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.

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:


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.