Since I began my apprenticeship with Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) in August, I’ve been consistently impressed with the staff’s dedication to actively engaging the student body here on campus. It is clear that undergraduate and non-staff researchers are very welcome here, and the staff members in the SCRC continually do everything in their power to facilitate the research efforts of anyone and everyone who steps through the door. This is not the case everywhere. It seems to me that other academic institutions sometimes use their archives to bolster their academic “street cred,” not as a venue through which students can learn about and engage the archival system. If the contents of the archives themselves and the class schedules of the last few weeks are any indication, students are constantly encouraged to come and explore here in the SCRC at Swem.
Within the last month, I’ve had the good fortune to help prepare for some of the numerous class visits. Essentially, a professor and archivist on staff contact each other and schedule a date and time to come in with a class. The archivist, sometimes working with the professor, then carefully selects manuscript collections, objects, or rare books from the collection that pertain to the class subject, and people like me go down to the stacks and bring them up for temporary display and use in the reading room. The students get to learn a bit about the archival process, and how they can incorporate these unique sources into their research projects. I, on the other hand, get to familiarize myself with the SCRC’s diverse, numerous, and fascinating holdings. The way I see it, it’s a classic win-win situation.
So, what have I come across, you ask? I’ve pulled numerous books in Mandarin, first edition volumes of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (printed in 1776), Max Decker’s diary detailing his life as a “hobo” during the Great Depression, an eighteenth-century ledger from a Scottish tobacco farmer named Francis Jerdone (which was about half my size), and payroll records for the Union Pacific Railroad that date from the 1880s. I also found Continental bills from the American Revolution (at least one of which was printed by Paul Revere), first-edition published accounts of Lewis and Clark’s expidition, numerous personal correspondance detailing life during the Civil War, and a collection of documents from a vigilante group in Montclair, New Jersey, who attempted to root out local subversive activities during World War II. In short, we’ve got really cool stuff!
Many people do not necessarily think about the fact that that’s what history looks like–books, letters, objects, ledgers, diaries, et cetera. It’s entirely up to the researcher to make those artifacts speak to a modern audience. Here at William & Mary, undergraduate students and interested private citizens alike have ample opportunities to start that process. If you live in the area, please come in and take advantage of these resources! And don’t forget that, even if you don’t live nearby, numerous collections are available to researchers online. It is so encouraging to see so many people utilizing this excellent archival reserve, but there’s always room for more. Come on in, see what we’ve got, and help the SCRC keep campus class-y!
Hannah Bailey is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.