Vast Early America


Karin Wulf

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Serendipity and Digital Collections


Daniel McCarthy, Petroglyphs fr Riverside County, Agua Client Cultural Museum, via Calisphere.

One of my favorite things to do on a weekend morning is to scan library websites for newly digitized materials, and for digital collections and exhibits.  I keep storing up bits about various sites and what I’ve found compelling, thinking that I’d try to write a post for the Scholarly Kitchen about how these collections can help to inspire scholarly serendipitous browsing.  Lots of folks have written about how discoverability, the golden ticket for access to scholarly content, can in important ways deter and impede serendipitous discovery.  The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media even created a cool tool, the Serendip-o-matic (“let your sources surprise you”)  to try and recreate the analogue experience of browsing the library shelves for related materials.

Anyway, other thoughts about digitized collections include their importance for #VastEarlyAmerica.  Libraries tend to (of course not always) collect locally and are often (again, not always) strongest in local materials.  For early Americanists that means that looking to libraries around the #VastEarlyAmerican geography is important.

My latest digital obsession is Calisphere, with over 650,000 items from California universities and an  incredible number and range of other California libraries and archives.  There are collections and exhibits on Calisphere, as well as an individual item search capability.  The exhibits are also categorized– one group is “California Cultures:  Native Americans.”  It includes an exhibit of photographed Native rock art and “Pre-Columbian California to 18th century.”   Beyond the early period gems I loved perusing including the John Muir correspondence from 1856-1914, over 6700 items from the University of the Pacific.

I use lots of digital collections to enhance the research I’ve done on site in libraries and archives.  Browsing collections that I’m not expecting to speak directly to my research but rather to my broader interests in #VastEarlyAmerica often brings surprises, including material that I end up incorporating in my scholarly writing.  Serendipity!

Slavery and (fictional) Georgian Britain

Olaudah Equiano (c.1750-97), or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Portrait. Nigerian autobiographer

I’ve been reading Imogen Roberts’ Crowther and Westerman series of mysteries set in and around 1780s London.  In part because of the Omohundro Institute’s work with the Georgian Papers Programme, reading more than my usual intake of eighteenth-century British history has me adding it to my diet however I can.  The premise of the novels is the unusual partnership of Harriet Westerman, the wealthy, intellectually restless widow of a naval captain semi-settled on a country estate, and Gabriel Crowther, a gentleman scientist (specifically an “anatomist”).  I can recommend the books for the characters and sets (nicely observed furnishings and fabrics).  The latest, the fifth in the series,is more gripping and consequential as Roberts takes up, and has Westerman and Crowther contend with, the ways that slavery was both foundational to and yet by a conspiracy of silence largely overlooked in Georgian Britain.

Strong historical fiction is powerful, especially so from my vantage when it swims in the same currents as historical scholarship.  I was reading Madison Smartt Bell’s biographical trilogy about Toussaint L’ouverture and the Haitian revolution at the same time as the work of Laurent Dubois and others recovering the histories of Haiti, and after I had started teaching Jennifer Morgan on gender, sexuality, and the reproductive violence of slavery alongside Ralph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.  I don’t teach the fiction (I know folks who do), but I’m intrigued by how fiction writers are shaped by scholarship, and vice versa.

In reflecting on how she came to this latest topic through the story about Crowther and Westerman, Roberts wrote about how she, too, was confronting slavery’s centrality to early modern and modern Britain.  “I thought slavery horrific, of course I did,” she wrote in a blog post, “but I didn’t really think of it as being part of my cultural history, and it is.”  The story focuses on the murder of a slave trader turned abolitionist, and the question of whose murderous anger and anxiety was most provoked:  the fellow traders he denounced, or formerly enslaved men and women living in London?

Roberts’ historical notes include references to the scholarship of James Walvin, to the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership site at University College London, and especially to the importance of writers such as Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, citing the editing and biographical work of Vincent Caretta on the latter.  (Caretta was one of the OI’s Georgian Papers fellows and wrote in the OI’s blog about his work in the Royal Archives looking for evidence of African writers, including Cugoano, at court.)   I’d add a plug for the University of Glasgow site on Runaway Slaves in Britain.  The prominence of this and other public attention to Britain’s slaveholding is a critical additional dimension to the expanding and important scholarship on slavery and abolition in Britain.  I appreciated the chance to read it through a novelist’s eyes.

Discoverability, Edwardian Style

(From the OI’s blog, March 29, 2016)

Discoverability is an essential concept for modern researchers, and a high priority for authors, librarians, and publishers. Making scholarship on particular and usefully related topics reasonably easy to locate, while giving some priority to items of higher value, is the golden ticket. This interest on the part of scholars and those who aim to support their work is hardly a phenomenon of the age of the internet. While in our world “discoverability” usually refers to discovering or making discoverable scholarship, in the first decades of the twentieth century scholars and institutions were focused on locating archival materials to read and then finding ways to circulate information about where and how to use them.   More

#VastEarlyAmerica and Origins Stories: WMQ 1:1

(From the OI’s Blog, Feb 22, 2016)

What started me thinking more seriously about the first issue of the William and Mary Quarterly was the typescript of an interview in 1973 with Richard L. Morton, the first Editor of the WMQ, held in Swem Library’s Special Collections at William & Mary. Provost and OI Executive Board member Michael Halleran passed a copy to me recently and asked if I’d seen it. In fact I hadn’t, although I’ve read pretty deeply in the archives of the OI’s founding and early years. Morton elaborated some things I’d wondered about, including some of the practical aspects of the collaboration between the College and Colonial Williamsburg that became the OI. But mostly he mused about the challenges of getting the journal up off the ground. He even (too briefly!) described his earliest version of a card system for tracking submissions and subscriptions.   More

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