In each of the last two springs, several staff of the Mudd Manuscript Library and other members of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections have judged at the regional qualifier of the National History Day competition held on Princeton’s campus. This is a contest for middle and high school students who, based on rigorous guidelines, synthesize and analyze information about a historic event. They then create a paper, website, documentary, exhibit or performance explaining what they have learned.
Judging National History Day is a powerful touchstone about the value of archives in the production of history. Each year, I see students adroitly avoid some of the more common traps of historical production — their projects are clear, level-headed, open-minded, and support their claims with evidence. Students who submit the best projects don’t just have a clear argument and lengthy bibliography — they let the primary sources surprise them and challenge their previous conceptions of the past. Yes, they may start with textbooks and biographies, but stronger projects evaluate primary sources. And the very best projects tend to not just look at key documents that have been artificially assembled on a website (although this is valuable too) — they look at records in context and try to make arguments about subtext and authenticity.
The best place to find records in context is usually an archives. But of course, access to archives isn’t easy for students. Working parents may not be able to take their children to the New Jersey Historical Society or National Archives or Mudd Library, as much as they might like to provide that experience. Most archives are only open during the hours when parents are working and visiting these institutions can be intimidating. From a young student’s perspective, it’s often hard to tell what the holdings are and whether the trip will be worth it.
Our NHPRC-funded project hopes to be a model toward ameliorating this barrier to access. We believe that by scanning our records and making them available within the same context that one would see them in the reading room, anyone with an internet connection can have a meaningful scholarly experience without the cost and inconvenience of traveling to Princeton, New Jersey.
We hope that children will benefit as much as anyone from this project. As Cathy Gorn, the Executive Director of National History Day, noted in her letter of support for the grant:
Having primary source materials on the Cold War available via the Internet would allow many NHD students around the country to conduct research for their projects that they ordinarily would not be able to, and the Mudd collections to be digitized are broad enough to support a variety of NHD Projects.
Of course, students don’t just wish to access historical records for National History Day — they want access for the same reasons that any other researcher does. A teenager may want to know more about when and how his family came to America. He might want to know more about the history of his town, and how certain sites came to be created. Or he may be interested in the history of ideas, policies and customs that affect his life. The collections that we plan to digitize — the John Foster Dulles papers, the Allen Dulles papers, the James Forrestal papers, the Council on Foreign Relations records, the George Kennan papers and the Adlai Stevenson papers — document how cold war activities were conducted and understood. They also present an opportunity for students to understand through diaries and correspondence the false starts, misunderstandings, and possible alternatives that constitute all historical events.
The historian John Lewis Gaddis makes the argument for access more persuasively than I could. In his letter of support for our grant, he explained the cost, inconvenience and wear on records for professional researchers trying to do research on-site.
But the most fundamental shortcoming of this old system was the disservice it did to students of history who never got to see an archive in the first place. Maybe they lived abroad. Maybe they attended American universities or colleges that could not provide research support. Maybe they were high school or even elementary students who might have gotten hooked on history for life had they had the chance to work with original materials – but they didn’t have that chance.
Now, however, almost all of them have access to a new means of access, which is of course the internet- even if they’re stuck in a place like Cotulla, Texas, where I grew up. I mention this little town because it’s where the young Lyndon B. Johnson spent a year teaching, in 1928-29, in the then segregated Mexican-American school. What he tried to do for those kids is still remembered: it gets its own chapter in the first volume of Robert Caro’s massive biography. But just think what LBJ could have done as a teacher had he had the resources that are available now. That’s why this project is important.
It has the potential, quite literally, to globalize the possibility of doing archival research. That’s no guarantee that this will produce a greater number of great books than in the past. What it will ensure, however, is a quantum leap in the opportunities students and their teachers will have to bring the excitement of working with original documents into all classrooms. That’s easily as important, I think, as writing the kind of books that might get you tenure at a place like Yale.