History Comes Alive! (Sorry for the Cliché Title)

On Friday, us interns took a visit to the Jones Library Special Collections, as well as the Emily Dickinson Museum… And if you’ve either (a) read any of my posts or (b) spoken to me at all in the past month and a half, you can probably imagine just how EXCITED I WAS!

I have really and truly been falling in love with the research I’ve been doing this summer, and have a special spot in my heart reserved for the social and architectural landscapes of early Amherst. Two important things to note here:

  1. I’m definitely aware of RRS, or Researcher’s Romanticism Syndrome (I totally just made that acronym up, but it sounds legit, yeah? I’m sure many of us researchers can relate!), and am trying my best to keep several things in mind so that I don’t make Early Amherst into some sort of perfect Disney town in my mind. It’s important to note the historical, social, racial, political, etc. contexts of the time period, as well as the biases naturally found in any sort of document, but especially in the primary source texts I’m reading.
  2. I’ve been viewing Amherst in a different way this summer compared to how I’ve seen it for my entire four years as an undergrad, and I truly wish I’d known all that I do now about Amherst’s early history during my time as a student. Understanding (or trying to) the history of the place where you’re living and learning enriches your experience of that place in SO many ways, and that’s really valuable. I’ve been feeling so much more connected to Amherst these past few weeks and am beginning to see myself not as merely a passerby through the 01002, but rather as an active participant in its living history.

Considering these things, you might begin to imagine both my apprehension and my exhilaration during Friday’s tours–I was impacted by many things, like looking through photographic prints of town buildings, or standing in the very living room that Samuel Fowler Dickinson (Emily’s grandfather) came home to after helping to secure the founding of the college. And it’s not as if these are new things to me; I’d seen random photos of the early college throughout the walls of Frost during my countless hours of studying there as an undergrad, and I’d been to the Dickinson Homestead a couple of times over the past four years. But something was different this time.

This artwork make me think about the complex and creative mind that Emily Dickinson had--all of my thoughts about 19th Century Amherst have become complex and creative this summer! http://vein.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/astronomy-2.jpg
This artwork make me think about the complex and creative mind that Emily Dickinson had–all of my thoughts about 19th Century Amherst have become complex and creative this summer!
http://vein.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/astronomy-2.jpg

This time, I had spent basically a continuous month and a half diving headfirst into the world that supplemented those photos and homestead visits. This time, I actually recognized names like Rufus Graves, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Nehemiah Strong–and I could even tell you which buildings in town they had called home. This time, I nodded in agreement as our incredible tour guide mentioned that the Dickinsons hosted famous landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, because I had just recently read a firsthand account of the event myself.

This time, I was on a mission that stretched beyond mere personal interest–now, the mission was also for the sake of research, scholarship, teaching, and accessibility (wow, that sounds pretty DH-ish!). How cool is that?! And to be spurred on by a deep personal interest just makes it all the more worthwhile and exciting!

While I’m still mentally processing a lot of what we saw on Friday (mostly at the Dickinson Museum, merely due to the tactility and the verbal teaching that we experienced), I can definitely say that the mini-project that I’m working on for our final DSSI project will be greatly impacted. This is, of course, because we got to do things like see new photographic material and hear recitations of Emily’s poems while standing on the very property that she lived on… But it’s a little more than that, too. I think it’s also because I’m beginning to see these people that we’re researching not as mere characters in some fairytale book, but as real people who lived in this real place that I, another real person, am currently living and moving and breathing in. I’m beginning to truly catch glimpses of how Amherst itself lived and moved and breathed way back in the 1800s, and I’m beginning to realize that the Amherst of 200 years ago is coming alive for me today.

My goal? To make early Amherst come alive for those who view our project, too. And while I know that this is a hefty task, I’m eager and excited to accomplish it!

New Perspectives

Today we took a field trip to the Jones Library Special Collections and the Emily Dickinson Museum as a means to expand our understanding of nineteenth century Amherst. This was really exciting, because not only did these excursions deepen our understanding of the historical context surrounding early Amherst, they also allowed us to break out of our everyday Barker Room-Frost Cafe-Archives routine, which definitely helped me to refocus and consider my work from different perspectives.

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A *small* change in scenery
A *small* change in scenery

At the Jones, we looked at several photographs I hadn’t seen before, both of Amherst College and the town of Amherst. These we a huge help in my own mental visual and spatial reconstructions of Amherst. It was also exciting to hear Amanda speak about some of the photos and locations, because so much of her work and her contributions to our final project have to do with these spaces and the people that inhabited them. I’m really looking forward to interacting with her final product!

The Dickinson Museum was also inspiring. I’ve always been quite ashamed that in all my time at Amherst, I never once visited the Dickinson Homestead, but today, as an alumna, I finally made it! Immersing ourselves in two nineteenth-century spaces—the Homestead and the Evergreens—was an important exercise, I think, for two main reasons:

1.) It permitted us to consider (very approximately, of course) what life physically looked like and felt like during that time. Architecture and interior spaces are often such a central part of human experience, and being able to engage with these spaces gave me a better sense of the period we’re working on.

2.) The tour itself was informative, not only for its content, which was excellent, but also for its structure and style. During the tour, I thought a lot about our guide’s use of visual materials and interactivity, which engaged us in ways that went beyond a simple lecture might. The organization and the curation of the tour got me thinking again about how our viewers will interact with our projects, and what types of guiding and interactivity we might try to facilitate on the website.

This all comes at the perfect time, because we are starting to hit the final stretch (!) of the internship, and are really starting to dig into our respective components of the final project, so the look, structure, and organization of the website are definitely becoming very real considerations, which must be determined very, very soon.

There’s definitely lots to consider and process over the weekend, but I think that we’ll all be heading into next week with lots of new inspiration and momentum!

Missing Metadata, Categorization Chaos

nometa72-small

Currently, I’m most excited about the mini project centered around the original college library (If you’ve been following our internship at all over the past few weeks this probably comes as no surprise…). I’m interested in asking the following research questions: How do student-developed and institution-developed libraries differ in terms of subject matter and contents in the 1830s at Amherst? Are library collections during this time at the college consistent with the college curriculum, or not?

Seeking answers to these questions will elucidate the place of college libraries in the early intellectual environment at Amherst. With those questions and goals in mind, over the past few days, I’ve been examining potential primary sources for the project in the archives. These include: The 1833 College Library Catalogue (manuscript), the 1833-44 Alexandrian Society Library Catalogue (manuscript), and the 1821-36 Athenian Society Library Catalogue (print).

I specify whether or not these sources are printed or handwritten because this has substantively affected how I engage with them. The printed Athenian Library Catalogue is exceptionally user-friendly compared to the other two…it is completely legible, intuitively organized, and tallies the total number of books in each subject area in a nifty little table in the back. The other two catalogues are far more challenging. Since they’re handwritten, they were able to be expanded and corrected over time, making them more difficult to read and understand through crossed out areas, different hands, and different organizational styles, and the nineteenth century handwriting doesn’t help…

On top of that, each catalogue has a different way (or lack thereof) of organizing their books and presents a different set of information about the texts, which adds another layer of difficulty to the task of comparing the contents of the three libraries (this experience is certainly deepening my library-nerd love and appreciation for standardized call number systems like Dewey and LOC…). 

In essence, as I begin to tackle these materials, I’m having major flashbacks to the metadata workshop–if you’re not really deliberate and standardized about how you categorize/organize/structure metadata, it becomes really hard for future people to do anything with the piles of stuff you leave behind.

Then there is the problem of trying to impose categorization onto bodies of materials that were not organized by subject matter in the first place, like the college library, which is essentially a giant list with no discernible order. Some of the books have ambiguous titles or might fit in more than one category, and as the researcher, I must decide where these books fit. I am trying my best to be faithful to the categories already designated by the other nineteenth century catalogues, but in order to apply these categories to other materials that were originally uncategorized, I’ll have to be sure I understand what the categories meant back then.

Though the research and data collection methodologies here are posing quite a challenge so far, this is a project that I’m very excited about, and hope to produce compelling data visualizations from once I’ve been able to structure and compile the data. Hopefully, armed with my ever-deepening appreciation for metadata, I’ll be up for the challenge!

(and hopefully, as library practices have become far more standardized and metadata-focused, researchers of the future will have a less-difficult time working with the stuff that we leave behind!)

Early Amherst Perspectives

After many project proposals, methodology workshops, and blog posts, I think I am ready to start crunching out a final research project website deliverable. Design is an iterative process. Although our brainstorming has somewhat narrowed our focus and pointed to where we need to invest our time for the remaining three weeks (time flies when you’re having fun!), I feel the need to start molding the clay of research accrued over the past few weeks. The challenge, now, is to decide what what sculpture we as interns want to (and can) make in the remaining time (some time has been invested into brainstorming the possibilities), where the online piece will be hosted, and what tools we will call on.

One mini-project that has captured my interest is the “Amherst___through the lens of___” project. Potential fill-ins for the blanks could lead to each of our different projects, which focus on early Amherst perspectives: social networks, the early College library collection, academics as viewed through course catalogs, and architecture. What is interesting about this proposal is its potential to draw the site user into learning about early Amherst in a playful, interactive way. In giving the user autonomy to select their path through the site according to what lens interests them the most (be it Amherst faculty, a specific student or society, or time period, or even a specific building) the site will keep the user engaged as they leap from one section to another. A challenge, however, would be to make the different sections overlap enough to make a scholarly argument about early Amherst, as Este suggested in our team meeting.

As critical as it is to produce an aesthetically pleasing, fun website, it is equally important to see this assignment as a scholarly research project. While we have been absorbing information in preparation for our final product, we should keep in mind that the site must balance between disseminating information and advancing scholarly work on the data available on early Amherst. I can’t believe I’m beginning to sound like my thesis advisor!

So, that said, I shall start site construction this week. I will get frustrated with the tools I have and my shortcomings in using them. I will fail to make the visuals match my vision for the site. I will miss some important data. But I will learn. I will get better at using the tools, and I will research more to find missing pieces to the puzzle. In the words of Amherst alumn William Hastie (1925), “Achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”

Without further delay, may the site construction games begin!

Archive Pride and Spreadsheet Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged… that I’m somewhat obsessed with the old course catalogs.

I could extol their data-rich virtues, their college-sanctioned information, the meta-layers of their presentation– but perhaps it’s simpler just to say that they’re awesome.

So it’s little surprise that the project I’m most excited about is a constellation of smaller projects on the changing academic environment of early Amherst, whose backbone is the esteemed collection of course catalogs and which runs tangentially to any inspection of the literary societies.

But I’ve spoken enough and stared at enough and spreadsheet-ed enough the course catalogs. Let’s talk about something else– the Archives.

wb_pandora

There are myriad collections that could contribute to my constellation of projects. I’ve been combing the finding aids, and it’s almost overwhelming how many potential sources fling themselves at me when I open one.

Though I suppose I should be discerning in which documents I call to help contextualize my catalogs, there are so many delicious options that it’s hard to restrain myself. Here’s a taste of them:

In just the Amherst College Early History Manuscripts and Pamphlets Collection, we’ve got discontented students writing to President Moore about their dissatisfaction with the tutor Lucius Field, the faculty criticizing the “Social Union,” a literary society, for its hurtful anonymous compositions, and two score of the senior class trying to skive off the end of the semester by citing the president’s ill health. So we’ve got students expressing dissatisfaction with the administration and the administration expressing dissatisfaction with the students– a lovely example of the tension between the two.

The value of the Clubs and Society Collection, with its minutes and documents from the literary societies hardly need be mentioned here.

The Historical Manuscripts Collection has a wealth of student perspectives on learning. Some examples include an oration on “The Obligations of Genius to Common Minds,” a literary discussion asking “Are Works of Fiction Necessary to Give a Proper Cultivation of the Mind?”, an essay on the “Influence of Science on the Moral Improvement of Society,” an oration on “Motives to Intellectual Exertion,” and another oration on “Science and the Classics – Their Union the True Basis of a Professional Education.” All this, I should note, is just looking at the first twelfth of the collection.

In short, while I’ve been somewhat myopic in my focus on the catalogs, I’m excited now to take a landscape view, to dive back into the Archives and to situate my statistics within a larger story. For so long I’ve been championing my spreadsheets that I’d forgotten how valuable the anecdotal can be– I’m ready to remedy that.

 

And Now I Want to Be A Cartographer

Although it was wonderful to have a long weekend, I was a bit worried that only having three days to do research this week would make me feel as if I’d missed out on valuable research time, or that I would have trouble “getting back into the groove,” etc., etc. Well, I am excited to report that I was wrong!

The past couple of days have been quite exciting for me in terms of pursuing a project based on mapping the physical and social landscapes of early Amherst. In preparation for our final project, the intern team has put together a proposal filled with several mini-projects that we brainstormed up. While it’s not likely that all of them will make it into our final project, we are each choosing a project and  pursuing it over the next couple of days in order to see where it will take us.

A project that is of particular interest to me is some sort of interactive map that details both the town and the college sometime during our 1821-61 timeframe. I’m really interested in the ways that Amherst physically developed over time, as well as in the people who lived, worked, and learned  in Amherst as it developed. I really believe that the social and physical landscapes impacted (and continue to impact) each other, which is why this map project is so interesting to me… I mean, you can only read so many love letters, personal anecdotes, and student disciplinary reports until you become invested in the people who wrote them and the place where it all happened. Moreover, learning so much about the social and geographic landscapes is giving me an incredibly new perspective on what it was like to live in Amherst in the mid-19th Century–and it’s impacting how I digest the campus and town in my personal daily life here in 2017, as well! But that’s another blog post.

Anyways, on Wednesday, I used my (very minimal) Photoshop skills to alter an 1886 map to our uses. Here is the original map:

Burleigh, L. R. (Lucien R.), and Burleigh Litho. "Amherst, Mass." Map. 1886. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633fd88x (accessed July 07, 2017).
Burleigh, L. R. (Lucien R.), and Burleigh Litho. “Amherst, Mass.” Map. 1886. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633fd88x (accessed July 07, 2017).

The website I accessed this map from has a powerful zoom tool that allows you to see each and every detail Mr. Burleigh, the mapmaker, created (yay digitization tools!), and wow was he great at what he did! You can view many more of his New England maps here, if you’re interested. While I realized that 1886 is over twenty years out of our timeframe, I was hoping I could at least experiment with this map to familiarize myself with both map editing and Amherst in this general timeframe. Below is my edit, complete with color-coding (of which isn’t too important at this point, so I’ll refrain from explaining):
Woven Map 3My hope for a mini-project that somehow revolves around 19th Century Amherst maps was to color code it to highlight important points, and then link those points to information about the buildings, roads, or landmarks that they correspond to. Perhaps this information could include things such as the date it was built, its architectural materials and cost, and why it was a point of interest to Amherst College and its students, faculty, and community members. If we’re lucky, we could even link to a photograph, sketch, lithograph, etc. of the landmark in the 19th Century, as well as a photograph of it today, if it still stands.

This mini-project idea really intrigued me, so I continued working on it. My ultimate dream was to find a map that existed sometime towards the end of our 1821-61 timeframe, which would both give us more resources on researching the town at that time, as well as give us a fuller picture of the Amherst that encompassed most of the first four decades of the college. But I figured that it was highly unlikely I’d find a map from the late ’50s…

WELL. Guess who was wrong? ME! After a seemingly-wild-goose-chase through Google, various digital image databases, a sketchy website full of old map prints, a visit to the archives, and a headache, I ACTUALLY FOUND WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR!

Walling, Henry Francis. Map of the county of Hampshire, Massachusetts. New York: H. & C. T. Smith & Co., Publishers, 1860. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592249/. (Accessed July 07, 2017.)
Walling, Henry Francis. Map of the county of Hampshire, Massachusetts. New York: H. & C. T. Smith & Co., Publishers, 1860. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2012592249/. (Accessed July 07, 2017.)

I know, I know–you’re probably like, “Um… What am I supposed to be looking at?” This map is basically the mother of all maps. It consists of six sheets, is HUGE (though I can’t tell you how huge, because the Library of Congress didn’t fully complete the metadata on its physical size… Tsk tsk…), and contains detailed maps of various towns throughout Hampshire County. Including… Amherst! And the best part? It’s dated 1860! HOW PERFECT. I can’t even believe it.

For my purposes, I zeroed on in the Amherst map:

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 3.29.09 PMMy heart cried happy tears when I found this. Not only does it list the names of people and businesses that occupied various structures, but it also details some geographic features, the railroad (which was a pretty new feature to Amherst and, as you can see from this map, was still to be completed… Unless I didn’t like my house, I wouldn’t want to be any of the families who lived in its soon-to-be path), and a business directory! I could talk about my findings for hours, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll skip to the image I finished constructing today:amherst1860 CI focused on a section of the map that was both (1) most familiar to me and, I would guess, most contemporary Amherst-dwellers and (2) most relevant, I’m guessing (due to the nature and inhabitants of the structures), to Amherst College at the time. Let’s zoom in so I can make a few points:Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 2.34.36 PM

  • Green: Streets that are still around today. I didn’t color in areas of the 1860 streets that aren’t around anymore, and I didn’t add in any post-1860 streets.
  • Purple: Amherst College structures. Almost all of these are included on a TimeMapper project that Takudzwa and I did a few weeks ago, which is exciting.
  • Blue: Houses where Amherst professors who taught during 1860 lived. I found a list of these faculty members from the bottom right section of the complete map.
  • Pink: Significant people or places that have come up in our DSSI research over the last month.
  • Orange: Structures (other than Amherst College structures) that are still standing today. I found this information through spending a lot of time comparing this map to the Amherst Property Viewer map (which I mentioned in my last post) and digging through its records.

A ton has gone through my mind while doing this research and altering this map, all of it pushing me to ask more research questions and think about ways that this altered map could be of use, perhaps after more editing, in our final project. I think it has a lot of potential, especially when focusing in on the ideas about an interactive map that I mentioned earlier, and I’m so excited to see where the road will lead (no map-pun intended)! Perhaps the best part of all of this research and Photoshopping is that it’s given me a deeper and fuller perspective of 1860 Amherst and its social network–and I LOVE it!

Now, all I have to do is find a time-machine so I can have a picnic by the fountain that used to be on the town common… I’ll save that project for next week.

Visualizing the Final Project…

We have no shortage of research questions—the list is ever expanding. However, at the moment, the question that I think is present on most of our minds is not necessarily one of content, and has much more to do with our methods and approaches going forward. As a cohort, we all seem to agree that we want to produce a project with a strong sense of cohesiveness—though we will all inevitably work on separate pieces,  I think I speak for all of us when I say that our vision is not necessarily one of four discrete projects under a broad, unifying theme. 

However, what our vision will actually look like has been more difficult to articulate—fitting the work and interests of four different brains into a unified final product sounds great in abstract terms, but it has been challenging to define what that might actually look like in practice. Today, we had an excellent improptu brainstorming session (first just the four of us, later with Sarah and Este) in which we sketched out visualizations, lists, and diagrams of how we might go about structuring our collaborative website and integrating our ideas in a (relatively) seamless fashion. We don’t have answers necessarily, but we do have a big pile of thoughts and directions to process over the long weekend!

Our first step will be to each do a bit more individual research, and to get a better sense of the research topic and materials that we’re most interested in. Monday, we’ll get together for a bit more brainstorming, diagramming, and concept mapping to see how we might best organize, connect, and integrate these. I’m still totally drawn to the development of libraries at Amherst—what was in them, how that related to the college curriculum, how student-developed libraries compared to institutional ones, etc. etc. etc… 

In the next working day or so, I’m planning to construct a rough research plan centered around these interests, which I’ll share with my fellow interns. Each of us will share our loosely-conceived ideas, and we’ll talk together about how they connect or speak to larger questions or directions.

We’re still leaving a lot of room for each other to express and explore individual interests, but I’m loving how well this team is working together so far. Unstructured brainstorming sessions and discussions amongst the four of us have really been some of the most compelling moments of the internship for me so far, and I’m sure that what comes next will be a reflection of this incredible team dynamic.

Forest for the Trees / Story for the Statistics

I’ve mentioned it before: I love data. The way each datum interlocks with the next to build a meaningful whole, the way broad swathes of time are calcified in revelatory statistics, the way evocative questions and theories and ideas wrap around a backbone of data– all of it thrills the researcher in me.

As such, I’ve spent a lot of time with the course catalogs, looking at changes in courses, admission requirements, faculty. Time spent digging deep into the data, filling spreadsheets with numbers and names and nested if-then statements. I’ve found it soothing to input row after row of college life condensed into little factoids.

Data is wonderful, but it’s also skeletal. And while dealing with it is soothing, I realize now I need to find the sort of research that is frustrating too.

No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it's still not fleshed out by context.
No matter how much you dress up data with fanciful theories, it’s still not fleshed out by context.

It’s only where there’s friction that falsehood is burned away. When studying a world two centuries away, any easy analysis is wont to impose modern interpretations instead of intuiting the logic of a bygone culture.

To offer an example– it is easy to see that across forty years, the proportion of classes that are classics drops from 0.6 to 0.5 to 0.3 to 0.06 through the class years. That right there is a barebones fact.

But the meat of the story isn’t hidden in the numbers– it’s found in a student publication and the program of a mock funeral service, which detail the satirical dirge the upperclassmen recited as they brought out all their classics books to be burnt. With a bar chart one might wonder what the students thought of their changing academic fare; with broader archive-combing research one can provide the start of an answer.

The start of an answer, because one could also comb through more student publications for opinion pieces, through student diaries for candid reflections, through lecture notes for the level of detail students paid attention to.

This week we thought a lot about how we want our final project to feel. We’re still debating at the drawing board, but one harmony we’ve thought worth having is that balance between between skeletal data and more fleshed-out context. Charts and figures are fine, but they offer a black-and-white line drawing that student quotes and historical anecdotes color in.

Numerical data is not a dead end, but it’s not the be-all and end-all either. As I go forward fascinated by learning at early Amherst, I want to answer my questions by pairing statistics with snapshots of student life. I’ve spent a lot of time with my nose to the grindstone, crunching numbers and cooking them into graphs, and it’s about time I look up and see the rest of the archives still waiting for me.

Another One! (Blog Post or Research Interest? You decide :)

Somehow, the interval between these blog posts seems too short. However, on taking the time to pause and think about the material we have covered in the span of a week, I realize that I have more to write about than I initially thought. Nonetheless, the challenge remains to articulate my thoughts in a comprehensible, concise way. I will make an attempt.

Last week was my favorite week of the internship yet – a close second to the textual visualization workshops week. What made last week most exciting was the freedom to explore new areas of interest in the Archives, and also the challenge to self-teach Gephi and to lead a workshop on it. Both experiences truly synthesized what we have been learning for the past few weeks: how to approach research systematically and eficiently, and the application of research tools to data collected in research. Having to teach the Gephi workshop also highlighted the strengths and potential of our intern team, which is exciting now that we are diving two-feet into our final research project for the internship. It’s sink or swim from here!

Emma, Katie, Amanda, and I have thus far worked efficiently as a team to meet collective deliverables expected of us each week. Our research interests of the early College library, catalog collection, social network, and architecture respectively between 1821-61 have shaped our approach to working on team proposals. We have worked by delegating portions of a deliverable according to these varied interests to cover as much ground as possible. The challenge now is to find a common theme across our preliminary findings that will translate seamlessly into a visual DH project.

At the end of last week, with the help of Sarah and Este, we brainstormed ways we can use the remaining four weeks efficiently. Our biggest challenge was the chicken or the egg problem – whether to dig deeper into our individual projects, or to focus our attention on finding common ground. The answer is neither and one or the other. There is no wrong or right answer. It’s an enigma! And so is our rearch. Having learned methodology tools to facilitate our learning, however, we can be nimble in our focus as different needs arise. This is the approach we will take.

After last week, I gained interest in looking into the ealry images of the College in the form of sketches, etches, engravings, and photographs in the 1850s, and what they can tell us about the culture and lived experiences of students, faculty and the town community at the time. Yet another rabbit hole, but an exciting one to investigate nonetheless. My hope (I have little choice in the matter) is to continue barrowing through these leads towards a larger, more fulfilling DH project.

MYSTERY DOUBLE-FEATURE: The Secrets of the Old Buildings & The Case of the Missing Theologians

This week has been a most exciting time in the DSSI world! We’ve hit the halfway mark of the internship (!!!), which means that most of our time moving forward (and most of our time this past week) will be focused on research–and gosh, am I excited! I really enjoy research. To me, it’s an adventure, a mystery, a fantastic journey that is just waiting for you to discover something new and exciting. I grew up reading all sorts of mystery novels–everything from Nancy Drew to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Sherlock Holmes and every obscure Young Adult Mystery-Fiction title out there–and have held a secret desire to be a detective ever since. Perhaps that’s why I’m so enticed by research… I can finally be a detective to mysteries that I stumble upon myself! Sometimes I begin with a mystery (as in, a research question) and sometimes I just happen to collect a ton of clues that eventually spark a mystery when lumped together. For example:

Beginning With Research Questions

Last week, I was doing more research on college architecture (big surprise) and thought it would be a good idea to collect information on each of the early college buildings into a spreadsheet. I’ve been learning so many data-driven technologies lately that I figured I could do something with the data I collected. So I created a spreadsheet that focused on each of the buildings, with categories like “Year Constructed,” “Architect,” and “Building Materials.” I realized that, despite all that I’d already learned about the buildings, I had more information on some buildings than others, and much of my spreadsheet was lacking. In a desperate attempt to get some answers, I ended up Googling something like “Amherst College architectural history” and, long story short, ended up finding an amazing website. And by amazing, I mean I was literally close to tears when I stumbled upon it, because there was just so much amazing nd information suddenly at my fingertips! It’s called the Amherst Property Viewer and, among other things, it allows you to use GIS software to find information on various buildings throughout Amherst and the surrounding area. Some buildings have more info than others, but to my delight, practically every building in Amherst with some sort of historical significance has a historical PDF record attached to it–which means that all of the early college buildings I needed information on had records! YAY! I found answers to a lot of my spreadsheet questions, and even added in some new spreadsheet categories due to the information that I found on record. There are some downfalls to the APV–such as not-so-intuitive interfaces and the fact that many of the architectural records haven’t been updated since the 1970s–, but what I eventually discovered definitely made all of the digging worth it. Nancy would be proud.

Beginning with Clues

On the flip side, I also came across some exciting discoveries by means of deduction and having some clues in my arsenal (I was apparently unintentionally channeling my inner Sherlock here, and I am not ashamed). Earlier in the week, I spent a lot of time with the 1861 Olio and created a spreadsheet that inventoried each Amherst College student from the year 1861, their home state or country, and all of the clubs/societies/fraternities that they were involved in during that year. Upon checking off the last student, I went back through my spreadsheet and noticed that there were two names who I had noted as being part of a club, Josiah Ayres and Henry F. Hills, but who didn’t match any names of students. After doing some spell-checking, rereading the entire Olio twice over, and using command-F about fifty times, I still didn’t have a clue who these people were. Stranger still was the fact that both of these “ghost sherlocknames” were part of the same club–the Bible Society–and, to make matters even more odd, there was only one other person listed as being a member of that club, a senior named Horace Parker. For a moment, I wondered if they’d died during the semester, but then remembered that a senior actually did pass away during that school year, and it was noted within the Olio at various points. So, who were these people??!!?!?!?!?!?!?!!

My first thoughts were that I shouldn’t be spending time worrying about two random people who probably weren’t going to have an impact on my research overall, and that I was just going to be wasting time looking for them. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I was bound and determined to find out at least something about them. After spending so much time inputting data about everyone else, I felt that I owed it to Josiah and Henry to at least acknowledge more about their existence than I was able to from the 1861 Olio.

I instinctively went to the bio file books in the little Archives reading room/library/awesome space; perhaps Josiah and Henry dropped out of school that semester, and I knew that the biographical books listed whether or not people graduated from Amherst or merely passed through as non-graduates. To my dismay, I couldn’t find them anywhere.

I then went to the Archives desk and inquired of any other resources that might help me find them, and was directed to another amazing book that contained student files (shoutout to Rachel! You’re awesome!)… But again, no luck. I even looked for alternate spellings of their last names (such as “Ayers” or “Hill”) since I noticed a few discrepancies throughout the Olio, but I still couldn’t find anything about either of them. To say that I was dissatisfied was an understatement–I was more heartbroken than anything else. I mean, they couldn’t have just randomly dropped off the face of the earth, could they? Well, even if they did, I wanted to know.

In one final attempt to gather more clues, I decided to Google their names and see what I could find (honestly, I often forget that Google exists when I’m surrounded by all of these primary sources… I’m failing you, my fellow millennials). Aaaaand… LO AND BEHOLD! DISCOVERIES ABOUND!! nd2

I found a digitized version of a family genealogy that noted Josiah Ayres as being a janitor at Amherst College. Sounds great, right? But the problem was that the book also noted that he died in 1860. So, four options:

  1. The book mislabeled Josiah’s death year
  2. The Olio mislabeled Josiah’s involvement year
  3. Josiah died during the 1860 part of the ’60-’61 school year and was still labeled as having been involved in the society
  4. Josiah is a ghost

Next, I moved on to Henry F. Hills, and found a bit more information. After looking through several digital resources via the Googlenator, I pieced together that Henry was a part of the famous (well, back then at least) Hills Family of Amherst. His family owned the Hills Company, which forged a fortune from their hat factory which was on present-day Dickinson Street, right between the Dickinson Homestead and today’s Amherst College Police Department building. This was exciting to me, since I had come across an 1886 map of Amherst a couple of weeks ago and noticed some sort of factory on Dickinson Street–sure enough, I looked back at the map and noticed that the factory was labeled as the Hills Company.

BUT WAIT. THERE’S MORE! Some of my digging actually landed me back at the Archives–it turns out that the College holds a collection called the Hills Family Papers, which, you guessed it, is the same family. Looking at the finding aid, I found that Leonard (Henry’s dad) built a house on the corner of Triangle and Main Street, and that Henry built his own house next door. This is where it gets really exciting… Upon reading those street names, I was pretty sure that I knew exactly which houses these were, and that they were still standing! A quick Google Maps search confirmed my hunch.

Leonard’s home currently houses the Amherst Women’s Club, and I only know this because I went on a “Let’s Explore the Town We’re Living In For the Next Four Years” walk with a friend during my freshman year at Amherst. We stumbled upon the Women’s Club and, both of us being lovers of all things old and architecturey, fell in love with the house. We then continued down the street, saw what I now know to be Henry’s house, and immediately decided that we were somehow going to buy it and turn it into a cafe-bookshop-art gallery one  day. Anyways. Henry’s house is listed in the finding aid as being the home for the Amherst Boys & Girls Club, but I remembered that, when my friend and I saw the house almost four years ago, it was pretty dilapidated–and I’ve also noticed that, a couple of years ago, it seems to have been renovated and, I’m assuming, is a private home now. Doing some research, I found that the AB&GC has moved to a rented space in the town center as of several years ago.

The Leonard M. Hills House
The Leonard M. Hills House

After looking a little more into Henry, I also found that he was involved in the Christian community in Amherst, and then remembered three short words that I’d written down earlier in the day from data in the AC Biographical Record about Horace, the senior in the Bible Society: “Studied theology privately.” When I’d read this originally, it didn’t mean much–but now, it might be the key to linking my “ghost names” to the Bible Society. What if Josiah and Henry had been doing a bible study with Horace, and ended up calling it the Bible Society? I can’t find any records of this concretely, but all of these little clues seem to at least point in that direction. This possibility is especially exciting to me, since I was involved in multiple bible studies during my four years at Amherst–perhaps we should have called them Meetings of the Bible Society!

There are still questions that I have about Horace, Josiah, and Henry, and if time allows, I’d love to do some more digging. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the mystery that I partially seem to have solved.

All in all: research is fun, being a detective is awesome, and I think I need to buy myself a magnifying glass and deerstalker cap now.

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