April is National Poetry Month! Since I happen to be a bit of a fan and spent too much of my undergraduate and graduate career reading (and writing about) it, you can’t hold it against me if I go digging into our literature holdings for this blog post. Although we aren’t actively engaged in acquired a lot of literary materials, we do have some great holdings on our shelves. In the past, we received collections of books from English faculty, as well as a few manuscript collections relating to literary figures. We have a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses (number 222 of the first 1000), a signed Langston Hughes, a signed F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author’s edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass…You get the idea. But we also have our fair share of poetry. All this month on the culinary history blog, I’m writing about poetry relating to food, so I won’t get into that subject here. While there is basically too much for me to choose from, I picked out a few volumes from our shelves that show the variety of poems you might find in Special Collections. Beyond that, I encourage you to check out our catalog or pay us a visit. We’ll be happy to help you find a poem or poet to suit your mood!
We’re starting with some Latin poetry by Catullus. Although this particular book comes from 1820, the poetry is much older. As you can see, each poem is laden with commentary by a 19th century scholar. Catullus wasn’t known for being a very clean or appropriate poet, so through this volume, some previous owner wrote “vile” or “indecent” next to many of the poems. I’m sharing a far less controversial poem–the English translation is posted below.
Mourn, O Venuses and Cupids
and however many there are of more charming people:
my girl’s sparrow is dead—
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom that girl loved more than her own eyes.
For he was honey-sweet and had known
the lady better than a girl [knows] her mother herself,
nor did he move himself from that girl’s lap,
but hopping around now here now there
he chirped constantly to his mistress alone,
he who now goes through the shadowy journey
thither, whence they deny that anyone returns.
But may it go badly for you, evil shadows
of hell, who devour all beautiful things.
You have taken from me so beautiful a sparrow.
Oh evil deed! Oh wretched little sparrow!
Now through your deeds the eyes of my girl,
swollen with weeping, are red.
Next up, I found a 1909 facsimile volume of the text and manuscript of an 1818 unpublished John Keats poem. The poem is longer than one page, but below are the first pages of the “clean” text, as well as the first page of the actual manuscript. The poem may even be older than 1818, since Keats likely worked on it before he dated it as “finished,” since Fanny was born in 1803 and Keats was eight years older than her.
Our rare book collection also contains poetry for children. In 1916, Richard Hale reissued the poems of his great-aunt, Sarah J. Hale, originally written in 1830. She wrote “Mary had a Little Lamb,” as well as other “instructive” poems, often religious in nature, for children. I’ve included the background on this pamphlet, along with the first poem, “Birds.”
Since one of our major collecting areas is local history, I also found some poetry from a Virginia author. In 1905, Elizabeth May Foster’s Poems was published. This seems to have been her only published work, and it contains largely religious poetry and a few “occasional” poems. As it sounds, “occasional” poems are poems written for a specific event. In this case, it’s for the anniversary of a married couple.
Also building on our “local” theme, we have many, many works by Sherwood Anderson, which I have blogged about before. We have three copies of Mid-American Chants, a collection of poetry published in 1918. Of the three copies, I happened to pull one that still has uncut pages! I choose a poem that fit on a single page, but since its uncut, the poems on the following pages are trickier to read (and would be impossible to scan).
For our last poem (but not our last poet), I found Allen Ginsberg’s The Gates of Wrath, published in 1972. I chose a very short poem, but I’ve given you a lot to read so far. 🙂
Before we depart from our smattering of poetry (that really is the tip of the iceberg!), I took one more picture for this post. We have many books by Virginia Tech faculty member and author Nikki Giovanni. These are a few of titles on one of our shelves. The gap represents a book that is in our display in the reading room from Women’s History Month, which is coming down today.
I hope I’ve given you some idea of what we have and perhaps inspired you to read a little poetry for National Poetry Month. There’s so much variety in poetry, even if you don’t think you like it, you might be surprised at what you can find. If you have a favorite poem, share it in the comments–I’d love to know (and am always looking for recommendations)! And you can engage in larger conversations on social media using #nationalpoetrymonth or #napomo!
Archives are so very rarely complete. It’s an unusual thing for the archivist to be able to point to a collection and say with full confidence, “That’s all there is.” More often, we have to admit, “That’s all we have.” And so, researchers make due with what’s on hand, knowing that someday, some newly discovered item may appear and bring their well-argued theses crashing down. Though it deals with the past, history is a living thing, open to reinterpretation as long-hidden documents are discovered and shared. We regularly hear of such discoveries being made in attics or at flea markets and the like, but sometimes they’re made within the archives itself.
Last month, your blogger was working with a small collection of papers from Sidney B. Jeffreys (Ms1986-007), who graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1931. Jeffreys maintained a lifelong attachment to his alma mater, becoming an active member of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and a generous supporter of the university. In 1981, he was recognized as a College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus. (You can read more about Sidney Jeffreys and his papers here.) Given Jeffreys’ attachment to Virginia Tech, it’s not surprising that most of the papers in his collection relate to his time as a student and his activities as an alumnus.
Most of the university-related materials in Jeffreys’ papers consists of VT publications, and most of these are of the type that are seen by our archivists every day. Included among these were several issues of The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s student newspaper, The Collegiate Times), from the years that Jeffreys attended the university. Here in the department, The Virginia Tech is frequently called upon in the course of answering reference questions or providing students with material for research topics. Our holdings of the paper are nearly—but not quite—complete, and we’re well aware that we lack a couple of years’ worth of issues. As it turns out, though, there was at least one missing issue about which we were unaware: there, in Sidney Jeffreys’ papers, was a special, extra edition of The Virginia Tech, published on Saturday, November 10, 1928.
The reason for this extra edition is readily apparent, as it bears a headline that any Hokies fan will enjoy.
The four-page special edition provides a lengthy, detailed description of the homecoming game, played earlier that day before a near-capacity crowd of 8,000 spectators, and it gives a great deal of credit for the win to the exploits of backs Frank Peake and Phil Spear. Elsewhere in this extra edition, readers found a full account of the game between VPI’s freshman team, “The Gobblets,” and their UVA counterparts, which ended in a 13-all tie.
The newspaper also contains articles about the homecoming festivities—this being only the second such event held at Virginia Tech—and about the upcoming observance of Armistice Day. Another brief article announces that plans are underway for a new, modern, and much-needed hotel to be built near the university. On a more somber note, readers learned of the accidental death VPI alumnus Charles B. D. Collyer, a well-known aviator who, just two weeks earlier, had set a new record for a trans-continental flight across the U. S.
Is there anything in this newspaper that will rewrite Virginia Tech history? Well, no (though anybody who’s been looking for a detailed account of the 1928 VPI-Virginia football game will find it a treasure trove). Still, this one item adds just a little detail to the historical record, providing some insight into the activities and cares of the Virginia Tech community in late 1928.
We can only wonder how many more special editions may be out there (or in here), waiting to be found.
The November 10, 1928 extra edition of The Virginia Tech will be added to our existing holdings of the newspaper. It has also been added to the queue in a current project that is digitizing the university’s student newspapers and will soon be making them available online.
Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Maria del Carmen Venegas. She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech.
Called Carmen by her friends, Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.
A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students’ contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.
In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!
Sadly, Carmen Venegas and her alma mater did not keep in contact after she graduated. Although her whereabouts remained unknown, Venegas was listed in the alumni directories, until her name was finally removed in 1998, the 50th anniversary of her graduation.
“History is not a simple meritocracy.” So goes the opening salvo of Despina Stratigakos’ “Unforgetting Women Architects,” an essay on writing women practitioners back into the historical record. We’ve touched on this topic in previous blog posts about the history of women in architecture and the importance of making their work visible, especially online. Yet in advance of the Women in Architecture and the Arts Wikipedia edit-a-thon next Wednesday March 28th, it seemed an opportune time to take another look at the troubling lack of female representation on Wikipedia and within the architectural profession.
When we talk about representation of women on Wikipedia, we actually talk about two distinct, yet intimately connected, issues. One issue is a gender asymmetry in the site’s content, the other is an asymmetry in the site’s contributors. Myriad and complex factors contribute to both. Wikipedia’s structure and ideology, the fact that many of its veteran editors are white and male, the perceived lack of importance and cultural relevance of issues significant to women implicit in Wikipedia’s criteria for “notability,” sometimes ruthlessly enforced by the site’s self-appointed gatekeepers; these and other factors cause significant lacunae and stark attrition among female editors (who account for 13% of contributors) in an encyclopedia that purports to be the “sum of all human knowledge.”
In fact, some quick research demonstrates the widened scope of notability criteria where men and men’s interests are concerned. As a much-circulated New York Timesarticle from 2011 points out, and indeed accounts from (sometimes expert) women contributors writing about women, there can be a lot of pushback on articles addressing women’s interests: nitpicking about sourcing and whether an article’s subject is “notable” enough to warrant inclusion on the site; indeed, articles on women are often flagged as not even adhering to Wikipedia’s neutrality guidelines. Yet there are lengthy articles and sub-articles about video games, video game characters, male-dominated television shows, and, of course, biographical articles on men in many fields that are often published without challenge. To this point, a research article addressing gender bias in Wikipedia’s content has found that women on Wikipedia are, on the whole, more “notable” than their male counterparts, indicating that one must reach a higher threshold of accomplishment as a woman in order to be deemed important enough to merit an article – a threshold that the article characterizes as “the glass ceiling effect.” Also of note, the article presents evidence that certain topics are overstated in women’s biographies and tend to receive more attention than their work, i.e., their personal relationships and family status.
Wikipedia culture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a microcosm of culture writ large and its participatory homogeneity mirrors that of other kinds of open online forums that depend on user-generated content. The way the site reproduces bias, however, may be exacerbated by its claim to neutrality that is meant to bolster its reliability and credibility. This principle, when coupled with a lack of diversity in its user base, is problematic in that neutrality then comes to be synonymous with a white male point of view. This likely explains much of the resistance and flags that women encounter when they attempt to publish pages about other women. They claim that women should write their gender out of their entries; this may very well be because male editors have become accustomed to perceiving their own form of gendered analysis as the default – it is not, however, neutral.
Many scholars and practitioners (Susana Torre, Denise Scott Brown, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Dolores Hayden, Despina Stratigakos, Lori Brown, and Gabrielle Esperdy, to name but a few) have worked to challenge and dismantle pernicious myths about the architectural profession. Institutions like the International Archive of Women in Architecture and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation have made the collection of women architects’ papers a top priority and have helped to “recover a cultural past” and properly historicize the conditions of women’s professional exclusion. Additionally, in recent years scholars, information specialists, and architects have worked to ensure greater representation in online environments – enhancing discoverability of otherwise underappreciated or forgotten historical figures. Unfortunately there isn’t space here to fully unpack all of these women’s various contributions to the field and its literature. Please join us next Wednesday in the Multipurpose Room at Newman Library to engage with their analysis more fully and to rewrite digital history! RSVP for the Women in Architecture Edit-a-thon here.
1. Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 21 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/130603
2. Cohen, Noam. “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.” The New York Times, 30 January 2011. Accessed 21 March 2018.
3. Gardner, Sue. “Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (In Their Own Words),” Sue Gardner’s Blog, 19 February 2011. Accessed 21 Mar 2018.
4. Wagner, Claudia, et al. “Women through the Glass Ceiling: Gender Asymmetries in Wikipedia.” EPJ Data Science, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-24.
5. Davidge, Tania. “How to be ‘notable.'”Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture website, 24 April 2015. Accessed 22 March 2018.
8. Bear, Julia B., and Benjamin Collier. “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia.” Sex Roles, vol. 74, no. 5, 2016, pp. 254-265.
16. Torre, Susana, 1944, and Architectural League of New York. Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977. Scott Brown, Denise. Having words. Vol. 4;4.;. London: Architectural Association, 2009. Berkeley, Ellen P., and Matilda McQuaid. Architecture: A Place for Women. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington [D.C.], 1989. Hayden, Dolores. “What would a Non-Sexist City be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. S170-S187. Stratigakos, Despina. Where are the Women Architects?. Princeton University Press, in association with Places Journal, Princeton, 2016. Brown, Lori A. Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. Ashgate, Burlington, VT; Farnham, Surrey, 2011. Esperdy, Gabrielle. “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 22 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/120910
Virginia Tech is proud to be the alma mater to many pioneers in aerospace engineering, perhaps none as famous as Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. The VT Stories team recorded an oral history interview with Kraft in April 2017, and Special Collections now has the full interview and transcript available online. The VT Stories summary of the interview is available here.
Chris Kraft graduated from Tech in 1944 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. The university was operating on a 12-month schedule because of WWII, therefore Kraft graduated after only three years. Despite only this truncated time at Virginia Tech, Kraft rose through the ranks to become president of the Corps of Cadets, which he counts as teaching him important leadership skills. Kraft also recounts his classes with Professor Rasche, contracting Scarlet Fever, and dance weekends from his memories at Virginia Tech in his interview.
After graduating at age 20, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor organization to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Kraft worked at Langley Research Center as a flight test engineer for 13 years, until the space race began.
In 1958, he became one of the original members of the NASA Space Task Group, which was established to manage Project Mercury, the nation’s first project to put a man in space. During Project Mercury, Kraft developed many of the basic mission and flight control techniques used in manned space flight, which culminated in the creation of the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center (originally the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston, from which all of NASA’s manned space flights have been conducted. He also served as Flight Director for all the Mercury missions and many of the Gemini missions. Kraft was named deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1970, and later director in 1972. He retired from NASA in 1982 and and subsequently served as a consultant for various corporations. In 2001, Kraft’s autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Controlwas published.
Special Collections also has Kraft’s papers, which he donated in 1986. The collection consists of approximately 28 cu. ft. of manuscripts, particularly NACA and NASA reports and documents, meeting notes and agendas, research materials, and the manuscript for 2001 Kraft’s autobiography. You can view the finding aid for this collection here.
For nine and a half years, I’ve been working at Special Collections and have been doing instruction just about since I started. After being an observer for one class and anticipating my own first class to follow shortly, I asked myself a basic question that I remember quite well. “What do I want to communicate about Special Collections to a group of students, most of whom have never visited an archival repository before or worked with original primary sources?” Yes, yes, the rules are different here. Explain why. That can lead nicely into a general description of the kinds of materials found here. Sure. No appointment or invitation is necessary. We’re a friendly bunch, after all. Talk about primary sources. What’s a finding aid? All of these came to mind, along with various other important details, all to be ordered in a clear, comprehensive, and understandable way. Describe the materials kept here and how to find them. Talk about collecting areas. All good. All necessary, but, taken together, insufficient.
We also want to give students the experience of interacting with primary sources: to see them up close, to hold them (carefully), to get a sense of how they might be useful in research, to judge the challenges they may present, or to be startled by the surprises they may hold.
So, we assemble an exercise in which all members of the class get to choose from a selection of largely unidentified items from various collections and spend a few brief moments with the material they’ve chosen. Most likely, it’ll be from a manuscript collection, that is, it’ll be some kind of unpublished primary source. After those few moments, they’ll be asked to talk a bit about the item(s) they’ve picked. The hope is that with as many students as possible talking briefly about the materials they’ve chosen, everyone in the class will leave the session with a better idea about the kinds of materials held at Special Collections.
That may be the low bar of an adequate objective, but it’s not all we really want to encourage. What we really want is to present an opportunity to create a connection between student and primary sources, broadly considered, through an initial, singular experience.
Sometimes that experience depends on pure happenstance. A student beginning work on rationing on the homefront during World War II drew a folder that contained rationing materials that belonged to a nearby Giles Co. family and included a small box of Office of Price Administration (OPA) Red Point ration tokens. These tokens, used for change when buying meats and fats with ration stamps, were first issued in 1944. She was thrilled to see these for the first time, to have the actual materials in front of her.
Another coincidence involved a member of the Corps of Cadets who happened to choose a folder containing a single sheet of paper marked “Reply by V . . .-Mail” at the bottom and “Lt. J.W. Monteith” written in at the top as the sender. The date on the letter is May 27, 1944. I swear that I did not give this particular folder to this fellow, whose eyes lit up and jaw dropped with the recognition that he was holding a letter written about ten days before Monteith, a cadet at Tech in the late 1930s, took part in the assault on Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Lt. Monteith was killed that June 6th day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Like many (all?) cadets to this day, the cadet in the class knew Monteith’s entire story. I’m guessing, this was not what he expected from a class session at the library!
Honestly, situations like this happen quite often. Both of these incidents happened within the last couple of weeks. Ideally, we’d like students to experience these kinds of connections. Sometimes a connection may occur on the basis of an interest; sometimes it may be more emotional, or anywhere on a scale between the two. In that connection is an initial understanding of the potential power of primary sources. This is what we hope to communicate, especially to students who have not previously had the opportunity to work with these kinds of materials, for example, letters, diaries, journals, correspondence of all kinds, family papers, even legal and business records.
Some instances do depend on luck, as is the case with the two examples above. The right person choosing the right document, though even having one classmate describe a document meaningful to another can have the same effect. Who knows which student will be stirred by the first commercial announcement for the new Lime Jell-o (1930, for all of you who care) or by a police blotter from the Bowery district of New York in 1861. I am still absolutely wowed by a 27 July 1969, post-Apollo 11 letter from Charles Lindbergh to astronaut Michael Collins!
Then, there are some documents that, hopefully, have a wider impact.
Take a look at this document. Don’t even read it. Just look at it. (Click on each image to get a closer look.)
What do you see? It’s a letter, yes. Is it just me, or isn’t it beautiful to look at? The handwriting is gorgeous. Even if you’re not used to reading cursive writing, it’s clear and easy to read. The paper is accented with a red rule on the top of the first page and blue one down the side of that page. Maybe you couldn’t help but notice the date, January 28, 1863; the location, Philadelphia; or the formal salutation, “Dear Sir.” Now read that first line:
I have just received through your kindness the painfull intelligence of my son’s death.
The beauty of the letter as an object and the foreign quality of the language in that first sentence anticipate the power of its meaning, which comes that much more powerfully precisely because of those two prior elements. The son of Isaac and Elizabeth Carver (she wrote the letter) has died. He’s not named and the circumstances of his death are not specified, though the date and place provide likely clues to both. Charles Carver, 19 years old in 1860 and, in 1862, a private in G Company, 121st Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, was wounded at Fredericksburg and died some five weeks later. Like so many documents, this letter raises more questions than it answers and invites the reader to discover its stories while delivering an emotional blow that all can understand.
Written some sixty-six years earlier is another document I often use in the classroom.
Here the writing is more difficult, as is the language. The date may be the first thing to jump out at a reader, in part because it comes before a line break and, thus, stands out a bit more: 27 September 1796. Here, part of the power lies, first, not in the document’s uniqueness, but in its ubiquity, for its day. In 18th-century America and the first half of the 19th, this kind of document was exceedingly common.
Know all men by these presents that I John Edwards of Rockbridge County with my security John Dunlap & William Johnson of Greenbrier County am held and firmly bound unto Joseph Dickson in the just sum of one hundred ten pounds current money of Virginia to be paid to sd [said] Dickson by sd Edwards or security in witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands & seals this 27th day of September 1796.
The language will sound strange to folks not used to it, but it is, likely, recognizable as legal language. John Edwards is paying Joseph Dickson £110 for something. Of course, the something, in this case, someone, becomes clear in the second paragraph, “a Negro boy named Elijah.”
The ubiquity of this kind of document, a bill of sale for a slave, in the Virginia of 1796 is tied fast to the fate of a specific individual, in this case, the young Elijah. Both characteristics of the document are contained in this single sheet that represents the sale of one human being to another. A note on the reverse of the document tells us that Elijah is 12 years old and weighs 77 pounds. I suggest, if you let yourself realize it, there is great power in this document, precisely both in the commonness of its form and in the specificity of its effect.
In these materials are the potential power of primary source documents that we, as archivists, wish to communicate and share. Of course, these documents are each just one out of a larger collection of materials. Also, recognizing the power of primary sources is just the beginning, not an end in itself. But for students who haven’t had the opportunity to work with materials like these, it’s an important element of starting out. It’s the introduction with a bang, the “wow” that we hope to make possible! Any document is just a piece of a story, a part of a thread of a research question or an element that fills out one’s own interest.
Story is, I think, part of what drove Trudy Harrington Becker’s First-Year Experience History class (HIST1004) in it’s effort to transcribe the letters of Joseph F. Ware this past fall. With nearly 50 students tasked to work with 100-year-old letters written in a cursive script that was often not easy to read, I was first amazed and then very impressed by the determination, excitement, and downright fervor they brought to the assignment. My first thought was to have folks work in small groups, each with a single letter. No, no, every student would get a letter to work on! There are, after all, more than 100 letters in the collection. As two colleagues and I hustled around from table to table, helping folks who were stuck on this word or that phrase, it was clear that everyone was ENGAGED! Folks who finished their first letters were asking for more! A second session with the class turned into a third.
At first, the desire to simply read and make sense of an initial letter seemed to provide more than enough motivation. The students knew only a few general facts about Ware. He had been Commandant to the VPI Corp of Cadets from 1911 to 1914 before resuming his Regular Army commission prior to American involvement in World War I. They began with his wartime letters from France written to his wife, Susie, in Blacksburg. Then, there were the letters home from training sites and other posts prior to his departure for France, along with a few post-war letters. Fifty students in a room all transcribing letters that each tell part of a story led to what became an irresistible incentive to know the full story, to know what happened. There were long separations between husband and wife, wartime wounds, and a young son, among other facts to consider. Students were no longer talking as much to their classmates about this or that word, but asking, “What happened in Paris?” or “Did Ware return to Blacksburg?” The outlines of the story needed to be filled in.
If Ware’s letters provided the impetus to learn of his larger story, they also supplied the gateway to a range of inquiries into broader historical themes taken up by the class. At the end of their semester, these students presented the results of their work in a series of digital posters in an exhibit open to the public. Drawn from Ware’s own texts, they highlight, for example, not only Ware’s personal story and the toll the war took on him and his family, but also, for example, the American conduct of the war and the nation’s attitudes toward the war and its leaders.
Here, then, is an example of the power of primary sources to fire the imagination and propel further inquiry. At its heart, this is what we want to instill in students. This is the experience we want to provide. The project of any archival repository is not to just preserve history, but to preserve its materiality in order to provide it to following generations for further use. Though obvious to any archivist or historian, this simple point is not necessarily clear to a student—or anyone—who has not yet experienced the archives or had any reason to consider the question.
Of course, students aren’t the only folks who get to recognize the excitement of discovering the possibilities embedded in an archival collection. To bring this long post to a close, I’ll mention one last story, mostly because it shows how the activities of the “Special Collections classroom” and exposure to the power and value of primary sources can truly be preparation for future scholarly endeavor.
Back in May 2014, we received an email from a scholar who wanted to do work at Special Collections with a focus on “Confederate prisoners of war and their intellectual engagement while in prison.” He said it was “part of a larger project on intellectual life in the Confederacy and post-Reconstruction South.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but he was already about to publish a book titled, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (published by UNC Press, 2015.) On a list of 14 collections he wanted to see, the Nelson Family Papers were dead last.
A few days ago, we received a copy of Prison Pens
Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866, edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler. Tim Williams came here in 2014 with a broad research agenda and found a collection that spurred his interest, I dare say his passion. A correspondence of fifty-five letters, untranscribed, written between “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay from 1863 to 1865 were a part of the Nelson Family collection. Once the collection had been identified, Tim and his co-editor did, essentially, what the students in HIST1004 did, though at the level of professional scholarship. They transcribed the letters. They sought the story of the correspondents and presented research into the themes in which, as context, they wished to place both the writers and the letters themselves. Then . . . with the help of the University of Georgia Press . . . they did take an extra step. They published the book.
The “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay correspondence can be read in the new book by Williams and Kutzler. Digital copies of the letters and the rest of the Nelson Family Papers can be viewed on Special Collections Online. These materials are now broadly available to inform, encourage, and stimulate new research.
The originals remain housed in Special Collections with all the other primary source materials—preserved, available, and powerful.
Cato Lee: Pioneer of the Lee-aphon Clan by Gigi Lee-aphon tells the fascinating stories of Cato Lee, one of the early Chinese students at Virginia Tech, and the members of his family. Written by Cato Lee’s daughter, Gigi, the ninth of his ten children, the book gives insights into the challenges faced by family members as they confronted Chinese, American, and Thai cultures. The author uses family stories to give the reader a better understanding of the life of Cato Lee. The book was published by Lotus Seed Press in 2017.
Cato Lee, who graduated in 1927 in Mechanical Engineering, was one of the first six Chinese students at Virginia Tech. The University Archives’ site, “First International Students at Virginia Tech,” lists the first and early international students by year and country: http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/diversity/InternationalVPI/
Born Lee Kee Tow in Bangkok, Thailand in 1904, Cato Lee was the son of Lee Tek Khoeia, a Chinese immigrant and merchant from Canton, and Noei Lamson, the youngest child of one of the most prominent families in Thailand. Because his father was a playboy, Cato was raised in unusual circumstances in Canton, China from the time he was four. When he was fourteen, his father enrolled him in an English/Chinese school in Hong Kong. He became a “British subject” while he was in Hong Kong, a status that his father already had. The British passport made it easier for him to travel to the United States.
When Cato was 17, his close friend from Hong Kong, Tien-Liang Jeu talked him into going to study in the United States. Tien-Liang already had visited the United States and enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. The two young men made the arduous journey by ship from Hong Kong to Vancouver and then traveled by train across the United States to New York City. Since he did not have much money, Cato waited on tables at a small restaurant before he enrolled in school. Because he was younger than Tien-Lang Jeu, who entered Virginia Tech (then called Virginia Polytechnic Institute or V.P.I.) in 1921, Cato first attended and graduated from Fork Union Military Academy a military high school for cadets in Fork Union, Virginia.
Tien-Liang, whose nickname at V.P.I. was “Ting Ling,” earned a degree in electrical engineering. According to his Bugle page, “his highest ambition is to turn the wild and destructive forces of the mighty Yangtse and Yellow Rivers into power that will illuminate all China.” (1924 Bugle, p. 61)
Cato Lee entered V.P.I. in 1923 and earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1927. He played on the varsity track and tennis teams and belonged to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Lee Literary Society. His Bugle page (1927, p. 183) includes a quote from Kipling:
But there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they have come from the ends of the earth.
The commentary on his Bugle page indicates that Lee was not only a student but also taught his fellow cadets by “showing us that the gentleman of the East is not different from the gentleman of the West.”
Virginia Tech was very important to Cato Lee. Gigi Lee-aphon wrote in an email that she learned to say the word “bugle” at a very young age, not knowing it was an English word. Her father’s cadet uniform, sword, and sash were neatly hung on a stand in a corner of his bedroom for many years. “I could admire it,” she said, “but better not touch it.”
The image on the book’s cover shows Cato Lee and his bride, Kim Reiw, the daughter of a Chinese businessman. They only met because he stopped off in Thailand to visit his Thai mother on his way back to China. The couple married soon after they met and lived in Bangkok. Kim Reiw is wearing the wedding dress her parents ordered from Hong Kong. The book describes the couple’s glamorous wedding at one of the royal palaces in Bangkok where they both wore traditional Thai garments. They were known as the Romeo and Juliet of Thailand.