As a college librarian, I often hear stressed-out students searching for primary sources say, "I'll take anything." Don't settle for just anything. There is a treasury of primary source material available electronically. Peruse my selection of 200-plus primary source sites by conducting a keyword search, exploring the tag cloud at left, or browsing by historical era. You can also visit my Delicious and Diigo sites to review my bookmarks. Here's hoping you find what you're looking for.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Van Gogh's anguish in the artist's own words

On this date in 1888, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh cut off a portion of his left ear, walked to brothel, and presented it to a prostitute. The following day, he was found at this home in Arles, France and brought to the hospital where he would remain for the next month, receiving treatment for his mental breakdown.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has made digitized copies of the artist’s letters available online. English translations are provided and the missives are accompanied by comprehensive notes which lend historical and biographical context for the letters.

A series of letters written by Van Gogh to his younger brother Theo in early 1889, in the wake of his self-mutilation, shed some light on his breakdown, his rift with French artist and housemate Paul Gauguin, and his lingering tortuous thoughts.

One in particular is striking as it seems to be written by someone who is barely hanging on yet seeking to convince himself, and others that things will be okay.

Arles, 2 January 1889

My dear Theo,

In order to reassure you completely on my account I’m writing you these few words in the office of Mr. Rey, the house physician, whom you saw yourself. I’ll stay here at the hospital for another few days — then I dare plan to return home very calmly. Now I ask just one thing of you, not to worry, for that would cause me one worry too many.

Now let’s talk about our friend Gauguin, did I terrify him? In short, why doesn’t he give me a sign of life? He must have left with you.

Besides, he needed to see Paris again, and perhaps he’ll feel more at home in Paris than here. Tell Gauguin to write to me, and that I’m still thinking of him.

Good handshake, I’ve read and re-read your letter about the meeting with the Bongers. It’s perfect. As for me, I’m content to remain as I am. Once again, good handshake to you and Gauguin.

Ever yours


There is some dispute as to just how Van Gogh’s ear was severed. In recent years, some art historians have argued that the injury was actually inflicted by Gauguin during an angry confrontation.

However it occurred, Van Gogh saw fit to preserve the image of his injury. The picture at left is of Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Cut Ear” and comes from the Van Gogh Museum.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On this historic day, let’s hear from those who weren’t asked and didn’t tell.

This morning, President Obama signed legislation that will bring an end to the 17-year-old ban on gays openly serving in the military. Members of his administration and other guests gathered in the Department of the Interior to witness the historic beginning of the end for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

That Clinton-Administration compromise allowed gays to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexuality a secret. Many were mute, but others who served before and during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era have been sharing their stories.

The Library of Congress chronicles their experiences in Serving in Silence, a collection of oral histories compiled as part of the Veterans History Project’s Experiencing War collection. Browse through those transcripts and you’ll read about the Korean War veteran who found life his as a gay man in a war zone far more liberating than the closeted one he led back home in the the pre-Stonewall-era United States. You’ll hear an Air Force veteran of the Persian Gulf War describe how her fear that her peers would learn she was gay led to her early retirement from the military.

I couldn't speak out. I was there when ... and I was working in a very close environment with a ... bunch of people inside ... during the whole time that Clinton was running and we know that the first time he ran, he was running on this platform of opening up the military ... to ... for gays and lesbians to serve openly. And so I felt then that I couldn't argue against the types of derogatory comments that I was hearing from my subordinates for fear of... being ... seen as a lesbian. 
The repeal, according to reports, will likely still take several months to implement. Read the Serving in Silence oral histories and you'll know what many have been waiting for decades to witness. The photo above of this morning's signing ceremony, comes from the Associated Press.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A plague on your house? Better get out the white wand.

After writing the previous entry about Harvard’s Contagion collection, I stumbled upon another resource for historical materials about contagious diseases. The World Health Organization’s Historical Collection includes “Rare Books on Plague, Smallpox and Epidemiology". In that collection, you’ll find Sir John Colbatch’s 1721 work - A Scheme for Proper Methods to be taken, should it please God to visit us with the Plague.

That publication described a plan to divide the city of London into districts. Each of those districts would be assigned physicians, apothecaries, nurses and militia to tend to the sick, keep order and bury the dead in the event the city was visited by the deadly virus. That treatise offered very specific advice for those families of some means – individuals who could afford to hole up in their homes and wait for the epidemic to wane.

“That Families of Substance, who have Servants and all convenience for cleanliness and everything else, be left in their own Houses, and even those not shut up, only a mark to be set upon them. But that it shall be Death for any well person to come out of such house without a white wand in his hand, to warn all people that he belongs to an infected family."

According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir John Colbatch died in 1729. There’s no mention of the cause of death. Other samples of Colbatch's work can be found on Google Books, such as the one pictured above. The timely title of that work? – Dissertation Concerning Misletoe: A most wonderful Specifick Remedy for the Cure of convulsive Distemper, Calculated for the Benefit of the Poor as well s the Rich and heartily recommended for the Common Good of Mankind.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The truth about surving a nuclear attack: Obama faces fallout if grim topic raised

When I was growing up, the parochial school near my home bore those yellow-and-and black fallout shelter signs. Looking back, I can’t really recall when they disappeared – the early 70s maybe? Later, perhaps? An article in today’s New York Times left me wondering whether my kids will see those signs in the future.

 That piece explains that the Obama administration is facing a dilemma. Research has concluded that in case of a nuclear attack, you should not flee but instead get inside and stay inside until it is declared safe. The Times’ article further states that scientific studies indicate that shielding yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a nuclear strike could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives. Thus the administration’s is facing a catch 22; should they publicize the data on how to best survive a nuclear attack and appear alarmist? Or, should they steer clear of any sort of public-education campaign and deprive the public of important public safety information?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there didn't appear to be any such hand-wringing going on. The government excelled at distributing alarmist material - pamphlets provided instructions for developing a family fallout shelter, pictures captured families posing in their underground bunkers, cartoons of the effects of the lethal fallout were printed  and lists of items individuals should have on hand were distributed to those fearful of what would happen if the bomb dropped.

Some of those materials can be found at the National Archives. Teacher’s resources provided by that federal agency give access to a digitized copy of pamphlets distributed by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, photographs of a family fallout shelter as well as other material. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Department of History & Heritage Resources features additional print and visual fallout materials.
The photo above left comes from the National Archives. It’s depicts a fallout shelter constructed by a Michigan man to protect his family of four. The shelter, which had an ample stock of food supplies, also featured special ventilation and an escape hatch. The photo at right of the fallout shelter sign, that symbol I remember from my youth, comes from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Think cold-and-flu-season is treating you badly? Check this out.

I haven’t posted in the past few days because the plague descended on my home.  Well actually, it was just a respiratory virus. Still, it gave me fodder for today’s entry: a brief rundown on a compilation of material describing what ailed mankind. That collection, one of the highlights of Harvard University’s Open Collections program, is titled Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics.

 That digital collection is focused around nine significant episodes of contagious disease.  Those outbreaks span the centuries, from the pestilence of the late 15th century, to the North American Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. According to the collection’s website, Contagion features digitized copies of books, serials, pamphlets, incunabula, and manuscripts—a total of more than 500,000 pages.  Many of those textual items also feature visual materials, such as plates, engravings, maps, charts, broadsides, and other illustrations. The collection also includes two unique sets of visual materials from the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

The image above is part of that collection and shows the title page of A Narrative of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox in New England, 1722.  That work is from the holdings of Houghton Library at Harvard.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A chain reaction that continues today


Sixty-eight years ago today, Enrico Fermi produced the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The success of Fermi’s experiment –conducted on a squash court underneath the bleachers of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago -  ushered in the nuclear age.

The University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Collection contains digital facsimiles of the Nobel-willing physicist’s notebooks, correspondence and course preparation materials. That site requires you download a Djvu plug-in. Djvu is a file formal that bundles multi-page documents together, much like a PDF, but provides for quicker transmission time.

A number of other sites feature material relating to Fermi, the chain reaction and the global impact of his work, including: The National Science Digital Library’s Atomic Archive, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Research and Development site, Fermi’s page on the official website of the Nobel Prize, and Our Documents, the National Archive and Records Administration’s collection of milestone documents in American History.

The photo of Fermi at right comes from the U. S. Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information. At right is an image of a letter sent to President Roosevelt by Albert Einstein in 1939. In it, Einstein briefs the president on Fermi’s works and predicts that the successful production of a nuclear chain reaction is in the near future. He also warned of the weaponry that could be created and suggested that the president might “think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Fermi would later go on to serve as a leader of team of physicists working on the Manhattan Project.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve read a number of articles exploring whether the WikiLeaks information dump can be compared to the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Some seem to bring up the Pentagon Papers in an effort to place the WikiLeaks controversy into historical perspective. Other articles draw a clear parallel between the WikiLeaks disclosures and the public airing of the contents of United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, as the Pentagon Papers were otherwise known. Still other pieces seek to refute any connection between WikiLeaks founder’s Julian Assagne’s actions and Daniel Ellsberg’s motivations in leaking the Pentagon Papers.

This blog isn’t the forum for that debate. However, here you will find some resources that will help you understand it. The U.S. Department of Defense’s reading room provides full text copies of the Pentagon Papers and their footnotes. Famous Trials, a digital collection created by Douglas O. Linder at University of Missouri Kansas City law school contains a number of links and a selected bibliography related to Ellsberg’s trial under the Espionage Act of 1917. That 1973 case would end in a dismissal on the grounds of governmental misconduct.

The photo at top of Daniel Ellsberg comes from the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. The photo below f WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange comes from the Associated Press.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Previously unknown Picasso works found: what treasures are in your garage?

I’m fascinated by the story of the retired French electrician who has reportedly been storing a treasure-trove of works by Picasso in a box in his garage. Pierre Le Guennec claims the artist gave him 271 pieces as a gift after Le Guennec worked on  Picasso’s homes in the south of France back in the early 1970s.

The cache, which is estimated to be worth at least $80 million, includes lithographs, cubist paintings, notebooks and a watercolor. Administrators of Picasso’s estate have filed a case for alleged illegal receipt of the art. The artist’s son, who has vouched for the works’ authenticity, claims his father never would have handed off such a collection and maintains he always signed and dated works given as gifts.

It will be an interesting story in the coming weeks in months. In the meantime, if you want additional information about the artist and his work, visit the Online Picasso Project. That digital repository, the creation Dr. Enrique Mallen a professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, provides visitors with access to close to 20,000 catalogued artworks (including jpeg images of the pieces) as well as access to thousands of biographic entries, archived articles, artwork notes, artwork commentaries and other material.

The image above left of Picasso was taken by American photographer Irving Penn in 1957 and comes from the National Gallery of Art. The image at right shows one of the newly-discovered Picasso works and comes from the Associated Press.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I have a bit of time before the turkey goes in the oven - ample opportunity to relect on what I'm most thankful for - a wonderful family, dear friends, good health, a job I love, and a welcoming home to return to at the end of the day. If you want to read the Pilgrim's first-hand accounts of  how and to what they have thanks, Plymouth Massachusetts' Pilgrim Hall Museum can provide them to you.

The image above is J.L.G. Ferris's early 20th century work, "First Thanksgiving". It comes from the Library of Congress's American Memory Project.

A wonderful holiday to all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A look back at changes in the House leadership

Today’s New York Times The Caucus blog features a post discussing how incoming House Speaker, John A. Boehner, can best avoid becoming “branded in an unflattering way” as did his predecessors, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Hunting around for some information about the history of the speakership, I came across the historical collections of the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the subject heading “Speaker of the House” you’ll find scores of articles, including one about Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, the first Speaker of the House. First elected to the post on April 1, 1789, Muhlenberg would go on to serve two non-consecutive terms in that leadership role.

Articles provided by the U.S. Clerk’s office provide links to profile information for the Congresses under which the speakers served. Other links provide access to articles about important pieces of legislation considered during the speakers’ tenure.

The image above is taken from a portrait of Muhlenberg and comes from the collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Friday, November 19, 2010

UNLV's Nevada Test Site Oral History Project

Between 1951 and 1992 the United States conducted more than 1000 nuclear tests above and underneath the barren ground of southern Nevada. The Nuclear Test Site, a 1350-square mile plot of land located northwest of Las Vegas, employed upwards of 125,000 during the Cold War. Nuclear testing ceased there in 1992 with the implementation of a nuclear testing moratorium.

The operations at that Nevada Test Site facility are the subject of the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. That initiative contains a collection of interviews with military personnel, scientists, laborers and protestors associated with the test site. The project was awarded the 2010 Public History Project Award from the National Council on Public History.

Other repositories of primary source materials related to the Nevada Test site include the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and Los Alamos Laboratories. The environmental agency’s holdings include photographs of the test site, environment impact statements pertaining to the contamination resulting from the tests and National Cancer Institute studies on the health impacts of the tests on those living in surrounding areas. Los Alamos’ materials include photographs and additional historical material about the testing.

The image above left shows the Stokes test. Conducted in August, 1957, that explosion was detonated from a balloon. The image at right shows the Sedan crater which was created by the underground explosion of a 100 kiloton nuclear device in July, 1962. The resultant crater is 320 feet deep in 1280 feet in diameter. Both images come from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How to catch, peel, grill and eat snakes

Sometimes my train of thought gets derailed, as it did today. I was browsing through the list of winners of the National Council on Public History's Public History Project Award recipients and bookmarking those sites on Delicious.  While perusing Delicious, I started checking out who else had found these projects of interest. Eventually, I  found my way to the digital exhibit A is for Animals - a project of the Australian War Memorial.

I both fascinated and repelled by what I saw and read. The site, which was designed primarily with a young audience in mind, features photographs, videos and audio recordings that illustrate the varied roles of animals in war, from essential means of transport, to beloved mascots to troublesome pests.

The video of a RAAF jungle survival training camp in Queensland made me a bit squeamish. The black and white film shows a collection of soldiers, catching, cooking and rather reluctantly nibbling a very large snake.  That video is below.

This collection is a long way from what I originally started writing about - The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. More on that tomorrow (hopefully).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Patriotic lyricist wrote of cancer's torment, the anguish of love lost


Last week I came across an article announcing that the handwritten score of an alternative version of “America the Beautiful” was up for sale by a Cape Cod auction house. It was in 1893 that Falmouth, MA native Katharine Lee Bates wrote a poem that would become that beloved patriotic melody. Today, you can’t go too far in the seaside town without running across some kind of monument to Bates, such as the street sign that bears her name or the statue of her likeness on the public library lawn.

Before reading that article, I knew Bates was a lyricist. But I didn’t know she was an accomplished academic – a respected professor and esteemed author. Nor did I know that the poems she wrote in the wake of her partner's death from breast cancer would be such powerful examples of how words truly can convey profound loss. I also learned that those poems, such as "If You Could Come" , are today viewed by scholars as examples of some of the earliest American breast cancer narratives.

If You Could Come 
If You Could Come
My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

That poem is found in the collection Yellow Clover; A Book of Remembrance, published by Bates in 1922. That volume is dedicated to Katharine Coman, an economist, social reformer, fellow Wellesley professor and Bates’ partner of 25 years.

The photo of Bates, at left, comes from Wellesley College. The photo of Coman, at right, comes from the digitized copy of Yellow Clover, available at the Internet Archive.

Additional information about Bates can be found at The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Falmouth Historical Society.

NYT Focuses on Digital Humanities

This morning’s New York Times features an excellent article by Patricia Cohen on the digital humanities. In it, she explains how scholars are using new and emerging technological tools to enhance, and perhaps change, our understanding of topics in the humanities. The piece features the work of a number of researchers whose projects I intend add to my collection of digital humanities links available on this blog and at Delicious. Today’s piece promises to be the first in the series "Humanities 2.0: The Liberal Arts meet the Data Revolution". Looking forward to the next installment.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Documenting the American South: A Rich Repository of Digital Primary Sources

On Nov. 11, 1831, Nat Turner, the leader of a bloody slave revolt in Virginia, was hanged.

The insurrection that ultimately led to his execution began several months earlier with the massacre of Turner's slave-owner, Joseph Travis, along with Travis’s wife and children. Over the next two days, scores of whites were killed by Turner and his 50-or-so followers. Ultimately, the majority of the uprising’s participants were captured and executed, as were many other African Americans who were not part of the revolt. Many more African Americans were subjected to increasingly oppressive legislation that was enacted in the wake of the killings.

Turner escaped capture until October of that year and The Confessions of Nat Turner were released shortly thereafter. The confessions of Tuner have long been in question. They were produced by Thomas Gray, Turner’s court-appointed attorney who, in the face of financial trouble, stood to gain considerably from the confessions’ release.

You can read the full text of the confession at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South. In addition to the confession, that digital collection features a number of other primary sources dealing with the revolt, including letters from individuals commenting on the uprising and information about how the Legislature responded to it. Additionally, the collection features an historical essay titled "A Rebellion to Remember: The Legacy of Nat Turner".

The image above left is the cover page of The Confessions of Nat Turner and comes from Documenting the American South. The image at right is titled “Horrid Massacre in Virginia” and comes from the Print s and Lithographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Spalding Gray: The Art of the Monologue

Yesterday I came across an article in the New York Times about the University of Texas at Austin acquiring the Spalding Gray archives. I was a college student when I first saw Gray on the big screen in 1984’s The Killing Fields. That motion picture told the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian photographer who managed to survive the horror inflicted upon his country by the Khmer Rouge regime. Gray played the U.S. Consul in Cambodia in that film and his experiences on the set became the subject of a one-man stage show. That show, in turn, was the basis for 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia. Gray died in 2004 of an apparent suicide.

The Spaulding Gray Collection, which will be housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas Austin, features some 90 hand written performance notebooks, 100 private journals and hundreds of letters. It also includes a number of unpublished written works including short stories and poems as well as audio and VHS tapes of his performances.

In addition to the Spaulding Gray resources, The Harry Ransom Center also features papers of other writers including, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, and Norman Mailer, among others.

The above photo of Spaulding Gray comes from the Library of Congress’s online exhibition A Century of Creativity: The MacDowell Colony 1907-2007.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

31 Years Ago: The Beginning of a 444-Day Crisis

On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. The group would be held in captivity for the next 444 days by the followers of Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Those followers demanded the return of the deposed Shah of Iran, who had fled the country in January of that year.

President Jimmy Carter, whose administration was plunged into crisis by the hostage situation, embarked on a course of patient diplomacy which eventually helped secure the hostages’ release. But it was the hostage crisis and Carter’s response to it, coupled with the concurrent energy crisis, that helped secure Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 Presidential election.

The Jimmy Carter Library and Museum features an interesting digital collection of documents pertaining to the hostage crisis. Among those resources you’ll find a list of those held captive, those who escaped capture those servicemen who perished in Operation Eagle Claw, an aborted attempt to free the hostages. The collection also features the journal kept by captive Robert C. Ode and a link to National Archives holdings related to the failed rescue effort.

Also, the Central Intelligence Agency’s library features a detailed first-person account of the hostage crisis, written by William J. Daugherty who served in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations in Iran.

The photo at left comes from the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Did you?

After the polls close this evening, the ballots will be counted and, tomorrow, analysis of the 2010-mid-term-electionwill begin in earnest. For students weighing the fallout from Tuesday’s vote, there are a number of resources in a variety of digital collections that will help you as you break down the results and put them in historical perspective.

 The U.S. Senate’s Historical Office has published an interesting essay on the Mid-Term Revolution of 1958 that saw Senate Democrats gain 13 seats, the largest transfer from one party to another in Senate history. As mentioned previously in this blog, the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara features an excellent graphic depicting the number of House and Senate seats lost by the ruling party during mid-term elections. The U.S. Census Bureau provides interesting data about voters in the 1994 mid-term election.

 Finally, American Rhetoric, The Online Speech Bank, provides the full text and audio of Newt Gingrich’s speech as he assumed the Speaker of the House post as a result of that so-called Republic Revolution of 1994. (That digital repository is updated frequently.  If you’d like, you can also find Jon Stewart’s keynote address delivered at last weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity.) And,  if you haven’t already, go vote.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Turn the pages of these rare, historic texts

I loved Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, a novel that traces a rare manuscript’s centuries-long journey from its creation Spain to its discovery in war-torn Sarajevo. The novel is based on the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which today is on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Recently I happened upon a fascinating digital collection that gave me more insight into the Haggadah, the Jewish text that contains the story of Exodus and the Passover Seder ritual.

The British Library’s Turning the Pages online gallery allows users to leaf through the pages of great books. Those works include the first atlas of Europe, Jane Austen’s early work and William Blake’s notebook, to name just a few selections. Visit that collection and you’ll also be able to peruse the Golden Haggadah. In addition to being able to digitally leaf through the pages of that manuscript, the gallery's features allow you to magnify the images, listen to commentary about the resource and read background material about that particular book. Reading through the available material, I learned the Golden Haggadah was likely brought to Italy by Jews fleeing Spain in the late 1400s. The volume remained in Italy until it was acquired by the British Museum.

The image above is a facsimile of the Sarajevo Haggadah and comes from the online exhibit “You Shall Tell Your Children: The Passover Haggadah in the Yale University Library Collections.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Pentagon Protest 43 Years Later

On this day in 1967, some 100,000 people marched on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. There is a wealth of primary source available related to that action. Items can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration, at the website of the Federal Justice Department’s U.S. Marshall’s Service, and the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University. Another rich source of material related to the protest is YouTube. On that site, a search for “pentagon protest 1967” yields a number of videos – including newsreels – that depict what happened when the protest moved from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon. The picture above, taken at the Pentagon that day, is from the National Archives.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Sands that Inspired The Poet of the Dunes

Columbus Day weekend brought stunning weather to Cape Cod and my family took full advantage, heading off on a road trip to the Lower Cape. We hiked some trails in Truro, stopped at Ballston Beach, and eventually made our way to the Province Lands visitor’s center in Provincetown.
There, I was intrigued by a display about Harry Kemp, the so-called “Poet of the Dunes” and a longtime resident of the town’s dune shacks. At home, I did some research about Harry and learned he was talented rake. In addition to being known as the man who stole Upton Sinclair’s wife, he was also recognized as a skilled writer and actor who counted some of the early 20th century’s artistic elite as his friends and collaborators.

One of those individuals was Eugene O’Neill. Back in the summer of 1916, Mr. Kemp and other members of the Provincetown Players staged the playwright’s Bound East for Cardiff. More about that show and the history of the Provincetown Players can be found in the University of Virginia’s digital collection: In the Brilliancy of the Footlights: Creating America’s Theatre. That collection includes copies of playbills from Provincetown Players’ productions and a photograph of the Bound East for Cardiff cast.

Kemp’s own work, Tramping on Life, an Autobiographical Narrative is available full text from Google Books and the Internet Archive, as are a number of his poetry collections. Kemp died in a Provincetown artist’s shack in the summer 1960.

The image at top shows Provincetown’s Province Lands on Sunday afternoon. The image at left is  Harry Kemp’s portrait from his autobiography. At left is Tasha Shack, one of the Provincetown dune shacks Kemp called home.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cranberries Cured Those Scurvy Sailors

While driving to work in a driving rainstorm yesterday, I passed a cranberry bog. Despite the monsoon-like conditions, the bog-workers were laboring hard, harvesting the tart fruit. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, the cranberry (referred to as craneberries by the English settlers) was a staple on whaling ships as the red berries were known to fight scurvy – a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency and characterized by lethargy, anemia, gum disease and skin  hemorrhages.
 Google Books has a wealth of materials that serve as primary source references on the topic of scurvy and whaling voyages. For example, consider what William Kennedy described in The Second Voyage of the Prince Albert. That monograph, written in 1853, details the hardships endured on an Arctic expedition.
“Within the last few days we had suffered so severely from scurvy, which had rendered us morbidly sensitive to cold and bodily fatigue, that although now only a day’s journey from Whaler Point, we gladly availed ourselves of the opportunity which the accidental discovery of the depot afforded, to take a day or two’s rest before proceeding further….we remained at Whaler Point until the 27th, making a free use of the lime juice, cranberries, vegetables, and, in fact of every anti scorbutic we found…”
Some additional repositories for digitized materials related to whaling voyages are The New Bedford Whaling Museum, The National Maritime Digital Library and the Nantucket Historical Association.
The above image of the Massachusetts cranberry harvest comes from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Winners and losers in mid-term elections past

Election season is heating up, judging by the number of political science students posing questions about various Congressional races. With the mid-term elections just a month away, you might want to check out The American Presidency Project’s excellent graphic detailing the number of Congressional seats lost or gained by the President’s party during mid-term elections. The chart includes information about the President, his political party, the President’s lame duck status, their job approval rating in the months leading to the election and the number of House and Senate seats lost during the mid-term elections. The data used to create the chart was culled from a number of sources,  including  the Gallup Poll and Vital Statistics on the Presidency.

 The American Presidency Project contains a wealth of primary source and statistical material spanning the administration of George Washington to Barack Obama. The editorial cartoon shown above depicts the fall-out from the 1922 mid-term elections. That image comes from the National Archives online exhibit: Running for Office: Candidates, Campaigns, and the Cartoons of Clifford Berryman.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

50 years ago this week, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy squared off against Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the first-ever general election presidential debate. To mark that anniversary, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has partnered with YouTube to make the full, unabridged debate available for viewing. The photo at right of the debate is a video still from the Internet Archive.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Pandemic of 1918-1919

One of the websites I visit most every day is HISTORY.COM’s This Day in History. Perusing that site this morning, I learned that on this day in 1918 a parade in Philadelphia drew crowds to the city and helped spread the influenza virus throughout the region. The pandemic of 1918-1919 sickened people around the globe. When it was over, some 30 million people worldwide had perished after contracting the highly contagious virus.

The National Archives has put together and impressive array of digitized documents in their online collection, The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. There, you’ll find photographs, telegrams, letters, and government documents. Additionally, The United States Department of Health and Human Services had compiled a rich collection of digital resources related to the outbreak titled The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919. Like the National Archives collection, it contains photographs, letters, and other documents.

The photo above of a New York City letter carrier was taken in October of 1918 and comes from the National Archives.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Happy Constitution Day!

On this day in 1787, 39 delegates signed the final draft of the Constitution. The document would then be sent on to the states and ratified the following year. In order to mark the occasion, I thought I’d highlight a few digital collections featuring Constitution materials. Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives features images of the Constitution (high resolution PDFs are available for download) and the transcribed text of the document. The Avalon Project at Yale University features The American Constitution – A Documentary Record. That collection provides access to primary source materials dealing with the U.S. Constitution. Those documents are divided into several broad categories including: revolution and independence, the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the Constitution and the formation of the government. Finally, the Library of Congress’s Thomas site, the online home of federal legislative information, features a variety of primary source documents as well as resources for teachers. The image above is Signing of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fatal Bear Attack in New Hampshire prompts search

This summer I’ve been on a frustrating search for a source describing the last fatal, unprovoked black bear attack in New Hampshire . “Why”, you ask? Well, back in July, I was vacationing with the family on New Hampshire’s Tuftonboro Neck. I went for a jog one morning, rounded a bend in the dirt road and came upon what I initially thought was a very large dog. I got a tad closer and realized that enormous dog was actually a black bear. The bear lumbered off into the woods toward Lake Winnipesaukee. I took off in the other direction. After I told my family about the encounter, my brother-in-law (a Granite State resident) said, "Don’t worry; the state’s last fatal bear attack happened way back in the 1700s."

 Being a skeptic, I wanted proof. Being a reference librarian, I wanted a primary source that provided me with all the details. While I could find plenty of contemporary references to New Hampshire’s last fatal bear attack occurring in 1784, I couldn’t find any primary source describing the incident. Frustrating! It seemed to be one of those pieces of information I describe to students I work with as “very gettable”.

And it was, indeed, gettable. I just needed some uninterrupted search time. When I returned to work from summer break this week, I spent some time on this quest. I looked in various Library of Congress resources, perused collections of New Hampshire historical material, poked around in the Internet Archive and browsed historical newspapers. My search ultimately ended with Google books. There, a simple search for bear attack new hampshire 1784 brought me to a digitized copy of the second edition of Jeremy Belknap’s The History of New Hampshire: comprehending the events of one complete century and seventy-five years from the discovery of the River Pascataqua to the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety. That monograph contained the following account of the grisly attack on an 8-year old Moultonborough boy in the summer of 1784.

A boy of eight years old, son of a Mr. Leach, was sent to a pasture toward the close of the day, to put out a horse and bring home the cows. His father being in a neighbouring field, heard a cry of distress, and running to the fence, saw his child lying on the ground and a bear standing by him. He seized a stake, and crept along, with a view to get between the bear and the child . The bear took the child by the throat and drew him into the bushes. The father pursued till he came up and, aiming a stroke at the bear, the stake broke in his hand; and the bear, leaving his prey, turned upon the parent, who, in the anguish of his soul, was obliged to retreat and call for help. Before any sufficient help could be obtained, the evening was so far advanced, that a search was impracticable. The night was passed by the family in the utmost distress. The neighbours assembled and, at break of day, renewed the pursuit. The child's hat, and the bridle, which he had dropped, were found, and they tracked his blood about forty rods, when they discovered the mangled corpse. The throat was torn and one thigh devoured.

The photo of the black bear, above at top, comes from the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension. The map of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, showing the proximity of Moultonborough to Tuftonboro, comes from New Hampshire’s Lakes Region Association.

Back at the reference desk and on the hunt for primary sources

After a wonderful summer on Cape Cod, I’ve returned to the reference desk at Stonehill College. I’m in the process of weeding through the lists of primary source sites I’ve collected over the summer and will be adding new bookmarks to my delicious site as well as featuring some of those collections on my Primarily History blog. Given that today is the 65th anniversary of VJ day, I’ll direct you to Japan Capitulates – a digital collection from the Naval History and Heritage Command. The site provides access to images and other material from the U.S. Department of the Navy's Naval Historical Center related to Japan's surrender to the Allies in World War II. The photo above  - which shows Japanese representatives on board USS Missouri during the surrender ceremonies, 2 September 1945 - is part of that collection.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Palin manufactures word, likens herself to Shakespeare: Check out "digipository" of Bard's work

Sarah Palin coined a new term earlier this week when, in a tweet addressed to “Ground Zero Mosque supporters”, she called on “Peaceful Muslims” to “pls. refudiate” a development proposed for lower Manhattan.  Her comments referred to a planned 13-story project that will house a mosque, gymnasium and a community center.

Her choice of words was met with harsh criticism from around the blogosphere, on the airwaves and in print. While many commentators took aim at her use of the term “Peaceful Muslims”,  others took her to task for manufacturing the word “refudiate”. What did she mean? Refute? Repudiate?

In response to those comments, the former Governor of Alaska issued another tweet, likening her creative use of language to that of the Bard’s.

"'Refudiate,' 'misunderestimate,' 'wee-wee'd up.' English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!"
Twitter users did celebrate. Under the hash tag #ShakesPalin they’ve created a collection of phrases combining Shakespeare’s work with Palin –speak. One example:

“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? It is the East, and I can see Russia from my front porch.”
Okay, enough of the politics. If you want to read what Shakespeare wrote, check out the Shakespeare Quartos Archive. That site provides access to reproductions of least one copy of every edition of William Shakespeare’s plays printed in quarto before the theatres closed in 1642. The digital repository – a digipository if you will – is a collaborative effort between educational institutions and government agencies in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

The photo of Sarah Palin comes from

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Hampshire's Henry Wilson Highway - My Memory Lane

I’m off-Cape, vacationing in New Hampshire with the family. As we headed up Route 11 toward the Lakes Region earlier this week, we passed the turn-off to Route 153 in Farmington. Also known as the Henry Wilson Highway, that rural route is my memory lane.

Librarianship is my second career. Before I decided to return to school and earn my MLS, I worked as a newspaper reporter. My first post-college job was at Foster’s Daily Democrat – a small Granite State daily. My beat had me reporting on several small communities, including Farmington.

Farmington’s claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Henry Wilson, who served as Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president. Henry was actually born Jeremiah Jones Colbath. His family struggled to subsist. He worked on a farm for a time and when he was able he legally changed his name, got out of Farmington and moved to Massachusetts where his political career began.

Although Henry Wilson didn’t seem to be particularly attached to Farmington, Farmington was attached to Henry. While at Foster's, when the snow was deep on the ground, I’d trudge through the drifts at Farmington Country Club to report on the snow-shoe races and snow-man making competitions that were part of the Henry Wilson Winter Carnival. During my tenure at Foster’s, a journalist-colleague started an organization dubbed WOOF – Wilson Out of Obscurity Forthwith. Guess that didn’t work out the way its founder had hoped.

Still, there’s plenty of primary source material about Henry to be found out there. The Library of Congress’s American Memory Project contains a wealth of material from his political career, including letters written to President Lincoln during Wilson’s tenure in the Senate and documentation from his term as vice president. The American Presidency Project contains some additional material about Wilson, including President Grant’s Nov. 22, 1875 announcement that Wilson had died. The Vice President passed away in the Capitol Building after suffering a stroke. The picture of Wilson shown at left comes from

Walking the sands of First Encounter Beach

Last week we headed down to Coast Guard Beach in Eastham to relax on my favorite stretch of sand. After a lovely day, we packed up around dinner time, stopped at a clam shack for some supper and headed for home. Along the way we took a short detour over to the bay side of the Cape and visited Eastham’s First Encounter Beach –a fitting name. It was there in 1620 that members of the Mayflower expedition, searching for an appropriate site for their settlement, first encountered native Americans – members of the Nauset Tribe.

A detailed description of that not-so-cordial first encounter can be found in Mourt’s Relation: a Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth 1622.

"By their noise we could not guess that they were less than thirty or forty, though some thought that they were many more. Yet in the dark of the morning we could not so well discern them among the trees, as they could see us by our fireside. We took up eighteen of their arrows which we have sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brass, others with harts' horn, and others with eagles' claws. Many more no doubt were shot, for these we found were almost covered with leaves; yet, by the especial providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us though many came close by us and on every side of us, and some coats which hung up in our barricade were shot through and through.

So after we had given God thanks for our deliverance, we took our shallop and went on our journey, and called this place, The First Encounter."
After leaving the area of First Encounter, the Mayflower continued along the coast, eventually landing at Plymouth. The  full text of Mourt’s Relation, along with a host of other primary source materials relating to Plymouth Colony, can be found at The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia. That project is a collection of fully searchable texts. Among those texts are; court records, colony laws, seventeenth century journals and memoirs, probate inventories, wills, town plans, maps, and fort plans; research and seminar analyses of numerous topics; biographical profiles of selected colonists; and architectural, archaeological and material culture studies.

The drawing depicting the First Encounter comes from King Philip, by John S. C. (John Stevens Cabot) Abbott. Written in the mid-19th century, that book is available full-text from Project Gutenberg.

Monday, July 12, 2010

RIP Nobel Laureates

I haven’t spent too much time blogging lately. Instead, I’ve been enjoying all of what the summer has to offer here on Cape Cod. I think there’s no better way to spend a beautiful July morning than cycling along the roads of Falmouth. One of my favorite routes takes me by the spectacular scenery near Nobska Light and past the Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole.

A scientist-friend once told me that church’s cemetery is the final resting place of more Nobel Prize-winners than any other cemetery in the world. It doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched possibility, what with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Marine Biological Laboratory just a short distance from the church yard.

While I could find a few references to that claim in tourism literature, I could find no scholarly source to independently confirm it. However, while searching for confirmation I did make another find. After spending quite a bit of time on the Nobel Prize website,  I came to view it as a great repository of primary source material. In addition to statistical data about the awards, the site also provides autobiographical essays by the laureates, the full text of their Nobel lecture and photographs. The photo above of the Church of the Messiah comes from the Episcopal Church.