Risa Goluboff, ACLS Fellow, at LC!

Today, the current work of ACLS collided with its past, also known as the world in which I reside. As a “historian of the record,” I  constantly remind myself that ACLS is doing work right now, right this very instant…great and provocative work, no less! Alas, that’s what happens when you spend your days surrounded by files created in the 1960s and 70s. It’s not forgetting the day, it’s more like forgetting the decade.

The John W. Kluge Center (pronounced Clue-gee) at the Library of Congress,

presents a new opportunity to attract to Washington the best available minds in the scholarly world, facilitate their access to the Library’s remarkable collection of the world’s knowledge, and engage them in conversation with the U.S. Congress and other public figures.

In order to accomplish this mission, the Center invites thinkers from various disciplines to work with the resources available at the Library and engage with the public.

Risa Goluboff, lawyer, professor, scholar and ACLS Burkhardt Fellow, is one such person.

Roberta Shaffer, a lawyer and the Associate Librarian for Library Services here at the Library gave a rousing introduction of Risa to a packed crowd. Which speaks volumes to the topic as well as Risa’s following because this talk contended with lunchtime and a beautiful Spring day. Shaffer promised that we would not be disappointed and I don’t think any of us even cared about the weather outside once Risa began her talk.

Risa delivered a fantastic (a word I don’t use often!) talk about her newest book project that focuses on 1960s vagrancy laws: how did they start? what happened to those accused of vagrancy? what was the aftermath? how does this impact constitutional legal history? and what about historical methodologies?

Because most constitutional histories are linear and tend to focus on lawyers and courts namely the Supreme Court, the fact that Risa included those areas of research but also, by and large, went elsewhere to understand the social and cultural history of the time is evidence of what she calls “new constitutional history:” a way of understanding the legal system through historical context provided by other disciplines, learning about those prosecuted  (in this case, the vagrants), and giving voice to the actions of smaller courts.

Her talk moved seamlessly from character sketches, to sophisticated readings of Supreme Court judges personal paper, and analysis of the weird era that is the 1960s, which in Risa’s words, was “huge.”

Now that I’m back at my desk, prepping materials of the “Commission on Contemporary History: Moscow/Leningrad” (yes, that is a real folder title), I feel invigorated that ACLS is uplifting the riveting (again, another word I don’t use often when describing legal history) scholarship of Risa and other Fellows.


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