An Introduction to the Winthrop Family Papers


Massachusetts Historical Society

Peter Olsen-Harbich, a Ph.D Candidate at William & Mary, reflects on his experience working with the Winthrop Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Among the austere manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection resides an unassuming assemblage. Weighing in at precisely ten boxes, it bears a substantive though middling rank in the vast archival stock of America. An additional marker of ordinary quality concludes the title of the collection: “Transcripts.” These are thus ten boxes of derivative, copied papers—primary documents by proxy only. Yet a full examination of the collection title suggests a content that is anything but mundane, for these are the “Winthrop Family Papers [Transcripts],” also known as Ms. N-2211, a trove of transcribed, unpublished correspondence from the family whose various progeny presided at the very center of seventeenth-century New England’s political orbit.

Read the rest here.

Are you looking for some good books on the Winthrop family?  Here are a few titles:

Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father

Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

Daniel T. Rodgers, As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon

Walter Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676.

Richard Dunn and Laetitia Yaendle, ed., The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649: Abridged Edition.

Robert Caro on Working in Archives

Robert Caro, author of "The Power Broker," a biography on Ro

Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Lyndon Johnson biographer, recently published Working: Research, Interviewing, Writing.  Here is a the publisher’s description:

For the first time in book form, Robert Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces. He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses; what it felt like to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ’s mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of working in solitude, he found a writers’ community at the New York Public Library, and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books. 

Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences–some previously published, some written expressly for this book–bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.

Over at Popular Mechanics, Eleanor Hildebrandt talks to Caro about his work in the archives.  Here is a taste of their conversation:

Popular Mechanics: What do you bring with you when you go to the archives?

Robert Caro: It depends on the archive. I have a computer on my desk [a Lenovo Thinkpad], although I still write and do most of my stuff on this typewriter. The reason I have a computer is that some years ago, the Johnson library said that my typewriter was so noisy, it was disturbing the other researchers. So I bought a computer and I took all my Vietnam notes on it, but I still write on the typewriter and in longhand.

It makes me think more. Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.

Almost two years ago, Ina [Caro’s wife] and I went down [to the archives], and I’m sitting there, in the reading room, writing my notes. Everybody else is standing there taking photographs of their documents. They do it with cell phones now. If you saw me there, you’d see one person who’s not in the modern age.

PM: Have you ever been tempted to switch to pictures?

RC: No. I feel there’s something very important, to be able to turn the pages yourself. I don’t want anything standing in between me and the paper. People compliment me on finding out how [Johnson] rose to power so fast in Congress by using money. That happened down there, and it was a vague, amorphous thing. I was sitting there with all these boxes, taking all these notes. And you saw letters, his very subservient letters—“Can I have five minutes of your time?”—and then you see the same letters coming back to him. And I said, Something happened here. What’s the explanation? Why is a committee chairman writing to Lyndon Johnson, asking for a few minutes of his time? So I sat there and put my notes into chronological order. And then it became absolutely clear.

Would the same thing have happened if I’d stood there taking photographs and went back? Possibly. But I don’t believe it. To me, being in the papers is really important.

Read the entire interview here.

Archives Season


I’ve spent many summer hours toiling away at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia

Over at AHA Today, Christina Copland, a Ph.D candidate at University of Southern California, has a nice piece on summer archive work.  Here is a taste:


Larger archives are the watering holes of the history world. Some offer meet & greet opportunities—the Huntington Library where I did much of my writing hosted weekly afternoon tea breaks. In other places, sometimes all we need to do is to ask fellow researchers about the documents they’re looking at. I’ve also found that, especially in smaller and more specialized repositories, archival staff love to talk about sources and are keen to hear about where we might take our projects. Some of the people who were most enthusiastic about my PhD research were the staff at the Biola University library, the archive where I spent the bulk of my time (once the mold problem was fixed, that is). The fact that archivists are passionate about their collections—and know them better than anyone else—means that they can help point us in the direction of potentially useful sources. Often an archive will offer funding to researchers. The time spent building up a network of library contacts might prove invaluable to getting these fellowships.

It’s not just records we access at an archive. These are spaces in which we find future conference panelists, encounter other grads and faculty members working in our fields, or meet archivists who help us out of a research roadblock. The archival landscape is shifting, however, perhaps with significant consequences for this part of our lives as historians. More archives are moving their collections online, accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Digital archives make our lives easier; there’s no travelling involved, no risk of running out of time on a research trip. But what’s the trade off? What we gain in research convenience, might we potentially lose in community?

Read the entire piece here.

I can’t remember a summer when I did not spend at least a few days in the archives.  I will be spending most of this summer promoting Believe Me, but I still hope to steal away from the book tour and get to one or two archives.  We will see how things go.

Here’s a piece I published fifteen years ago at Common-Place.

How to Have a Great Experience in the Archives

Archives 3

Apparently today is archive day at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

If you are new to working in the archives, I recommend taking a look at Andrea Turpin’s recent post at Religion in American History: “Adventures in the Archives: Tips for Minimizing Expenses, Maximizing Time, & Having Fun.”

Turpin offers five pieces of advice:

  1. Apply for grants
  2. Be shameless
  3. Let archivists help
  4. Tailor your research style to the nature of the archives
  5. Have fun both inside and outside the archives

See how Turpin unpacks these points at Religion in American History blog.  This is helpful stuff.

More Archival Research Tips from Lisa Munro


Last week we did a post on Lisa Munro‘s tips for historians doing archival research.  Now Munro is back with a second post on the topic.

Here are some of her thoughts on organization in the archives:

The other thing that is vitally important to your research mission is keeping a log of some kind of what documents you’ve already read. This is absolutely necessary to avoid duplicating research efforts and saving time. Everyone develops their own system eventually. My first step involves an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the date I read the documents and the metadata mentioned above, as well as whether I photographed the document and the date of my photos. I also record all relevant data about documents I will read in the future. I like the Excel method, as I can see all of my research efforts in one place. It’s like having a main index to my research.

Second, anything that has the kind of metadata I mentioned above goes on both the spreadsheet and in my Zotero library. I cross reference the data on my Excel sheet with my Zotero database, which is where I take notes on the documents I read.

I also attach individual archive photos to my Zotero items, as seen above. If you use Zotero, be warned that it cannot perform OCR (optical character recognition) on digital photos. Performing OCR on all of my archive photos is beyond even my obsessive nature, so I just attach them to the main item and make sure that I can find it again. I’ve found that tags work better for me than collections, as an item can have more than one tag. If you look at the bottom left of my Zotero photo, you can see that I’ve tagged this with AGCA, history of archaeology, primary source, and Tikal. Once I’ve got the item tagged, I can find it again easily.

Anything I need to write down that doesn’t have specific metadata attached to it (for example, my nightly archive notes) gets stored in Evernote. If I take notes by hand, I snap photos of them and upload them to EN, which will OCR and index handwriting.  I make sure to tag all of my research notes for easy retrieval later. I use tags like: archive notes, AGCA, research, etc.     

So after all this notetaking and organizing, I’m left with an Excel sheet to index and track my research, which is then cross-referenced with my Zotero database for notes on specific documents, which is cross referenced with my photos, which is all finally cross-referenced with my Evernote research notes. If I need to find this document about Tikal, for example, I can find its metadata by searching my tag for Tikal in Zotero, find it on my research spreadsheet, find all my photos of this document, and check my research notes about it in Evernote.

Wow!  This is some great stuff.  I am hoping to get back in the archives later this week and Munro’s post has definitely provided some inspiration.  I only wish I was this organized and had started earlier in familiarizing myself with these tools.

Read Munro’s entire post here.

Some Great Tips for Archival Research


Lisa Munro, a recent Ph.D in Latin American history, has started what appears to be a great introduction to archival research for historians.  (It is the first of a multi-post series at her blog).

Munro starts her series with four general tips:

  1. “Network early and often”
  2. “Do as much research ahead of time as possible”
  3. “Get a good camera”
  4. “Practice self-care

See how Munro develops each one of these points here.

Studying the Early Life of Great Intellectuals

How does the early life–the childhood or the adolescent years–shape the mature thought of American intellectuals?  Over at U.S. Intellectual History Paul Croce, a historian at Stetson University, thinks it is very important for seven reasons.  Here is a taste of his post:

Historians pay attention to change. Students of the past need no reminding about the evolution of societies, the relationship of ideas to their times, and the contingencies of life. But some unhistorical thought can slip into historical study with exclusive focus on the finished products of a thinker’s work without considering the evolutionary steps toward those creations.
Such a focus can be very tempting; after all, those later productions are generally the most thought out and refined; in the same spirit, who would consider submitting a first draft for publication? But in the course of a life, the equivalents to those early drafts are more than just messy versions of later productions; they can harbor clues to a thinker’s drives and goals, often presented in still more raw form than later texts and creations.
I call this “developmental biography,” the method of attention to an intellectual’s creations over time, in development; the method involves placing an idea not only in contextual history, but also in the thinker’s own history. Consider then these reasons to take a closer look at early life when evaluating the figures of intellectual history:
1-Examining an idea in development, especially through the life path of the idea’s creator in development, brings attention to the choices made during stages of thinking, and to the contexts surrounding those choices. This focus can reveal not only the influences on thought, but also the development of commitment. The culminating theory itself remains important, generally with greater depth and nuances, but the path of development shows how the composer cared enough to create it.

For the other six reasons, read Croce’s entire post.  

This kind of developmental biography is not easy. Primary materials on the early life of intellectuals–or any figure in history for that matter–is difficult to find.  My biography of Philip Vickers Fithian (who was certainly not a famous intellectual) could only gesture toward the kind of culture in which he was raised due to lack of documentary evidence.  If he wrote anything prior to the age of eighteen it does not exist.

Follow Devin Manzullo Thomas As He Writes About "Born Again Brethren"

Devin Manzullo-Thomas

I know that a lot of you have been following my daily posts about the ins and outs of researching, writing, and publishing a history of the American Bible Society.  I am grateful that so many of you are finding these posts useful.

My approach to research and writing will naturally be different than others.  Another historian might do their work in fundamentally different ways.  If you want to see how another religious historian does his work, check out Devin Manzullo-Thomas’s blog The Search for Piety and Obedience.  Devin will be blogging about his work on an article-length study based on his Temple University masters thesis titled “Born-Again Brethren: History as Identity and Theology in the Cultural Transformation of a ‘Plain People.’”  It deals primarily with the relationship between the Brethren in Christ Church and the American evangelical movement.  He hopes to offer weekly updates on his progress.  Here is a taste of his post:

To maintain accountability and help steer this project toward completion, I’m taking a page from my Messiah College colleague John Fea’s book and attempting to document my research and writing process here at the blog. (If you’re wondering why I’d be doing more research for a project that’s already basically written, stay tuned — I have a blog post just for you!)
Each week, I’ll post a new update about my work on the essay. These updates will be a mixed bag: sometimes they’ll be personal reflections on the research/writing process; other times, they’ll be short research notes sharing interesting finds in the archives or questions I’m grappling with. Like John, I hope to walk readers through each step of the process: research, writing, submission, waiting, peer review, etc.
Looking forward to it!  I hope this post has raised the accountability bar a bit.