identities of their narrators or destroy audio recordings, even though the identification of narrators and the preservation of their stories are central to the discipline.
By Jessica DeWitt
“Sorry, We’re Closed,” read the sign on the door of the small Albertan museum I had traveled hours to get to and planned to conduct research at last Monday. I sighed, “What now?” I thought to myself as I climbed back into my car …