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.