Researching History

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 Her posts “read” buildings and plantation landscapes across Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados as historical documents.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.

Drug Traffickers and the Freedom of Information Act

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.

Cultural Encounters and Material Exchanges in the Venetian Archives

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.

Facing Slavery’s Legacy at Georgetown: What Can Historians Contribute?

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.