Interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library and we often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Rebecca Williams shares her journey as a historian.
When I first began my undergraduate career as an aspiring historian, I couldn’t tell you exactly what I meant to do with my history degree (though at that point I was starting to realize that the world of museums had some potential). All I knew was that I loved history and I wanted to do something that would keep me immersed in the past. Truthfully, “historian” conjured up an image of a room filled with stacks and stacks of books and dusty documents, occupied by a nameless academic whose sole objective was to complete a book on his or her “signature topic.” I had always been a good writer so I thought, well, I guess that wouldn’t be so bad.
This idea didn’t hold up, however, as I soldiered my way through my Bachelor’s degree. I completed my required courses and began to realize that I should be choosing courses and taking opportunities that would help me on my way to graduate school and, eventually, a career. By that point I had realized that teaching in a classroom wasn’t for me, but I had a passionate drive to convey history to a wider, more diverse audience in creative ways. I filled my summers with museum internships and filled my coursework with public and digital history. Before I knew it, I had formed an entirely new and evolved idea of history, why it matters today, and how many different people – not just historians – contribute to its survival as a non-static discipline characterized by the “new” just as much as the “old.”
I applied to help out with the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library because recent experience has taught me the invaluable part that digital archives play in the public’s encounter with the past. I spent my first year of graduate school as a student assistant in Virginia Tech Special Collections, learning a number of useful skills including those of a digital archivist. Suddenly, something required all the brand new and eye-opening historian’s skills that I had encountered in digital history.
I believe firmly in the importance of the digital humanities in furthering the liberal arts, and this belief has fed my eager participation in the work of the TRDL. I affirm the mission to make historical information available to anyone in the country or the world who wishes to further their knowledge of this country and its legacy of leadership. That it is a digital library makes it a part of the much bigger picture in an increasingly interconnected world of teachers, students, and the just plain curious. The world grows bigger every day, but also smaller as a great digital web binds us all together. As the TRDL blends the humanities and technology, it is creating a powerful platform of accessible learning.
As I, a historian, enter universally-recognized metadata I am preparing primary sources for anyone to peruse and utilize. Of course I have a special place in my heart for the physical document or artifact – the tangibility of a piece of the past – but what is this item behind glass to someone who doesn’t have the means or funds to make it to North Dakota for the experience? That the library is located in North Dakota is incredibly significant; Theodore Roosevelt once stated that he never would have been President of the United States without his time in that great western state. Still, the sea of correspondence between TR and a staggering number of correspondents is no good if it’s confined to its boxes and shelves. The digitization, cataloging, and copyright review process might seem tedious at times, but I find that this feeling – if it comes – never lasts long. The process allows me to gain an intimate look into the mind of a man whose charismatic leadership and unique background made for a legacy whose face is literally carved into stone. I am forming my own unique interpretation of the man based on the writings I encounter and work on in the online database. Historians can use the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library for as many books and theses as they may desire to publish. Yet I am contributing to the presentation of a wealth of primary sources which will make it possible for anyone with a thirst for knowledge to, in a wonderful sense, be their own historian.