Monday Marvels: The Early Years

In anticipation of a blog entry I’ll be posting soon about re-processing Part I of the collection, I thought it would be fun to highlight one of the collection’s earliest items today. This piece of correspondence was written in 1920, just one year after the ACLS was first formed to represent the United States in the Union Académique Internationale (International Union of Academies). The document speaks for itself, so here it is:

Very early correspondence regarding the ACLS.

It’s always fun to find things like this in collections – formative thoughts about ideas, events, organizations, and projects that go on to become a Big Deal.

“Has anybody sent you information about our American Council with the long name…?” Surely that “long name” refers to the full name of the organization as stated in the Constitution: American Council of Learned Societies Devoted to Humanistic Studies. How interesting to look back through the lens of history and see the beginnings of an organization that is currently putting millions of dollars into fostering the humanities every year – they certainly have come a long way in the past century!

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Tuesday Treasures: Tiananmen Square, Part II

Last week, I posted some materials from and about scholars who were in China during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. This week, I’d like to expand on that post by showing you all two more items related to the protests – I just found so many interesting documents that I couldn’t confine them all to one blog post!

In the last post, I wrote about the importance of primary sources: they give us a glimpse into the past by allowing us to see first-hand accounts of it, and pull us into history by making it more human. They can give us stories, memories, and cultural insights. Likewise, they can pull us straight into the heart of an important event from the past, allowing us to see details that might otherwise have been lost forever.

If you’re interested in history, though, you can’t just think about the details. You also have to make an attempt to see the bigger picture – context is important! Some questions we could ask about the Tiananmen Square protests include (but are not limited to): What happened in the months or years leading up to June of 1989 that might have contributed to these protests and the government’s reaction to them? What types of people were protesting, and what were their reasons for doing so? How did the rest of the world view China at this time, and vice versa? Did any non-Chinese agents play a part in these protests? Were there similar movements happening elsewhere? How did the protests change things in China and the rest of the world, if at all? How did the government react to these actions in the long term? Did the lives of normal Chinese citizens change at all on a day-to-day basis as a result of these protests? Did the educational system in China change, due to these protests being student-led? Primary sources can help us answer these types of context-driven questions.

This first document is a memorandum from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC) to their National Program scholars who left China early because of the protests. In the memo, dated about a month and a half after the June 4th incident, the CSCPRC urges the scholars not to return to China before January of 1990:

In terms of context, this quote is of particular interest:

The current political crackdown by the present leadership is having a profound impact on the Chinese academic community in China. Students and faculty are being arrested, and it is not unlikely that ties with foreign scholars will be viewed suspiciously by the government in the coming months. At the same time, it is also clear that some Chinese scholars are under pressure to inform foreign friends that their institutions are open for business as usual, that nothing happened on June 4, and that everything is back to normal.

This next document is a trip report by previous ACLS President Stanley N. Katz written a year after the 1989 protests took place – the first page gives a general introduction as to why he took the trip in the first place, explaining that his Chinese colleagues very much wanted him to return in the aftermath of the protests:

Stanley N. Katz: American studies trip, page 1
Later in the report, President Katz makes note of what has happened to institutions of higher education, American studies, and scholarship in general as a result of the previous protests. I found this segment of the report (the end of page 20 through the beginning of page 22) particularly interesting:

If you don’t want to read all of that, here are a few quotes:

…individual programs…have been temporarily badly damaged by the political repression following June, 1989. (p. 20)

The faculty seem determined to settle in for the long haul not at all confident that anything positive will happen soon, but seemingly sure that in the long run more reasonable values and policies will win out. The graduate students, on the other hand, seem angry, openly defiant and quite aggressive in their pro-democratic values. Their comments after my lectures, refusing for the most part to pursue the discussion of American studies and insisting upon talking about rights and constitutionalism, showed just how unafraid they are. (p. 21)

On this trip I came to believe that the single most subversive thing the United States can do in China is to promote the study of American culture. (p. 21)

The ACLS American Studies Program, which ran from 1961 to 1992, aided foreign scholars studying the United States. In visiting China to ascertain the state of American studies there, President Katz made note of the bigger picture as well, offering a look at the context surrounding an important event in Chinese (and world) history. This is the type of material that keeps scholarship pushing forward, offering a better understanding of how events and people and places fit together and influence each other. These documents can’t answer all (or any, in full) of the questions I asked above, but they do give us a starting point from which we can ask more questions and start building a map of history.

Monday Marvels: Tiananmen Square, Part I

Like most archivists, I love studying the past in order to better understand the world we live in today. There are many great stories to be told, and many lessons to learn. That is why it is such a joy to find items in collections that directly relate to important moments in history. Encountering a letter from a soldier who witnessed firsthand a watershed moment in wartime; reading a speech given during a major civil rights protest; holding a photograph documenting the first instance of a new technology emerging: these things have a certain quality about them, and that quality is part of what draws people to primary sources in the first place. We read about these moments in history and social science textbooks at school, but seeing a firsthand account of them brings us something more – these objects tend to add more humanity to past events, allowing us to put ourselves into the shoes of these people, to see that actual human beings participated in these unforgettable moments, helping to shape their contemporary world as well as the one we live in today.

One such event took place 25 years ago – in the spring of 1989, student-led demonstrations were happening in Beijing, China. Gathering mainly in Tiananmen Square, the protestors called for widespread economic and political reform, and the government responded by declaring martial law. On June 4th, the military was sent to the square in an effort to displace the protestors. Arrests were made, and soldiers opened fire. Because the Chinese government refused to release any information about the event after it happened, casualty estimations range from several hundred to several thousand. I don’t condone using Wikipedia as a serious scholarly resource, but it’s great for learning basic information – the page on the Tiananmen Square protests is certainly worth reading if you’re interested. The BBC also offers a very short version of what happened in their “On This Day” feature. Most of you have probably seen the photo of a man (known only as “The Tank Man”) standing in front of a line of tanks – it is widely perceived to be one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and was taken during these protests. Stories about the 25th anniversary of the June 4th incident have been peppering the news lately, showing up everywhere from Time to The Washington Post to The Guardian.

At this point, you might be asking yourself how this is related to the ACLS collection. I’ve written before about the international focus of the organization, so if you’ve been following along, you will see a pattern emerging – international programs are so important to the ACLS that there is currently an entire department devoted to them. Some of the boxes that arrived with Part III of the collection hold materials from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC, later known as the CSCC). I won’t delve too deeply into the details, but the CSCPRC was partially sponsored by the ACLS, which is why we’ve got some of their files here at the Library of Congress now. China has always been a main area of interest for the ACLS, and Chinese studies are heavily represented in all three parts of the collection.

In the first grouping of boxes I went through, I came across some grant materials from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Included were memoranda, pieces of correspondence, briefings, and notes about the Tiananmen Square protests to, from, and about scholars who were studying in China under the CSCPRC at the time. I thought it was worth taking the time to look more closely at these materials than I normally would, due to the historical importance inherent in them. Needless to say, I found them fascinating, and I hope that you all feel the same.

This first document, dated a few days after the June 4th incident, is a one-page letter from the Acting Director of the CSCPRC, Robert Geyer. In it, Geyer states that the committee is doing its best to get its sponsored scholars out of the country in order to ensure their safety. The seriousness of the situation is very clear:

CSCPRC - letter from June 7th, 1989

The following three-page fax sent to the D.C. CSCPRC office is worth reading in full, as it details the definite or assumed whereabouts of each of the program’s scholars on June 6th, noting that some scholars’ whereabouts were actually unknown at the time. I can only imagine how frantic and nerve-racking it must have felt to be in this situation, unable to find certain people. If you read nothing else, read the last paragraph. I can’t put into words how amazed I was reading this, so I will let the document speak for itself:

 

You might have noticed that Melissa Macauley’s name was highlighted in the above documents. That’s because they were with other documents related to her – for each scholar, the committee kept a packet of materials documenting their time in China. With Ms. Macauley’s permission, I give you one more document that I find to be particularly enlightening – a briefing from her to future scholars titled “Tips for a Safer, Happier Stay in the New, New China” from September of 1989:

Melissa Macauley - September 1989

The paragraph about demonstrations and mobs is especially interesting, with strong enough language that anyone reading it could imagine being there.

Documents like these ones always make me feel like time is suspending itself – there is nothing quite like a firsthand account of an important moment in history, the humanity jumping straight out of the source to engulf you in a true experience. I look forward to finding more documents like these as I continue processing the collection, and can only hope that researchers for years to come will use them to help us all better understand the human experience.

Strength in the humanities: The ACLS 2014 annual meeting

This weekend was a good one for the humanities – the ACLS annual meeting took place in Philadelphia from Thursday to Saturday, bringing together some of the brightest and most influential people in the fields. The ACLS graciously extended an invitation to me, so I took the train out and spent a few great days having inspiring conversations and listening to some truly thought-provoking speeches.

The annual meeting brings people together to discuss the state of the organization, its role in the humanities, and the humanities fields in general. There are panels giving presentations about specific topics or projects, speakers who give lectures or lead conversations, and of course there is the report of the President. Pauline Yu gave an excellent speech this year. She focused largely on the 1964 Report of the Commission on the Humanities (published 50 years ago!), which the ACLS produced alongside the Council of Graduate Schools in America and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa and which eventually led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Comparing the present to the past is often a powerful tool, and this was no exception: In 1957, the ACLS was on the verge of bankruptcy. After some major changes, it picked itself back up, and today it is financially stable with a healthy treasury. Its robust fellowship programs continue to grow, and one only needs to look at the list of recent fellows to see the great diversity of projects funded by the ACLS, as pointed out by President Yu during her speech. Indeed, she affirmed that the humanities are not, in fact, dying.

And why would anyone think that the humanities are dying? For those of you who are not fully engulfed in the current conversation about the state of the humanities, it’s been a contentious one. For decades, the “crisis in the humanities” has been a hot topic of debate, and there’s no exception to that today – if anything, the conversation has become more heated in the past few years, in part because of the recent recession and its profound effects on society as a whole. If you do a Google search for “humanities crisis” (without the quotation marks), you’ll get more than 19 million results. Click on just a few of these results, and you’ll see a slew of articles and op-eds about how the humanities are crashing and burning: Lee Siegel says in this article that literature should be privately enjoyed, not studied in the classroom;* Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed state here that the humanities crisis is happening in public universities; some point out that the downward-trending role of the humanities might have something to do with gender; and the New York Times has published on the subject in this article (with a quote from Pauline Yu on the second page!). It’s easy to worry about a decline in the humanities, especially when politicians are pushing to defund them, as in Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent budget proposal, which states that the government should not be funding arts, libraries, museums, or the humanities in general. Well-known statistician Nate Silver has written about it on his blog, stating that the crisis is not nearly as bad as everyone is thinking, but also ending the article in the following way: “Perhaps we should at once encourage or require college students to take coursework in English – and tell them to be wary about majoring in it.”

It’s not all bad, though. Several pieces have pointed out that there might not be a problem at all, or at least the problem is not what everyone is saying it is: Anne E. Fernald states in this op-ed that “the crisis is not with the humanities. The crisis is with the failure to value them enough.” Michael Bérubé, one of the presenters at the meeting this weekend, says here that the actual numbers do not show a decline in the humanities at all. Additionally, all this talk of a crisis has encouraged hundreds (if not thousands) of people to blog, tweet, and post their thoughts about the subject all over the internet. One article called “The Unintended Value of the Humanities” gives some food for thought, and there has even been a book recently published called The Value of the Humanities. An infographic titled “The Humanities Matter!” is an excellent resource to pull out anytime someone might ask you, “but why would anyone want to study English/classics/history/religion/(insert humanities subject here)?” In short: people are defending the humanities, which is great!

But I digress – back to the meeting (being there just made me so excited about the humanities; I had to write a bit about this debate)! From reports of fellowship projects to conversations about the public face of the humanities to a panel about the results of a recent census of the ACLS’ constituent societies, there were a lot of interesting thoughts and ideas to take in. One project of particular interest to me was “CSI Dixie: Race, the Body Politic, and the View from the South’s County Coroners’ Offices.” Stephen Berry, the 2013 ACLS Digital Innovation Fellow, has used coroners’ reports to expertly paint a vivid picture of the Antebellum South, and will be launching a website on this subject soon – I look forward to seeing it once it has gone up. I was also particularly interested in the census of constituent societies, the results of which will be publicly available at some point in the (hopefully near) future – for those of you who are interested in the state of learned societies, look forward to this! In general, the societies seem to be growing in a healthy way in terms of membership, conference attendance, and revenue, which goes to show that Pauline Yu was right: the humanities are not dying.

Meeting attendees were also able to hear from Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One of the things President Lewis stressed was that the future of humanities research and scholarship will be more teamwork-oriented than ever before. In order to bring the humanities into the digital landscape in a responsible and accessible way, scholars will have to work together with computer scientists, metadata experts, and people in a wide variety of other fields. I do think that sound digital humanities scholarship needs to be rooted in sound humanities scholarship in general, but he has a solid point here. Personally, I believe this foray into extended teamwork is exciting. Everything seems to be merging together and becoming more interdisciplinary, and we can only become stronger by working with each other and trying to understand disciplines outside of our own.

 

* I heartily disagree with this assessment – I understand the literature I studied in school in way that I never would’ve been able to without having an open discussion about it, and university classes made me appreciate and love the likes of Chekhov, Faulkner, and numerous other phenomenal authors that I might otherwise have never read in the first place.

Monday Marvels

Last week I promised to start posting interesting records from Part III, so that’s what I’m going to do today! In general, Part III has more recent materials than Parts I and II. This means I’ll be able to share some more contemporary ACLS activities with all of you, highlighting some programs and aspects of the organization that are very much still alive.

One of the things that makes the ACLS so special is the inclusion of constituent societies under its umbrella. Many of the records in this collection focus on these member societies, and one of the most important ways in which they are able to communicate with each other and the ACLS is through the Conference of Administrative Officers (CAO), which “holds semi-annual meetings to discuss substantive issues in the humanities as well as practical and organizational aspects of society management,” according to the ACLS website.

The CAO originally started as the Conference of Secretaries back in 1925. The title was changed in 1988, and the CAO continues to be an essential part of the ACLS mission to strengthen the relationships between its member societies. Before receiving Part III and beginning to process it, I was told that I would be seeing a lot more CAO files in this part than the previous two. This is already true! Three of the thirty boxes that arrived on the first pallet contained CAO materials, including many administrative files. Most of the files regarding the Conference of Secretaries / CAO in the first two parts pertain directly to the semi-annual meetings, with just one or two folders per meeting in general. The CAO files in Part III are rich with information, however, and I’m excited to see more of them as I make my way through this next stage of the project.

My reason for sharing so much about the CAO is simple: The document I’m highlighting this week is from a CAO meeting, and was written by ACLS Vice President Steven Wheatley (with the help of other ACLS staff), whose passion and knowledge are acutely expressed in this document titled “International Programs of the American Council of Learned Societies.” I’ve already waxed poetic about the prevalence of international programs and committees overseen by the ACLS, so you know that the organization has a strong international focus. For this November 1994 CAO retreat, constituent societies also wrote reports about how they had dealt with international matters throughout their histories – these files could be an excellent resource for someone doing a project on international affairs (hint, hint)! As an aside, the CAO spring meeting is happening this weekend, right at the tail end of the ACLS annual meeting, which I feel very honored to be attending (you’ll be hearing about it next week!).

This document begins by stating that the ACLS was founded “to represent American scholarship in international fora,” so indeed, the very creation of the organization was centered on opening up scholarly relationships around the world. To date, I have found materials in the ACLS collection representing every single continent except Antarctica, which is quite a feat. This document outlines the goals, activities, strengths, and problems of the ACLS’ international programs. I always love finding documents like this – they help me understand more about the ACLS and its history, which of course allows me to process the collection in a more straightforward and comprehensive way. Happy reading, everyone.

International Programs, page 1 International Programs, page 2International Programs, page 3International Programs, page 4International Programs, page 5

Tuesday Treasures

There was a snow day yesterday, so I was unable to post the regular Monday Marvels entry for this week — instead you will get Tuesday Treasures!

Before we start to physically process a collection, us archivists like to spend some time researching the creators of that collection. Sometimes this means reading biographies of people or finding books about the projects they’ve completed. Sometimes it means studying the history of an organization by reading any books, articles, and dissertations that mention that organization. We find out as much as we can about the context of the collection in order to understand it in a way that will allow us to process it more efficiently and accurately.

Once we’ve completed the initial research with secondary sources (or, on occasion, primary sources outside of the collection), our best way to find out more is through the collection itself. For example, I found a chart in Part I that told me when the original volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography were published. I have been able to determine the rough time periods of employment for some major figures in ACLS history, and used the collection itself to find the full names of many organizations and committees that are often referred to by acronyms.

Last week I came across a quite useful document: a (very) brief history of the ACLS written by Mortimer Graves, who was the Executive Director of the organization from 1953 to 1957. Written in the Post-World War II era, this paper says a lot about the organization and how it was shaped by the events of the early 20th century. I love finding things like this, because they allow me to gain insight into the organization from the very people who have run it. I’ll just post the first few pages here – if you’d like to read more, come to the Library of Congress and ask for box E60 in Part I of the collection! As always, Graves has a beautiful style of prose here that is quite a joy to read.

Graves ACLS History page 1Graves ACLS History page 2Graves ACLS History page 3

Later, Graves talks about various major ACLS projects, as well as the organization’s relationship with its constituent societies. He mentions that the concerns of the organization eventually branched out to cover more than just research: “training, development, implementation, and communication,” to name a few areas. Perhaps the most interesting part of this history is his take on how the organization was shaped by both World War I and World War II, leading to programs focused on countries and languages around the world.

What a useful tool, and a treasure to boot.

Tuesday Treasures

Welcome to another exciting week, everyone! Hope you are all safe and well after the intense weather last week. Because of the holiday yesterday (Presidents’ Day), I wasn’t at work to post my usual Monday Marvels — so instead, you get Tuesday Treasures!

As I’ve probably mentioned previously, one of my jobs during this project is to edit the finding aid for Part I of the collection, which was first processed in the 1970s. There’s a lot of work to be done during this editing, so I’m getting the chance to be fairly hands-on with the materials, which is great news – I’m finding some really interesting things to post about!

Working with older documents, you can get easily wrapped up in the language. I mentioned last week that language evolves over time, which is absolutely true. Think of how most people communicate through the written word these days – emails are probably the longest things most of us write on a daily (or even weekly) basis. We surround ourselves with short snippets of conversation elsewhere – text messages, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds. Written communication seems to me to be much different than it was in decades past, and the enchantment I feel while reading old letters only makes me more aware of this.

A large portion of the materials in Part I are related to the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB), a huge ACLS-sponsored project which ran from the 1920s to the 1990s. The point of the project was to provide biographies for important historical figures, all of whom had resided in the United States at one point or another. The original DAB was published in 20 volumes between 1928 and 1936 (though the committee for the project was first appointed in 1921). Supplementary volumes were published between 1944 and 1995 including biographies of people who had passed away after the first volumes were completed. The DAB was an invaluable tool to scholars for decades, and was succeeded by another ACLS-sponsored project: American National Biography (ANB), first published in 1999 in 24 volumes and still going strong today.

Within the DAB materials, I found a folder titled “Johnsonian letters.” From the few documents in this folder, it is apparent that Allen Johnson (an early editor of the DAB) wrote delightful letters. I’d like to share a few with you here.

Some of them are sweet, letting you know what kind of person Mr. Johnson might have been:

Johnson: Letter 2

This rejection letter for someone hoping their father would be included in the DAB is extraordinarily polite and also (probably inadvertently) funny – he is clearly concerned about hurting people’s feelings!

Johnson - Letter

Sometimes Mr. Johnson’s tone could be biting, though – I like this one a lot for what it can teach us about gender dynamics in the 1920s:

Johnsonletter3

Harsher still is this letter – though clearly able to be sympathetic when the occasion called for it (as seen in the rejection letter above), Mr. Johnson was also able to let someone know when he was unhappy with their professional attitude:

Johnson - Letter 4

That should do it for today. One might say that these letters speak for themselves – very clearly, and with a full range of emotions behind them.

The Madison Building: Library or office space?

You might know from reading Caroline’s blog post about the beginnings of the James Madison Memorial Building that former ACLS President Dr. Frederick Burkhardt was an important player in helping secure the Madison Building for the Library of Congress when the plans were first developed. What you might not know (until now!) is that former ACLS Executive Associate James N. Settle fought for the Library to retain its claim on the building when some members of the House wanted to take it over as another office building in the mid-1970s.

I found a folder devoted to this debate, of which I was previously unaware. A newspaper clipping in the front of the folder explains the situation: the building was being coveted by members of the House as a prime piece of real estate that could add to their office space. The author states that the move to take space from the Library of Congress is awful, as “there is both real and symbolic grandeur to that institution and what it represents.” This editorial, published by the Washington Star on November 26, 1975 (if the handwritten note in the corner is correct), is absolutely scathing.

When ACLS’ James N. Settle heard about this, he sent out a call to arms:

Many of you have undoubtedly heard that before the end of December an attempt will be made, within the House of Representatives, to convert for use as an additional congressional office building the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building scheduled for completion in 1980…I assume that scholars in all disciplines share the alarm with which we view this threatened loss of desperately needed space for the Library of Congress. If you are willing to participate in an effort to save the Madison Library building for its intended purpose, I suggest that you write to your own Congressman and perhaps, for reinforcement, to your two Senators – and that you urge appropriate colleagues to join you in the effort.

This impassioned letter obviously found the right audience, and Executive Associate Settle got replies from many people who were equally disturbed by the idea. Richard S. Kirkendall, Executive Secretary for the Organization of American Historians, sent Settle an update just a week later:

This office has been dominated by the issue of the Library of Congress for the past week. We have been bombarding our members as well as Members of Congress, getting a good response from our members.

Settle even received a response from (now former) Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin on December 17th, 1975:

I appreciate the support of the American Council of Learned Societies of the Library of Congress and its occupancy of the Madison Building. As you no doubt have read in the press, the tide seems to have waned. Our next step is to obtain final authorization. I trust you will also support us in this endeavor. Many thanks.

It’s wonderful to see that ACLS leaders continually played such a large part in advocating for the Library of Congress to have extra space in Washington. Another document in the folder titled “Facts about the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building” outlines the reasons that the Library should be able to keep the building: at the time, the Library was in the dire position of splitting up their staff and collections in 10 locations outside of its existing two permanent locations on the National Mall (the Jefferson Building and Adams Building). Staff members were working in areas not suitable for working conditions, and collections were increasingly being sent off-site, which made it difficult for researchers to get them in a timely manner. On top of this, the Madison Building was designed specifically for Library needs, with very few windows available as well as large storage areas that would be inappropriate for offices. The argument ends on a strong note:

Conversion to general office space would cost millions of dollars, further delay in completing the building, and Library staff and collections would have to be further dispersed resulting in deterioration of service to the Congress and the public to say nothing about the danger to the collections which constitute the cultural heritage of this Nation.

It’s certainly hard to argue with that.

Also interesting is “The Collections at the Library of Congress,” which illustrates the importance of the Library while also showing its serious need for more space. At the time this was printed, the Library held more than 74 million items. Assuming this was published around the same time as all of the other documents in the folder (1975), it’s incredible to compare it to the numbers offered on the Library’s website today:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with more than 155.3 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 35 million books and other print materials, 3.4 million recordings, 13.6 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, 6.5 million pieces of sheet music and 68 million manuscripts.

It’s a good thing they were able to keep the Madison Building!

Obviously the members of the House who wanted to take over the Madison Building for House office space were unsuccessful, but think of what would have happened if they hadn’t been. It is “one of the three largest public buildings in the Washington, D.C. area,” and it’s in a prime location right at the end of the National Mall (and right next to the other two Library of Congress buildings). At this point, that area is pretty much filled up with buildings, so there’s no space to build more. The Library still has off-site storage, but the space in the Madison Building allows them to keep an enormous part of their collections very close to where most of the Library’s reading rooms are located. This means that researchers (including members of Congress!) get the materials they need much more quickly, as materials stored off-site need to be transferred and should be requested in advance.

What another great way to tie the ACLS and Library of Congress together.

ACLS: Not just about America

People might hear “American Council of Learned Societies” and think that ACLS is focused mainly on America, but the ACLS leaders realized the importance of bringing things into a global context decades ago. Since the early days of the organization, ACLS has been focusing on expanding knowledge about and communication with numerous areas outside of the United States. Indeed, the founding purpose of ACLS in 1919 was to represent U.S. scholarship in the International Union of Academies, a role that continues to this day. You can read more about this on the ACLS History page.

One reason I’ve chosen to focus on this global context is that I’ve been processing a large chunk of the records of Jason H. Parker, who was an Executive Associate with ACLS from the late ’70s until the turn of the millennium. While with the organization, Parker focused primarily on Chinese and Eastern European studies – he oversaw the Joint Committee on Chinese Studies (JCCS) and Joint Committee on Eastern Europe (JCEE). These two committees were part of a larger effort to promote area and international studies carried out jointly by ACLS and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). There is a wealth of information about these two areas of the world included in his files. It’s been wonderful processing these records and finding evidence of innovative projects spearheaded by Parker.

To expand on this, I’d like to bring up two examples that I’ve found in the records, both focusing on Eastern Europe. The first project, called Undergraduate Campuses in Eastern Europe, was created to open more opportunities for undergraduates to study abroad in the area. The second, called Program to Create New Teaching Positions in East European Studies, was brought about in order to open up new teaching positions in the field. With both projects, there was an emphasis on two things: giving opportunities to individual students and scholars who were interested in Eastern Europe, and expanding the field of Eastern European studies in general.

One part of an archivist’s job is to provide researchers with context. The Undergraduate Campuses in Eastern Europe project was proposed for 1988, and ACLS requested renewed support for the Program to Create New Teaching Positions in East European Studies in 1990. This was an enormously important time for Eastern Europe. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, communism in the area collapsed — this affected not only Europe, but the entire world. The ACLS leadership rightly noted that this was an important time to think about programs involving relations between the U.S. and Eastern Europe.

As someone who studied abroad four times (yes, four!) during the course of my adventures in undergraduate and graduate school, I found the Undergraduate Campuses in Eastern Europe project particularly interesting. I love the focus on nurturing young minds and bringing new people into the field. The request for the program brought up a number of main points:

  • The JCEE believed that this project could “serve both a broad national interest of increasing understanding of Eastern Europe and a narrower scholarly interest of increasing the number of entrants into the serious study of Eastern Europe.”
  • Many scholars become interested in a particular place when they visit it as undergraduates (this was certainly true for me – studying abroad broadened my interest in specific countries). The request mentioned that the entire field of Eastern European studies could be strengthened if more study abroad opportunities were available in the area.
  • Including Eastern European cities and countries on study abroad lists alongside Western European ones had the potential to change the perception of Eastern Europe in general: “To see Budapest, Cracow, and Zagreb included in a list of possibilities for foreign study that includes Freiburg, Vienna, London, Paris, and Florence is to understand that the former cities are European just as much as the latter.”

The Program to Create New Teaching Positions in East European Studies had similar goals. By creating new teaching positions in the field at universities around the country, the JCEE wanted to open up more opportunities in Eastern European scholarship and also encourage students to take courses related to the area, which would be more plentiful with the positioning of additional professors devoted to the field. The committee hoped that many of these professors would end up on the tenure track, which would give Eastern European studies an expanded role in universities for decades to come. The application for renewed support in 1990 brought the project into a larger context, drawing on the 1989 events mentioned above as historical justification:

As a result of the revolutions of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe and of the relaxation of tensions between East and West, there has been a dramatic expansion of interest in the region throughout the US. This has been shown not only in the desire to know more about what has happened and why, but also in the determination to do more to assist the remarkable people who have brought about these changes and to guarantee that their aspirations are fulfilled. The question of the proper role and focus of scholarship on Eastern Europe and of support for it in relation to other priorities in the next decade is of particular interest to universities, private foundations, and government agencies, who support teaching and research, and to scholars, both those who specialize on the area and generalists in the social sciences and humanities fascinated by recent developments there.

The application goes on to say later that “remembering the past is the beginning of understanding the present and the future.” Indeed it is! What a remarkable tie-in to the importance of ACLS as an organization as well as the importance of keeping archival records such as these.

As you can see on the 2013-14 ACLS Fellowship Competitions announced recently, the organization is still interested in providing a broad global context by offering fellowships related to various areas of the world, including Eastern Europe. ACLS still sponsors East European Politics and Societies and Cultures (EEPS – formerly known as Eastern European Politics and Societies), which is now more than a quarter century old and has long been self-sustaining. ACLS worked on forming the journal back in 1985 in order to provide a solid outlet for Eastern European scholarship, and it was very well received after first being published in 1987. It is still going strong (there’s even a Facebook page for the journal), as is ACLS’s dedication to global issues.