By: Evan Ward, University of Alabama M.A. student in History
Hello! Thank you for agreeing to share with Cool@Hoole readers how your research experience in the Division of Special Collections at UA has progressed since we last featured your project back on April 21, 2014.
First off, since your first post just featured an abstract of your project, would you mind introducing yourself?
Sure. My name is Evan Ward, and I am a graduate student in the History Department. I am starting the second year of my Masters degree. I grew up in Prattville, AL, which sits a few miles north of Montgomery. I came to the University in the fall of 2008 to start my undergraduate degree, and eventually settled on history as my major. I originally chose history because of the wide variety of courses that were offered – I was able to simultaneously dabble in the history of ancient Egypt and modern United States. But what I came to enjoy most about my major, perhaps ironically, was its local significance. As I completed an independent research project during my junior and senior year, I was reminded of the rich and immediately accessible history of my own community, state, and region.
What led you to do research in the Division of Special Collections?
In the second semester of the history graduate program, students enroll in HY 657, a research seminar. The goal of the course is to build students’ experience doing archival research, and it concludes with the completion of an article-length work of original historical scholarship. The first few weeks of the seminar actually meet in various libraries across campus, with the goal of becoming more aware of the vast array of source material that is held with UA’s libraries. While meeting at the Hoole library, the archival staff mentioned the arrival of some new documents relating to southern industry and labor, which happened to be where my research interests were. Thus, Hoole became a kind of base camp as I started my research.
Remind us what your project covers.
I researched the popular and political attitudes held regarding the dignity of industrial labor in Alabama. I focused on the years of 1875-1901, a time when Alabama began to fulfill its potential for industrial development in earnest.
How did you locate the collections that suited your project?
I started by taking a look at old newspapers, which are easily accessible in the Hoole library and cover a wide range of content from the period that I was interested in. While I was away from the library, Acumen allowed me to peruse the University’s holdings. However, nothing helped me more than just making an appointment at Hoole, explaining my project to the archivists, and letting them guide me to the right sources. The online search tools allowed me to narrow my search, eliminating irrelevant material that would only serve as distraction. But in my experience, that killer source that just has to make it into my paper rarely shows up in the results of a digital search. I don’t think anything beats being able to talk to someone who is familiar with the collections. The archivists know what has been catalogued in the digital archive, but more importantly they know what has not. Some of the most interesting material I read was new to the archive and might not have appeared in a digital search.
How has your research in special collections led you to change the argument you initially thought you’d focus on?
When my project began, I was interested in looking at how Alabama’s rising industrialists promoted their interests politically. However, the course of my work changed abruptly as I was sifting through old newspapers. I was reading the account of an industrial booster writing in the Birmingham Iron Age, who urged his fellow citizens to abandon the “extravagant and erroneous ideas of the social dignity of idleness.” I found the language so striking that this concept, the “social dignity of idleness,” became the new topic for my paper.
Rather than try and cobble together a paper from purely political sources, which were proving to be few and far between, I used what I had on hand to write a paper to write about a broader change in society’s attitudes at large. I think the paper that I ended up writing on the changing attitudes toward industrial work was actually more interesting than the one I had initially planned to write. It was certainly much easier and fun to research, given the plethora of pertinent source materials in the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham area – newspapers, industry pamphlets, company papers, etc.
I would say that it is certainly important to go into the archive with a research question in mind, so that you know what types of sources to look for. But during this experience I also learned that it is even more important to let the sources speak for themselves, even when what you find steers the course of your project in a different direction that you had initially envisioned.
Thank you for your time, Evan. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you again. Best of luck as you complete your research!